PORT TOWNSEND — “Look at this view, there isn’t any place better,” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Scott Gray, commander of the Northwest region, remarked as he stood on the deck of the Northwest Maritime Center.
He could see Naval Magazine Indian Island and Whidbey Island, home to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Ault Field in Oak Harbor and Outlying Field in Coupeville, as well as Mount Rainier on a March afternoon.
Gray was in town on Friday to talk about the Navy’s mission, Northwest Washington and how he sees the Navy’s role.
He defended the Navy’s controversial decision published Wednesday to add 36 EA-18G Growler aircraft to its current fleet of 82 to train at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, a decision that also increased landing practice at the Outlying Landing Field in Coupeville, just across Admiralty Inlet from Port Townsend.
“We’ve done a lot to quiet the Growlers,” Gray said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on technology and put in a lot of effort to reduce the number of airplanes to the minimum.
“We’re mitigating that noise as much as possible.
“Landing on an aircraft carrier is the single most challenging environment any pilot will ever operate in. People die if we don’t practice.
“I know, I buried my roommates.”
He said that the Navy will “fly different patterns to try and avoid certain areas. We work with local communities to do everything we can to help.
Gray said the commanding officer of Whidbey Island is engaged with the community.
“If Port Townsend has a big event, have them talk to the CO,” Gray said. “We will try to accommodate the Wooden Boat Festival and other events. We live in the community too and want to be a good neighbor.”
Gray’s command covers 11 western states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Alaska.
He’s based at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor for the next 16 months but calls Virginia home. He began his commission in 1989 and during his service logged more than 500 carrier- arrested landings and 2,800 flight hours in tactical aircraft. He assumed his duties as commander of the Northwest region in June, 2018.
“I tell people the country’s been through tremendous growth and prosperity since World War II,” Gray said. “We say we deter those who would like to do us harm.”
Gray said the Navy wants to be a good neighbor. He has been talking with Jefferson County officials about possible partnerships.
One such instance could be the wastewater treatment plant the county plans in Port Hadlock.
“I operate a wastewater treatment plant on Indian Island. It’s old,” he said.
If an analysis shows it’s more advantageous “to close down my plant and not invest the money to keep it up or modernize it to the new standard, then I can hook to yours and pay you to process our wastewater,” he said..
“That gives you a larger customer base and you could amortize it. It will save me money. To upgrade ours will cost $20-30 million. If I can pay you, I get out of a business I don’t want to be in and it helps you and lowers the rate your citizens will pay.
“All we need to do to put in a sewer line. It’s possible.”
Electromagnetic warfare, which received final approval in 2017, is ongoing on the West End, he said. Trucks on National Forest Service Roads emit signals for pilots to practice locating.
“In order for the Growlers to train, that’s what they do, they jam radar.” he said.
”In order to do that, two trucks drive out into the forest and park a hundred miles apart. At a certain time, they’ll turn on their signals. The Growlers fly over at 20,000 feet and look to locate those signals. That’s their training to do their job of electronic surveillance and jam the signal. Then the trucks turn the signal off and drive home.”
Gray said that the state has licensed owners of cell towers and other radio signals that “emit much more energy than anything that our walkie-talkie type signal is emitting.”
He said that some complaints about Navy jet noise on the Olympic Peninsula are received on days pilots aren’t flying in the region.
Gray said the Navy’s $2.6 million Maritime Force Protection Unit pier and support complex at the tip of Ediz Hook, which opened in September, is working out as expected.
“The pier is designed to be a place where they can pull in and spend the night, refuel their boats and get some rest. It was really an effort to minimize stressors on the crew so they don’t have to work 18 hour days to accomplish the mission.”
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].