Whidbey residents say Navy jets damaged trees

Whidbey residents say Navy jets damaged trees
A Navy EA18-G Growler jet is seen in flight.
WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. (AP) - Some people complain about the "sound of freedom" that Navy jets make during practice flights near the air station here. Windows rattle, kids shove fingers in their ears and some people can't get to sleep.

Most live with it.

Anabelle and Lee Mitchell, however, have had enough. For them it goes beyond the nuisance of noise. They say it's costing them their livelihood.

In May, the couple harvested two acres of their 25-acre tree farm because of wind damage to the tops of 75-year-old Douglas fir trees. The Mitchells say the damage was caused by low-flying Navy Growler jets from Whidbey's electronic attack squadrons during touch-and-go practices.

A forest expert says the Mitchell's claim is credible.

Navy officials disagree that the jets are harming any trees.

"We are not tree experts, but our flight patterns are well established and there are numerous trees beneath those flight patterns that show no signs of damage," said Kimberly Martin, the public affairs officer at Whidbey Naval Air Station. "And that's not only in the area where the Mitchells live, but under the rest of the flight patterns, including the glide slope on approach to the runway."

Dugualla Bay stretches out in front of the east-west runway at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Upland on the south side of the bay, Anabelle's Danish father, Hilbert Christensen, had a sawmill. He logged the trees and planted more. That's where the Mitchells live now.

When the transition began a few years ago from aging EA-6B Prowler aircraft to the newer EA-18G Growler, Navy officials said the Growler jets would be quieter than the Prowlers.

"But the new jets come by here sometimes four at a time. The sound roars up the hill," Lee Mitchell said. "They do a touch-and-go and then they fly back over, following our road, barely above tree level. I don't like the full-bore flyovers. Some of those Navy kids want to be in the Blue Angels. They don't make the sound of freedom, it's the sound of jackasses."

The Mitchells are especially concerned right now because the Navy is proposing to increase the number of Growlers at the air station, resulting in as many as 1,000 more practice flights each year out of Ault Field.

The Navy is taking public comments until Friday about the possible environmental impacts of the transition from the Prowler to the Growler jets by the land-based squadrons based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

If approved, the plan would by 2014 clear the way for a reserve expeditionary electronic attack squadron to move from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to join the three other land-based squadrons at Whidbey Island.

The expeditionary EA-18G squadrons at the air station would increase to five aircraft each. Also proposed is the addition of 11 Growler jets to the fleet replacement squadron at Whidbey. There would be no change in the training programs, the locations of flight operations or the ratio of daytime to nighttime flight operations at Ault Field, Navy officials said.

Lee Mitchell, 85, served 30 years in the military. Anabelle Mitchell, 77, grew up on Whidbey Island in a family that did all they could to help folks in the Navy. In their living room, they display a photo of a grandson posing with Barbara Bailey, a Republican candidate they support for state Senate. The Mitchells describe themselves as patriotic.

Anabelle Mitchell doesn't hear well. She wears protective muffs when she works outside in her garden, especially in the afternoon when the jet noise is the worst. Sometimes she tries to shoo the pilots away.

Her husband also has hearing loss, and he suffers from shingles. He said the stress caused by the noise of the Navy jets exacerbates his pain. But it's the loss of good trees that really hurt, Lee Mitchell said.

"We took our trees down because they were topping themselves," he said. "The trees are Anabelle's inheritance. We wanted to sell them for poles, but they were damaged. They had to be harvested before they died."

Kevin Zobrist, the regional Washington State University extension forest specialist, said that what happened to the Mitchells' trees is entirely possible.

"Wind damage is wind damage," Zobrist said. "I imagine those jets create some pretty incredible wake turbulence, both jetwash and wingtip vortices. If close enough, that could conceivably function just like wind or ice storm damage. It blows the tops off the trees. It's a very concentrated wind that, if right above tree level, could damage a swath of trees."

The reason the Mitchells couldn't sell their trees for poles is that when the treetop breaks off, rain gets into the heart of the trunk and causes disease.

"That kind of damage certainly would disqualify the trees for use as poles, which are milled from high-quality, vigorous trees," Zobrist said.

Lee Mitchell wishes he and his wife had complained about the noise more often over the years, and, more recently, about the damage to their trees.

At Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Martin, the public affairs officer, said that the Navy gets an average of 38 noise complaints a month. The number goes up in the summer when people have their windows open late into the evening.

"We had about 140 complaints in July," Martin said. "The number goes down in the winter and it varies when the squadrons are deployed."

The Navy has not received any complaints from the Mitchells for about three years, she said.

"You have to leave a message," Lee Mitchell said. "We try not to complain, but it doesn't seem to do much good when we do. We should have filed some formal complaints."