The feedback military planners receive from residents in the coming weeks could have an impact on how the Navy structures future flight operations out of Naval Air Station Key West.
That was the message NAS Key West commander Capt. Pat Lefere told Key West and Monroe County commissioners Tuesday in preparation of public meetings tonight and Thursday at which a naval panel will answer questions about its draft environmental impact statement.
That proposed impact statement suggests residents could experience more jet noise around Boca Chica Field in the years ahead. The incoming F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jet and its myriad variants -- set to replace the older F/A-18 C/D fighter jets -- could be flying more sorties in two of four possible scenarios. The new jets will begin replacing older planes in 2016. Newer versions of the F/A-18 fighter jet are expected to remain in service for years to come.
Last week, the Navy extended its public comment period for the impact statement in order to give Monroe County officials and residents more time to review the 800-page document, which outlines what changes are afoot as the Navy begins phasing out its older aircraft.
The meeting Tuesday was conducted to give county and city officials a first look at the presentation that will be a part of the public meetings.
Monroe County Commissioners Heather Carruthers and Kim Wigington expressed concern about the impact, on both humans and wildlife, of higher noise levels from the incoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a proposed increase in flight operations.
Ted Brown, public affairs officer with Fleet Forces Command, said the Navy provided the document to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other state and federal agencies. The proposed changes in operations will have "no adverse affects to the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, loggerhead sea turtles and manatees," according the statement.
The Navy says the new F-35C is slightly quieter during landings than the F-18E/F, and slightly louder during takeoffs.
The new jet should sound quieter when overhead, but only slightly, according to the Navy document.
County Commissioner George Neugent said he wanted to know what the Navy does when people call to complain about jet noise.
Lefere said one of his on-duty air traffic controllers fields those calls and fills out a form that is reviewed by the air operations officer.
"Usually those complaints are a result of a new unit not familiar with our course or air operations rules," Lefere said. "They may fly in an area not in accordance with our course rules, so we will contact that squadron and make sure they know how they are to operate at our airfield."
The draft environmental impact study will not change the agreement reached in May between the Navy and county that deals with development around the base, said NAS Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny. Nor will jet flight patterns change, thus there are no proposed changes to the Accident Potential Zones, she said.
The four scenarios proposed by the Navy in the document are:
• No action taken: There now are about 47,500 individual annual flight operations. Flight operations include takeoffs, landings and other in-air maneuvers. In this scenario, no new airplanes would be introduced and no buildings would be altered to support the newer fighter aircraft. Given statements made by Navy officials, this scenario appears unlikely.
• Alternative 1: No additional flights, but the newer fighter jets would be gradually phased in, and some buildings would be altered to support the new jets.
• Alternative 2: Total yearly flight operations could increase to 52,000, as NAS Key West would increase its ability to accommodate another aircraft carrier wing for landing practice.
• Alternative 3: Same as Alternative 2, plus added ability to take about 10 percent of other airbases' operations under the Navy's overall training regime. This scenario could mean an annual increase in flight operations to 57,000.
The draft suggests the incoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not be louder than the current F/A-18 Super Hornet -- a point of contention among some residents and county leaders -- but the suggested increase in flights under Alternatives 2 and 3 could increase the instances of jet noise.
Stand up, be heard
Two public meetings will be conducted as informal, open-house sessions, both from 5 to 8 p.m.:
• Today at the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort, 3990 S. Roosevelt Blvd., Key West; and
• Thursday at the Tennessee Williams Theatre at Florida Keys Community College, 5901 College Road, Stock Island.
Comments can be submitted at http://www.keywesteis.com. The website also has digital copies of the draft environmental impact statement. Hard copies have been distributed to all the branches of the Monroe County Public Library.
Comments also can be submitted via mail to: Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast, NAS Key West Air Operations EIS Project Manager, P.O. Box 30, Building 903, NAS Jacksonville, FL 32212.