WHIDBEY ISLAND — Some people complain about the sound that Navy jets make near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Windows rattle, kids shove fingers in their ears and some people say can’t get to sleep because of it. But most live just with it.
Anabelle and Lee Mitchell, however, say they’ve had enough. For them, it goes beyond the nuisance to costing them their livelihood.
In May, the couple harvested two acres of their 25-acre tree farm because of wind damage to the tops of 75-year-old Douglas fir trees. The Mitchells say the damage was caused by low-flying Navy Growler jets.
A forest expert says the Mitchell’s claim is credible. But Navy officials disagree.
“We are not tree experts, but our flight patterns are well established, and there are numerous trees beneath those flight patterns that show no signs of damage,” said Kimberly Martin, the public affairs officer at Whidbey Naval Air Station.
Dugualla Bay stretches in front of the east-west runway at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Upland, Anabelle’s father, Hilbert Christensen, had a sawmill. He logged the trees and planted more. That’s where the Mitchells live.
When the transition began a few years ago from EA-6B Prowler aircraft to the EA-18G Growler, officials said the Growler jets would be quieter than the Prowlers.
“But the new jets come by here sometimes four at a time. The sound roars up the hill,” Lee Mitchell said. “They do a touch-and-go, and then they fly back over, following our road, barely above tree level. I don’t like the full-bore fly-overs.”
The Mitchells are especially concerned now because the Navy is proposing to increase the number of Growlers at the air station, resulting in as many as 1,000 more practice flights each year out of Ault Field.
The Navy is taking public comments until Friday about the possible environmental impacts of the transition from the Prowler to the Growler jets and an increase in the number of jets based at the Whidbey Island air station by 2014.
Lee Mitchell, 85, served 30 years in the military. Anabelle Mitchell, 77, grew up on Whidbey Island in a Navy-friendly family. Anabelle Mitchell doesn’t hear well. She wears protective muffs when she works outside in her garden, especially in the afternoon when the jet noise is the worst. Her husband also has hearing loss, and he suffers from shingles. He said the stress caused by the noise of the jets exacerbates his pain. But it’s the loss of good trees that really hurt, Lee Mitchell said.
“We took our trees down because they were topping themselves,” he said. “The trees are Anabelle’s inherivtance. We wanted to sell them for poles, but they were damaged. They had to be harvested before they died.”
Kevin Zobrist, the regional Washington State University extension forest specialist, said that what happened to the Mitchells’ trees is entirely possible.
“Wind damage is wind damage,” he said. “I imagine those jets create some pretty incredible wake turbulence, both jetwash and wingtip vortices. If close enough, that could conceivably function just like wind or ice storm damage. It blows the tops off the trees.”
The Mitchells couldn’t sell their trees for poles because when the treetop breaks, rain gets into the trunk and causes disease.
“That kind of damage certainly would disqualify the trees for use as poles,” Zobrist said.