02/02/04 — The OLF issue: Have the options been considered?

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The OLF issue: Have the options been considered?

Goldsboro’s late Mayor Scott B. Berkeley, a World War I pilot, properly is credited with the reactivation of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base half a century ago.

In times of potential conflict or confusion, Berkeley liked to invoke an admonition he attributed to commanders of the old horse cavalry:

“Let’s dismount and adjust our saddle straps!”

Meaning, let’s stop and think about the situation.

State Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight — who did not have the privilege of Mayor Berkeley’s acquaintance — is urging the U.S. Navy and the state of North Carolina to do just that. And perhaps at his potential political detriment.

The issue is the Navy’s decision to locate an Outlying Landing Field in Washington and Beaufort counties to accommodate training for 10 new squadrons of FA-18 Hornets. Eight of the 10 squadrons would be stationed in Virginia — two at Cherry Point in our state.

The OLF would be used to train pilots to land on aircraft carriers. Only limited facilities and relatively few personnel would be required, hence the economic impact would be minimal.

The Navy is in the process of seizing 30,000 acres of private farmland and forests over the objections of the owners.

Senator Basnight has urged the Navy to explore other options. He argues — with documentation — that the site presents problems to the safety of aircraft, pilots and wildlife — and would be to the detriment of the well-being and heritage of people whose families have lived in and farmed the lands since the state’s beginnings.

The Navy apparently considered an OLF in Virginia, where most of the planes will be based, but rejected the notion in deference to “noise” concerns voiced by residents of that state. Their Sen. John Warner is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

North Carolina also has a member on that committee, Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Basnight has asked her, other members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Easley to join him in efforts to have the Navy consider possible alternatives.

And there appear to be reasonable alternatives.

Basnight has cited an approach that studies by the Navy itself have found to be not only feasible but strategically advantageous — construction of a landing platform in one of the sounds or offshore.

Perhaps the senator could also suggest that the Navy consider anchoring one of its deactivated aircraft carriers off the coast until such a platform could be built. The crew complement probably could be minimal.

And surely there are other alternatives which could be explored. The Marine Corps has an abandoned auxiliary landing strip near Atlantic and Sealevel. A number of towns have little-used airports many of them had hoped would be chosen for the Global Transport. The airport at Kinston was chosen for that, but it remains relatively unused to this day. If it could accommodate such an ambitious project, could it not provide land and air space for the training needs of the Navy? It was, after all, a pilot training facility for many years.

Then there are hundreds of thousands of acres of national forests — one a stone’s throw from Cherry Point. Possibly they could spare enough land to provide for practice take-offs and landings by the Navy jets.

Perhaps some of the landing strips on the Outer Banks could be considered?

Dumb ideas?

Maybe. But has the Navy considered any of them and other alternatives?

The Navy should take note of the fact that the OLF siting concerns are being expressed by people who have been second to none in their patriotism and support of the military. And this newspaper is proud of its record of unstinting support of our Armed Forces at home and abroad.

Perhaps it’s time to dismount and adjust saddle straps.

Published in Editorials on February 2, 2004 11:32 AM