Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Navy works to keep flight paths clear for fighter jets, cities and counties plan for growth

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

When a Navy fighter jet streaks 500 feet above the Pend Oreille River at up to 600 mph, emitting noise to rival a rock concert, the pilot is confidently flying in a designated military training route. The Department of Defense wants this jet highway and others in Eastern Washington clear and ready for training – forever.

As a reminder of this fact, a Navy representative has been meeting with county and city leaders throughout the state to show them route maps and areas used for training by the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. On the map, the low-altitude zones resemble strands of colorful yarn strewn across Eastern Washington and Oregon.

Military training routes are aerial corridors where the Federal Aviation Administration allows military aircraft to fly below 10,000 feet and faster than the maximum safe speed of almost 300 mph to which all other aircraft are restricted.

The Navy’s outreach comes as many rural Washington counties and cities rush to complete state-mandated comprehensive land-use plans and development regulation updates by June 30.

Military training routes have been added to the lengthy list of considerations for planning commissions and elected officials trying to prepare for community growth in the next 20 years.

The Navy’s efforts also are happening at a sensitive time for its expanding training program. There are 82 EA-18G Growlers now deployed at Whidbey Island, and the Navy is ready to add perhaps three dozen more.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sued the Navy, alleging such an expansion would greatly increase the frequency and noise of jets on training missions. The issue is controversial in the Puget Sound area, where some residents are complaining and the state is worried about damage to wildlife and health.

NAS Whidbey Island is the premier naval aviation installation in the Pacific Northwest and home to all Navy tactical electronic attack squadrons flying the EA-18G Growler.

The planes are primarily deployed from aircraft carriers but practice carrier landings and takeoffs at Whidbey Island. Their training also takes them over the Pacific Ocean, the Cascades and less densely populated regions of Eastern Washington.

In one highly publicized training embarrassment, the pilot of a Growler used the contrails left by the $67 million jet to draw what he described as a “giant penis” in the clear blue skies above Okanogan County.

The Growler, an all-weather, electronic-attack aircraft, has the primary role of suppressing enemy air defense systems. The plane is 60 feet long with a wing span of almost 45 feet.

Kimberly Peacher, community planning and liaison officer for the Northwest Training Range Complex, said recent meetings with the Pend Oreille County commissioners were to show them maps of the part of a training route that hooks over their county. The route is about 10 miles wide and has a floor elevation of 500 feet. Typical jet aircraft speed on a training route ranges between 400 and 600 mph.

There apparently aren’t restrictions on the number of training flights in the future. And Peacher said the training routes are “not locked in stone” and the Navy is interested in working with communities on future training.

“I’ve seen the fighters fly low over the river and I’m not against it – I appreciate their service to the country,” said Mike Manus, a Pend Oreille County commissioner who has a house on the river north of Newport. “But I also want to make sure it doesn’t interfere with future development like the proposed business park south of Newport.”

60 years of flights

While NAS Whidbey was formally established in 1942, naval aircraft activity above Eastern Washington didn’t begin until about 1960, when the Navy took ownership of the former Air Force range at Boardman, Oregon.

In the subsequent decades – primarily in the 1970s and ’80s – formal airspace and training routes were established to link the Boardman Range and other military training areas in the region.

While EA-18G Growler pilots today practice carrier landings and takeoffs at Whidbey Island, they use Eastern Washington to practice aggressive, demanding flying through mountainous terrain.

There are other areas designated for the purpose of conducting special military training operations, such as combat tactics, aerobatics, intercepts, instrument training, aerial refueling and formation flight training. Some of these areas have flying floors of 300 feet.

The Growler is a version of the Hornet fighter built to scramble or destroy enemy radar installations and eavesdrop on communications.

Growlers and the plane’s predecessor, the EA-6B Prowler, listened to and jammed cellphone calls in Iraq and Afghanistan while supporting special operations forces.

In March 2013 a training flight crash of an EA-6B Prowler about 20 miles southwest of Davenport killed all three of the crew. The crash occurred along a difficult low-level training route. A report later determined the crash was a result of pilot error.

It was the first crash in 40 years of training program flights out of the Whidbey Island base, and planners on the ground are concerned about more commonplace interactions between the fighter jets’ flight paths and the communities beneath them.

Part of planning

Greg Snow, Pend Oreille County community development director, said the county’s planning commission will definitely consider the impact of the training routes as members complete their work on a comprehensive plan update that will help govern growth management over the next two decades.

Washington’s Growth Management Act outlines requirements for comprehensive plans like the one Pend Oreille County is working on and sets the framework for local planning in the state.

Gregg Dohrn, a planning consultant who works with many eastern Washington cities and counties, said the purpose of these comprehensive plans is to prepare for growth over the next 20 years.

The GMA allows counties and cities to make changes to plans and development regulations yearly if they need to, but they must perform a review and update every eight years. While Spokane has completed its most recent update, many rural cities and counties were granted an extension that will end in June.

In 2004, the GMA was amended with a provision to discourage forms of development that are incompatible with the military’s ability to carry out a mission.

Developers have to consider jet fighters flying 500 mph at 300 feet.

It’s unlikely an industrial plant or building nearing such heights would be built in most rural communities such as Newport in the next 20 years. But wind turbines, cell towers, airports and transmission lines could be on the horizon and do approach the training route floor. Wind turbines can range from 200 feet to those built offshore at up to 700 feet.

Closer to reality is the fact that Newport is considering a small airport in its plans.

The Navy has a policy of trying to minimize its effect on the communities its pilots fly over.

Low-altitude fighter jet noise can vary depending on a number of factors, including weather, aircraft speed, aircraft power settings and aircraft altitude, Peacher said.

Based on FAA and industry-approved noise models, a person could expect to experience between 70 and 75 decibels from a jet aircraft flying directly overhead at 500 feet with potential to experience a peak of 104 decibels depending on circumstances. That’s about what a person experiences at a rock concert.

Peacher said the duration of exposure at this decibel level would be very short, given the typical aircraft speeds and unlikelihood of a direct overflight.

As local leaders grapple with plans for their own growth and the Navy’s plan to expand its training missions, Peacher said the Navy is aiming to open the lines of communication.

“We are starting the conversation,” Peacher said.