A plan to begin Navy flight testing a mile off Silver Strand beach has received the blessing of the Pentagon, infuriating residents who say jet noise and the fear of plane crashes would destroy their peace of mind.
The proposal, unveiled by the service early last year, calls for Navy fighters and other aircraft to fly at high speed to the Port Hueneme Navy Base in simulated aerial missile attacks against a warship.
The flights are meant to test $90 million worth of radar equipment in an engineering laboratory--itself built to resemble the hull of a large Navy vessel--located on the base about 100 yards south of houses on Ocean Drive, the main thoroughfare of the Silver Strand neighborhood.
Navy documents indicate that both the Navy-owned Lear jets and the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, which will be traveling at low altitudes and at speeds ranging between 400 and 600 m.p.h., would fly no more than 3,300 feet from the closest Silver Strand residence.
But residents of the seaside neighborhood, whose origins date back to the 1920s, say the test represents an unappealing and possibly dangerous prospect.
"Flying that low and that close to the houses represents a real danger in my mind," said Kevin Dickman, a 14-year resident. "If he hits one house, he'll likely take out a whole block, because our houses are so close together."
The Pentagon's approval of the plan indicates that the project represents no significant impact to the environment, Navy officials said. It was approved Friday by Thomas J. Peeling, a special assistant to the deputy chief of naval operations. The finding is the Navy's final decision in the matter, officials said.
"I think what this decision says is that we have certified that we have met all local, state and federal environmental requirements," said Peter Becker, the project's engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Engineering Facility at Port Hueneme. "I think local residents understand that we will not be flying planes over their houses."
The Navy now must seek permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct the tests, Becker said. FAA officials could not be reached for comment on when their decision might be made.
Navy officials Wednesday defended the tests, saying the chances of a crash were slight and that noise levels created by the tests were within state and federal legal limits. They added that about 80% of the flying would be done in the far quieter civilian Lear jet--an aircraft normally used to carry business executives.
Port Hueneme base officials also pointed to an approximate savings of $13 million annually by conducting the tests onshore and not at sea using real warships and warplanes.
But residents insisted that the neighborhood would suffer if the tests were approved.
Jim Walling said that when he and his wife moved into the neighborhood in 1978, they found the occasional ship's horn romantic. But the idea of living with low-flying jets is something they didn't bargain for, he said.
"It's both a noise and a safety problem," Walling said. "Every once in a while a jet is lost, and they know it. It's not worth the risk to our neighborhood."
Gerard Kapuscik, general manager of the Channel Islands Community Services District--a public agency that provides utility and other community services to the unincorporated county neighborhood--said most residents and members of the agency's board of directors have expressed concern about the safety of the proposed flight testing and the increase in noise in the area by the jets.
"We have some residents that are completely supportive of the Navy and we have others that are vehemently opposed to the plan," Kapuscik said. "Our board of directors has formally asked the Navy about the potential safety and environmental impacts--we hope they've taken our concerns to heart."
Navy officials say that if the FAA allows the flights, the jets will travel from the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station to the ocean off Silver Strand to simulate incoming missiles.
At one mile offshore, the jets will make a sharp U-turn and head back out to sea. The Navy plan calls for 12 to 30 hours of aerial testing per month, and both local aviators and mariners will be given 24 hours notice before testing.