BOCA CHICA KEY -- For many who live and work near Naval Air Station Key West, where fighter jet pilots train year-round, the sound of freedom has been brain-rattlingly loud since the arrival of the F-18 Super Hornets.
The super-noisy fighter jets created a 10-year battle between the Navy and its neighbors. There have been many complaint calls to the base, zoning disagreements over new development, a county-issued cease and desist resolution, claims the Navy committed fraud and even a resident-led crusade with a website: stoptheplanes.com.
Several base commanding officers have come and gone without finding a way to keep the peace with Monroe County and the community while training pilots and crews in air-to-air combat and carrier landings.
But now it appears the battle is about to come to an end with the conclusion of a $1.5 million, three-year, federally required environmental impact study that determined that the next generation of aircraft, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will replace the Super Hornet in the next few years, will not significantly affect wildlife or residents.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus soon will select one of the final reports four options, which range from the status quo, with the introduction of no new-model aircraft, to allowing the new aircraft and up to 9,500 more training operations per year. The report recommended the choice that allows the new aircraft and up to 4,500 more training operations per year.
Over the past 10 years, the Navy has conducted an average of 47,500 training operations a year out of NAS Key West.
Takeoffs and landings are considered individual training operations. So if one Super Hornet practices carrier landings on the runway, then a single flight could constitute several such operations.
Still, said former Monroe County Commissioner Kim Wigington, the reports recommendations are all disappointing.
Retired Navy pilot John Hammerstrom, who served on the community oversight committee for the study, was more blunt: I think the Navy has committed fraud.
Its not because he doubts the main conclusion of the 800-page study: The new aircraft will not be significantly louder than the current aircraft operating at the island base.
Hammerstrom said the fraud stems from the Navys falsely claiming that it properly evaluated the super-loud Super Hornets which were used as the baseline to compare against the noise levels of the new aircraft at NAS Key West.
To say they did is a lie, Hammerstrom said. I dont know how else to put it.
Hammerstrom, who lives almost 100 miles away in Key Largo, spent hours researching the issue, amassing a long paper trail of public documents that appear to back up his case and that he has posted on his blog, johnhammerstrom.com.
The Super Hornets first arrived at NAS Key West in 1999, when production models of the new jets were evaluated for tactical capability during a two-week detachment. They began regular training in squadrons at the base in 2003.
In 2004, an update to the land-use plan changed flight patterns over the affluent Key Haven neighborhood. To mitigate the problem, the Navy instructed its pilots to make sharper turns. That led to other neighborhoods complaining that the Navy would not do the same for them. Thats when resident Paul Caruso began his mission to halt the Super Hornets with the stoptheplanes.com website.