Letter confirms P-8 Poseidon’s coming to Whidbey

Dec 16, 2011

Whidbey News Times

By Justin Burnett

December 16, 2011

Local and federal legislators aren’t declaring outright victory, but efforts to insure the new P-8A Poseidon aircraft come to Whidbey Island took a big step forward this week.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and Sen. Patty Murray announced that they had both received letters from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert confirming that four squadrons of the Poseidon – 24 planes total – were destined for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station by 2017.

“I feel good about it but more importantly we have to continue to press the Navy to follow through with the Record of Decision,” said Larsen, a Second District Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Record of Decision was a 2008 planning document that outlined the replacement of the aged turbo-prop P-3C Orion sub-hunters with the new P-8A, a jet powered aircraft on a Boeing 737 airframe. The plan outlined the stationing of the planes at bases in Jacksonville, Fla., Kaneohe, Hawaii and Whidbey Island.

In February, those plans came into doubt when the Navy announced that Jacksonville and Kaneohe would receive the first batch of aircraft and that a study was under way to examine manning just two bases rather than three.

The news rocked Oak Harbor as the four P-3 squadrons currently located at the airbase represent roughly 2,600 jobs. Base officials have estimated that their annual payroll contributes $87 million to the island’s economy.

It also added a new element of urgency to the task force of local elected officials who fly to Washington, D.C. every year to visit with top Navy brass, further good relations and insure the base’s continued presence on Whidbey Island.

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik has made the trip for the past four years and has worked hard to continue a positive partnership between the city and the Navy. Learning of the good news this week came as a big relief.

“I’ve been on eggshells,” Slowik said.

But he also said this is just a promise and the real test will come later when the military construction budget is hammered out. It will determine whether the Navy has the money to either build a new or redesign an existing hangar on base that will accommodate the larger aircraft.

“I still want to see the money,” he said. “It will all come down to whether the Navy funds the conversion of that hangar.”

Island County Commissioner Angie Homola, who visited the Pentagon during the same time as Slowik but on a separate trip, was also happy to hear the news. Homola said Oak Harbor is strategically located so the decision makes good sense. Her husband is a commander in the Navy and a P-3 pilot.

“We really are the best place on the Pacific rim for a maritime platform,” Homola said.

According to Larsen, the Navy deals with people every day who are displeased about something. The contingent of Whidbey Island officials, who always come with a strong message of support and partnership, is a “unique experience for the U.S. Navy,” Larsen said. Without out a doubt, they make a difference, he said.

The congressman also agreed that Oak Harbor has strategic advantages. As the United States ramps down from operations in the Middle East, the military is now turning its gaze toward Asia.

“Jacksonville, last time I checked a map, isn’t on the Pacific,” Larsen said.

But he also agrees that more work is needed. The confirmation of the Navy’s plans from its new chief of operations is a big step forward but he promised to continue “to keep the Navy’s feet to the fire to make sure they follow through on this plan so vital to Whidbey and the United States.”

“I would not say this is the end,” Larsen said.