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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Destructive Airstrip

Air Date: Week of

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The U.S. military now enjoys what is arguably its greatest public support in recent memory. But apparently, that hasn't made it easy for the Navy to find a home for a new practice runway for jet fighter pilots. The Navy is considering a site in rural North Carolina. But residents say their poor county is being asked to sacrifice too much. Leda Hartman reports.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stoneyfield Farm.

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Some of the most critical weapons in the U.S. arsenal these days are aircraft carriers, the floating military bases which make it possible to fight wars far from home. But back at home, the U.S. Navy is coming under fire because it is considering constructing a training runway for carrier pilots in a poor, rural county in North Carolina. Navy plans to built a so-called outlying landing field, or an OLF, are facing challenges from an array of opponents, who include wildlife conservationists and the mayor. Leda Hartman reports.

HARTMAN: Landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier floating at sea in the dark is one of the most challenging military jobs around. Former Navy pilot John Robusto knows. He did it for 15 years.

ROBUSTO: For example, Afghanistan: the Hornets, Tomcats, were flying five, six-hour missions, sometimes up to eight hours. They come back to ship, they’re tired, the seas could be rough, it’s at night. The pilot would usually have to muster up some extra concentration and make a safe landing.

HARTMAN: Robusto says that’s why practicing takeoffs and landings is so important. And the best place to practice, he says, is at an outlying landing field—or OLF— built away from a military base’s main airstrip.

ROBUSTO: At the outlying field, we can turn off the runway lights. So instead of having eight thousand feet of runway lights on, we’d just have a small, thousand-foot, carrier-lighted box there. So it really makes you feel like you’re out at the ship.

A Super Hornet fighter jet.   

HARTMAN: A few years ago, the navy began looking for a home base for 144 new Super Hornet fighter jets. One option the Navy is considering is to divide the jets between the Oceana Naval Air Base in Virginia Beach and the Marine Corps Air Base in Cherry Point, North Carolina. In addition, the Navy wants to find a site for a new outlying landing field it could use to train pilots on the Super Hornet. One of its top choices for that OLF site is Washington county, North Carolina. That’s a farming and timbering community in the northeast corner of the state—halfway between Oceana and Cherry Point.


SANDERS: Roper has about 625 people.

HARTMAN: Bunny Sanders is driving through her tiny town, smack in the middle of Washington County. Roper has two stores, one policeman, and no traffic lights.

SANDERS: People opt to come to a community like this because it’s quiet. And it’s safe. You know, the entire town is their children’s playground.

HARTMAN: Thirty-five percent of the people in Roper live below the federal poverty line; a majority are African American. But Roper isn’t content to stay poor. Driving past little well-kept bungalows and single-wides, Sanders points to new construction— including a technology center with high-speed internet connections. Then, about three miles out of town, she points to something else: a stand of timber where the Navy may build an OLF.

SANDERS: This will kill our community. The downward spiral of our economy – which is already in a downward spiral— will have no chance of lifting out.

HARTMAN: Sanders says Roper’s future depends on attracting retirees and tourists interested in hunting, fishing, and the area’s natural beauty. But who would come, she asks, with fighter jets screaming overhead?

SANDERS: So, this is a fight for our lives.

HARTMAN: On the other side of Washington county, cropduster Donald Stotesberry also points to the proposed runway. His home and business lie near it.

STOTESBERRY: See those houses over there? And those trees? The runway will start right behind those and go back eight thousand feet.

HARTMAN: How far away is that?

STOTESBERRY: Oh, about half a mile.

HARTMAN: And that’s why the Navy would take Stotesberry’s property by eminent domain—if it decided to build the OLF here. Nearly a thousand Washington County residents spoke against the outlying landing field site at public hearings held by the Navy last fall. Others are also speaking out— in their own way.


HARTMAN: Every winter, up to a hundred thousand tundra swan, Canada geese, snow geese and ducks spend the winter at the Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Pungo Lake. The area is about five miles from the proposed airstrip. Howard Phillips manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His agency has gone on record opposing the OLF site.

PHILLIPS: The waterfowl, when they’re here in the wintertime, they use this area extensively for feeding. They feed on waste grain that’s left in the crop ground after the crops have been harvested.

HARTMAN: The jet noise would disrupt the birds’ migratory pattern, Phillips says. What’s more, a 20-pound bird with a six-foot wingspan could strike a plane.

PHILLIPS: The experts that I’ve heard talk about it tell me that a bird the size of a tundra swan or snow goose, if they’re sucked into the engine, could bring the aircraft down. If they hit the canopy they could cause enough problems that it would bring the aircraft down.

HARTMAN: The navy says it can address the problem with radar that can detect an individual bird in flight. It might also require nearby farmers to grow crops that wouldn’t attract the birds— an option the farmers say could imperil their livelihood. The Navy hasn’t built a new outlying landing field in more than 20 years. Now it seems difficult to find the right place for one.

CECCHINI: I mean, if we could have found a location with nobody within 10 miles, we would have put it there.

HARTMAN: That’s Dan Cecchini, the man in charge of putting together the Navy’s Super Hornet environmental impact statement. He says coming up with potential OLF sites was harder than he’d thought.

CECCHINI: I tell you, when you do the analysis and you put the constraints on the map— things like tall towers, wetland complexes, population centers— we were very limited in the options that we had.

HARTMAN: Cecchini says a new outlying landing field would mitigate noise concerns for everyone who lives around existing bases in the southeast. But it’s the people near the Oceana Naval Air Base in Virginia Beach who are the most upset. Upwards of 150-thousand people live within three miles of the OLF site there. Several families have filed suit in federal court, asking the government to compensate them for the negative effects of the noise. And the Navy has noticed their complaints. In October 2000, the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Robert Natter, wrote: “It is precisely because of community concerns over jet noise that we are carefully exploring the establishment of an additional outlying field.” Back in North Carolina, that makes Washington county manager Chris Coudret and commissioner Billy Corey bristle.

COUDRET: It’s not about national defense. It’s about providing relief to a powerful, rich community.

COREY: And if the Navy needed this, we’d be plowing up our fields and pushing down the trees and getting ready. But see, that’s not the issue.

HARTMAN: Corey says if the OLF is sited anywhere in North Carolina, it should be in Craven County 90 miles south, home of the Cherry Point Marine Air Corps base. Corey says that would be fair because Craven County would also get the added income that comes from receiving new jets— and the pilots and families that come with them. But that’s not what’s being offered to Washington County.

COREY: Now if they were saying, Washington County, we wanna put this field down there, and we’re also gonna station these jets down there and we’re gonna build a base down there, then it’d be a different story. But that’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying, we wanna put all this money everywhere else and the only thing we wanna bring you is the pollution and the noise.

HARTMAN: Craven County is, in fact, the Navy’s other top pick for an outlying landing field. But that site contains a lot of wetlands, which means the army corps of engineers would have to approve any Navy plan to build there. Meanwhile, just the idea of the OLF has already started to affect Washington County’s economy. Last summer, realtor Mike Swearingen lost a sale to a retired Navy veteran— a sale that was to be financed by a bank in Virginia Beach— close to the Oceana naval air base.

SWEARINGEN: Right at two weeks before the closings, an appraiser happened to mention the possibility of a threat of this outlying landing field in northeastern North Carolina. And as soon as they, as soon as that lender saw that, they promptly denied the mortgage loan based on this OLF threat. And as soon as I spoke with the Navy veteran and he heard the term OLF, he refused to go to any other lender to even try to come down here.

HARTMAN: If the Navy does choose Washington County for an OLF site, Commissioner Billy Corey says he’ll take his case to the public.

COREY: They’re gonna hear about it, and they’re gonna say, well, gee– there goes the president, for example, trying to pull this rinky-dink mess over them poor people down there, and I’m not gonna let that happen. That’s how we plan on winning this battle.

HARTMAN: The Navy’s final environmental impact statement is due out shortly. After a 30-day “period of review” that will not include public comments, the Navy will announce its decision on where the Super Hornets will go—and where an outlying landing field might be built.

For Living on Earth, I’m Leda Hartman in Roper, North Carolina.



Roper, North Carolina’s official web page

U.S. Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement on Super Hornet introduction to the East Coast


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