U.S. Navy Wants Landing Strip in Birds' Backyard The U.S. Navy has been trying for several years to build a practice landing strip for F-18 Hornet fighting jets in coastal North Carolina. But birds — a lot of birds — are getting in the way.
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U.S. Navy Wants Landing Strip in Birds' Backyard

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U.S. Navy Wants Landing Strip in Birds' Backyard

U.S. Navy Wants Landing Strip in Birds' Backyard

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

For several years now, the U.S. Navy has been trying to build a landing strip for its jet fighters in North Carolina. But it hasn't been easy. There is an important wildlife refuge nearby and bird lovers and local farmers are determined to keep the Navy jets away.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story, which begins at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: This is one of only two places in the country where the Navy trains pilots to fly F-18 Hornets. They're the fighter jets that the Blue Angels fly.

(Sundbite of F-18s flying)

SHOGREN: Hornets are really powerful-looking aircrafts and amazingly loud.

(Sundbite of F-18s flying)

SHOGREN: Just taking off, I can feel the landing strip literally vibrate.

Navy Hornet pilots have one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. They have to land on aircraft carriers. The new landing strip would serve as a mock carrier, where pilots could practice their skills. They make more than 30,000 touch-and-go landings there each year.

The Navy's Dan Cecchini says the military needs what it calls an outlying landing field. So it can keep lots of pilots trained and ready to go.

Mr. DAN CECCHINI (U.S. Navy): And we owe it to our men and women who go out there in harm's way that we give them the best training we possibly can.

SHOGREN: And Navy Officials have chosen a favorite spot for the training strip. It's here, 90 miles south of the air station in eastern North Carolina. The land is flat and fertile. Everywhere you look, there are farm fields. Some are emerald green and full of ankle-high winter wheat. Others are black with naked soil ready for the next planting.

The Navy loves this place because it's so remote. Some popular beach resorts like Nags Head are 50 miles east and Raleigh is 130 miles west. There are few lights at night. So Navy officials say a landing strip here would be a good simulation of a carrier floating on a dark ocean.

But critics say this is a terrible place for the Navy to train pilots. That's because a lot of flying already goes on here.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

SHOGREN: Not by planes, but birds.

Each winter, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds come here to feast in these fields, and rest in a nearby wildlife refuge. Some of the most charismatic visitors are the tundra swans. They migrate all the way from Alaska and spend several months.

Mr. JOE ALBEA (TV Producer): These are big birds. They weigh on an average 16 pounds, up to 23 or 24 pounds for a big adult

SHOGREN: Joe Albea is a TV producer who recorded those birds. He makes wildlife shows and is fighting against the Navy's proposed airstrip. Albea says he has seen thousands of tundra swans grazing together near here.

Mr. ALBEA: They will turn a green wheat field to white. It will actually look like snow.

SHOGREN: They're not the only big white birds around here during the winter.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

SHOGREN: Snow geese come from far away Greenland in huge numbers.

Mr. ALBEA: It will take your breath away to see 80,000 snow geese come off the lake in a 10-minute period. I mean, not too many places on the continent that you see that.

SHOGREN: Albea says the problem with the Navy's plan is that the big white birds fly back and forth between the fields and the nearby refuge all winter. That would put them right in the way of the jets. And he says that spells danger for the birds and the pilots.

A few miles away at the refuge, we see some tundra swans that lag behind when the rest headed back to Alaska last month.

Mr. HOWARD PHILLIPS (Refuge Manager, Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge): We got five of them going right towards us.

SHOGREN: Howard Phillips runs the Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I love it. I love it when they set their wings. I feel like that one's getting ready to do...

SHOGREN: Phillips worries that the planes could chase the swans and snow geese away from the refuge. Jet noise is one concern, another is the Navy's plan to buy 50 square miles of farm fields and get rid of the crops the birds eat.

Phillips says the Navy hasn't done enough research to be able to tell him if the big white birds will be okay.

Mr. PHILLIPS: That uncertainty causes us a great deal of nervousness, you know, because this is our mission, this is our function.

SHOGREN: He says if the birds leave, the refuge loses its main reason for being, and the main reason people visit. The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the refuge, opposes the Navy's plan. The service isn't alone.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

SHOGREN: Farmers, hunters and state politicians also oppose the strip. Hundreds of them showed up at a hearing earlier this month. It was held in the tiny town of Plymouth. Some drove tractors decorated with posters, others brought homemade Hornet jets 10 feet long.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

SHOGREN: So many people wanted to speak that the meeting stretched until after midnight.

Phyllis Ange blasted Navy officials for threatening to take her family farm and planning to use any means necessary to chase away the swans, including poisoning them.

Ms. PYLLIS ANGE (Farm Owner, North Carolina): I realize most of you never had a home. Only, I have. And it's impossible for you to understand the heartache you have put this community family through for the last six years. How can you even think about poisoning the birds? Are you that cold-hearted just to get what you want? May you ask for forgiveness and leave our community alone.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHOGREN: Then, Bunny Sanders took the microphone. She's the mayor of Roper, one of the towns closest to the proposed landing strip. She had a question for the four uniformed Navy officers at the front of the room.

Mayor BUNNY SANDERS (Roper, North Carolina): Should we expect you to care about your own Navy pilots that you will intentionally and knowingly put in harm's way? You know as well as we do that 30-pound birds with seven-foot wingspans and jets are a recipe for disaster.

Mr. CECCHINI: For anyone to suggest that the Navy would put a landing field in a location where we would jeopardize pilot safety, that's just not something that the Navy would do.

SHOGREN: Dan Cecchini was at the meeting. He's the Navy official in charge of analyzing the environmental impacts of the landing strip. He admits that the risk of birds hitting planes in the area is severe.

Mr. CECCHINI: You know, we hear people say: It's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when. And that's absolutely true. Wherever the Navy flies, the Air Force flies. In commercial airports, there are bird strikes that happen every year. And some airfields have greater bird-aircraft strike potentials than others. This is the one big issue at this site.

SHOGREN: But Cecchini says the Navy can control the risks. He says the key will be stopping farmers from growing winter wheat, and getting them to plow under leftover corn and soybeans.

Mr. CECCHINI: You eliminate the food source, and then the birds will not be there. And so, the Navy feels very confident that even though there are lots of birds, thousands of birds at the waterfowl refuge, that it can co-exist safely with that refuge.

SHOGREN: Cecchini says if controlling the fields is not enough, the Navy will use fireworks, air cannons, dogs and possibly poison to keep the birds at bay.

But Ron Merritt thinks the Navy underestimates the danger to pilots. He's a safety consultant. Four years ago, he studied the bird problem for the Navy. Now he's speaking out against the landing strip.

Mr. RON MERRITT (Safety Consultant, U.S. Navy): I don't want to have to read in the paper that, you know, an F-18 crashed, and we killed a pilot - because we will. It's just a foregone conclusion.

SHOGREN: Merritt used to head the Air Force's effort to protect planes from birds. He says he has seen too many pilots killed by birds for him to keep quiet.

Mr. MERRITT: I did 12 accident investigations, and when you start cleaning up wreckages, and you pick up pieces of a pilot, you get this commitment. I'm not going to let that happen again.

SHOGREN: North Carolina's governor and recently both of its senators have joined the opposition. The Navy is weighing all the comments, and it's looking at four other possible sites in North Carolina for its landing strip. Officials say they hope to have a final decision by the end of the year.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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