Following our assembly at the Pass and ID lot we drove in convoy to meet with the base commanding officer, Capt. Mike Nortier. Capt. Nortier gave us a comprehensive overview of the base, its history and current operations.
NAS Whidbey Island was established during the early years of WW II and is currently home to an Electronic Attack Wing (the only one in the US military) and a Patrol & Reconnaissance Wing. Any where in the world that there is a US military air operation, regardless the service, there is a Whidbey Island presence. And with the increasing focus on the Pacific and Arctic regions Whidbey Island is the cornerstone for this effort.
Earlier this year the last Navy E/A 6B Prowler departed Whidbey Island for retirement, having been replaced by E/A 18G Growler aircraft. The Marines, however, will continue to use Prowlers for a few more years. Additionally the present inventory of propeller driven P-3C Orions will soon be replaced with jet powered P-8A Poseidons.
We were additionally told about runway operations for training, Navy search and rescue, community involvement, the huge positive economic impact of Whidbey Island on the local area, and various challenges. The biggest and probably most important is the need for improved electronic warfare and air combat training resources.
As part of this effort the Navy is proposing to enhance the Electronic Warfare Range with the use of mobile signal transmitters and other communication equipment that would be deployed randomly during exercises. It would entail just 3 vehicles that would utilize 23 different locations – 15 on the Olympic peninsula and 8 in North Central Washington. Flights would be M-F and usually above 10,000 feet. The mobile random locating of these transmitters, which the training aircraft must locate, would be a major improvement over the present arrangement of a couple of fixed locations. Suffice to say, once located, the next time out is not a challenge and results in less than optimal training. On this matter the full support of all of us in the Navy League has been requested by Capt. Nortier.
Following our briefing we relocated to the Aviation Survival Training Center where we got a close up look at the facilities and an explanation of how they are used. This training is periodic and follow up to the basic training that all pilots initially receive and covers both high altitude and water emergencies. There is a chamber where high altitude breathing emergencies can be simulated such that the pilot can not only deal with resolving it but will also then know first hand what it feels like. Everyone has different experiences and symptoms. Although the old “Dilbert the Dunker” is no longer used (there is one on display in the lobby) the new mock up of an aircraft/helicopter body which is dropped into a pool provides the opportunity to practice underwater escape. Two safety divers are in the pool at all times.
Lunch was the Officers Club and we had a chance to take a close look at all of the memorabilia accumulated and mounted over the years. The food was good too!
Our first stop after lunch was a visit to Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ 131 in Hangar 10. The squadron will soon relocate for a period of deployment aboard USS George H.W. Bush. We assembled in the squadron ready room and then went into the hangar bay and spent some time examining a Growler that was undergoing maintenance.
After being split into two groups, ours continued into the administration building where we visited the Whidbey Island Air Traffic Control Center and watched the controllers viewing their scopes, tracking aircraft and talking to the pilots. Not previously known by most (all?) of us is that the Whidbey ATC handles control of all flights, military and civilian, from north of Sea Tac Airport to an area north of Whidbey in a somewhat irregular area up to 9,000 foot altitude. The ATC is staffed with both Navy and civilian personnel. Very impressive.
We swapped places with the other group and ours went out to the control tower for an elevator ride to the 9th floor and a stair climb another flight to the actual tower. Here the personnel on duty briefly explained what each of them does, but needed to maintain focus on the actual “doing” that was under way. An interesting point shared with us is that civilian aircraft can overfly the field without restriction other than safe flying. We then climbed through a small hatch in the wall and out onto the catwalk which surrounds the tower. From this incredible vantage point we watched 4 Growlers doing continuous touch and go simulated carrier take off and landing exercises. There is even a Landing Signal Officer stationed at the beginning of the runway who directs the pilots.
All good things eventually come to an end as did our tour so we bid farewell to NAS Whidbey Island and headed for the ferry. The Growlers were still flying right over the road we were on so we got to watch them a little longer. Very sincere thanks to everyone at Whidbey and particularly to Byron Faber for having arranged another winning tour. – Norman Marten