By Mike Hixenbaugh
The buzz of twin-engine E-2 Hawkeyes and C-2 Greyhounds could be heard in the distance. An assortment of local leaders, NASA officials and Navy personnel gathered along a landing strip at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility and gazed skyward.
Four prop planes passed in formation overhead, then a Greyhound broke from the pack. It circled above the airfield and came in for what's known as a touch-and-go landing.
Rubber tires squeaked against pavement; the cargo plane bounced back into the sky; the crowd cheered.
They were celebrating a partnership more than 10 years in the making.
That's how long the Navy had been searching for a way to reduce congestion at a Chesapeake airstrip used by prop planes and fighter jets for field carrier practice landings. Earlier this year, the service finalized a $2 million contract to send the Norfolk-based prop planes north to NASA's flight facility.
Vice Adm. Nora Tyson called the agreement a "win, win, win," noting that the partnership would finally relieve air traffic at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field while saving the Navy money and also boosting the local economy on the Eastern Shore.
"It's hard to imagine a better scenario," Tyson, the deputy director of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said after posing for photos with Bill Robel, director of the NASA facility. "It's a perfect fit."
Yet the decision was anything but simple.
For years, the Navy had searched for a runway where E-2 Hawkeye and C-2 Greyhound pilots could sharpen skills needed to land on aircraft carriers at sea. The planes had been using Fentress in Chesapeake, but when that airfield was busy with fighter squadrons or closed for maintenance, the prop planes were sent to train in Jacksonville, Fla.
The service initially considered sending the planes to a municipal airport in Franklin, but public opposition there foiled the plan in 2011. The Navy's next choice was the Emporia- Greensville Regional Airport, but as the service began to study the option, a pilot involved in the search publicly came forward to say that his chain of command was ignoring a cheaper option - using the government-owned runway at Wallops Island.
An inspector general investigation into the allegations later found no evidence to substantiate the claim, and the Navy said its subsequent decision to also study Wallops Island was unrelated to the allegations.
In any case, officials on Monday agreed that it was a wise choice. The airfield that was originally opened 70 years ago as Chincoteague Naval Air Station to train fighter pilots for World War II is still quite remote.
Residential encroachment around Fentress prevents pilots from practicing the landing patterns used at sea. That's not the case at Wallops Island, said Capt. Todd Watkins, head of the Norfolk-based Airborne Command Control and Logistics Wing.
Elected officials on hand Monday said they were aware of no public opposition to the increased flight activity.
"This is huge because of the realistic carrier landing practice that it provides to our aviators," Watkins said "Here we are able to fly a pattern exactly the way we do it at sea."
Additionally, sharing space at Fentress with F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets forced the quieter prop planes to practice nighttime landings late at night and into the early morning.
"The C-2s and the E-2s always got stuck with 3 to 4 in the morning or 4 to 5 in the morning, almost on a backwards schedule where you came to work at night and went home in the morning," Watkins said, noting that the training schedule put an additional strain on families in the weeks before long deployments aboard aircraft carriers.
And because flight crews can switch into and out of planes at Wallops - something they wouldn't have been able to do at Emporia because its runway is long enough only for touch-and-go maneuvers - the facility will require far fewer flight hours and less fuel, maintenance, and wear and tear on the planes.
The agreement with NASA will give a small boost to the local economy as sailors spend money at restaurants and hotels, Tyson told a group of community leaders who came out to witness the first landings. Squadrons from Chambers Field at Norfolk Naval Station will use Wallops for up to two weeks at a time, for a maximum of 28 weeks per year.
The Navy estimates its pilots could fly up to 20,000 passes per year at the facility.
Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, email@example.com