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Cross hairs on Kaneohe

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A county commissioner from Washington state has mounted a campaign to secure Navy P-8A Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft for her state by claiming that Kaneohe Bay — where 18 of the jets are planned to be based — has a runway that’s too short for fully fueled and loaded Poseidons to take off.

"What can you do to help? Write a letter to your congressmen and women, state legislators and Navy brass," Island County Commissioner Angie Homola says in her "talking points in support of the P-8A" on the Island County website.

A 2008 environmental impact statement also raises questions about the runway.

The 7,771-foot runway at Kaneohe Bay is "shorter than the suggested 8,000-foot runway for extreme operational conditions," the Navy EIS states. "However, aircraft loads can be managed to decrease the required runway length for take off."

The Navy’s chief of information officer in Washington, D.C., was queried last week but not able to clarify the issue.

Hawaii, Whidbey Island in Washington state and Jacksonville, Fla., were selected as home bases for the Poseidons, a military version of the Boeing 737 that will replace aging, propeller-driven P-3C Orions.

Kaneohe Bay was picked for three squadrons and 18 aircraft that are expected to begin arriving in 2015.

But with the Pentagon seeking to cut costs, the Navy said in February it was considering operating from two bases instead of three, with Whidbey potentially being left out.

Island County said Naval Air Station Whidbey is the largest employer in the region, with a $500 million annual impact on the economy.

As part of the campaign to change the Navy’s mind, Homola said in a news release sent to newspapers that Kaneohe Bay’s "short" runway and higher costs of living "make Hawaii a costly pick," while Whidbey offers the "optimal strategic location."

A key tenet of Homola’s argument against Kaneohe Bay is that its runway is too short for a fully loaded P-8A, which has the fuselage of a 737-800 and wings of a 737-900.

Boeing, however, said in a 2006 release that newer 737s allowed "operators to fly increased payload in and out of airports with runways less than 5,000 feet long."

Ryanair, a low-cost Irish airliner that flies 737-800s, said the minimum runway length for its planes is 6,076 feet.

Asked where she got the information that the runway at Kaneohe Bay is too short, Homola said, "I’m a military wife of a P-3 pilot." Her husband, Jerry, is a Navy Reserve pilot and has the rank of commander. She and her husband also were stationed at Barbers Point in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Navy still had P-3s based there, she said.

"That runway (at Kaneohe Bay) does not facilitate a fully loaded (P-3), so the P-3 either has to truncate its mission or go to Hickam (Air Force Base) to fill up," she said by phone. "So a P-8A would have the same problem. However, a P-8A can refuel in the air, so, either we have to use another aircraft to fill it in the air, or it’s going to have to hop over to Hickam and fill up there."

Homola said "it was challenging for them to make the Marine Corps base work" for P-3s. The planes were shifted there from Barbers Point in 1999, the Marine Corps said.

The EIS said Hickam was looked at but eliminated as a possible base for Poseidons in part because ordnance handling would exceed Defense Department safety requirements.

Navy officials in Hawaii, however, said Homola’s information about P-3 Orion aircraft is not correct. About 18 of the turboprop aircraft still operate out of Kaneohe Bay.

"We’re fully operational out of Kaneohe Bay with our max weight takeoff," said Cmdr. Brian Grimm, chief staff officer with Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 2. "It is not an issue here at Kaneohe Bay. We have no restrictions. I’m not aware of any situation where crews have had to take off from here and land at Hickam to refuel or to add more fuel because the runway is too short. The P-3 is fully capable out of Kaneohe Bay."

The 2008 environmental impact statement on the introduction of the P-8A into the Navy fleet did note the runway was shorter than the "suggested" 8,000-foot length for "extreme operational conditions."

Grimm said in a desert environment, "if it’s 120 degrees out, and depending on the humidity and all that stuff, maybe, yeah, we’d be reaching the envelope (with a P-3) where we might not be able to take off. But, I mean, come on, Hawaii is pretty consistent on its temperatures and weather, so we have never experienced that weather condition to exclude us from being able to take off at max load."

The Navy said in its EIS that in calculating the required runway length for the P-8A, "the Navy assumes worst-case weather conditions." Humid weather requires greater runway length for an aircraft to take off and land.

A runway at Kaneohe Bay was first started in 1939 by the Navy, officials said. It was realigned and lengthened in 1958 to its current length of 7,771 feet.

The EIS said Whidbey Island has two runways on Ault Field that are each 8,000 feet long — 229 feet longer than at Kaneohe Bay.

Homola, the Island County commissioner, said on the county’s website that the four squadrons and 24 P-8As that were slated for Whidbey Island might be sent instead to Jacksonville.

She said she and others met with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead "discussing the many reasons for this tentative but solidifying decision."

Lt. Joe Myers Vasquez, a spokesman for the Navy at the Pentagon, previously said the P-8A’s ability to operate away from its home bases might allow for an "infrastructure consolidation." The Navy identified potential efficiencies in moving from three to two main operating bases, but no final decision has been made, he said.

Per the Navy’s basing decision, Jacksonville was to host five squadrons and a fleet replacement squadron starting in 2013, with Whidbey Island receiving its four P-8A squadrons by 2019, officials said.

Periodic squadron detachments to North Island, Calif., also are expected. A total of 117 aircraft are planned to be purchased.

All but three of the Navy’s 27 P-3C Orions at Kaneohe Bay would be replaced by Poseidons, the service said in late 2008. The number remaining at Kaneohe Bay has shrunk to about 18 with groundings due to metal fatigue and some planes out for depot maintenance, officials said.

In 2007 many of the Cold War-era sub hunters Navy-wide were grounded after studies of a test airframe and computer modeling showed there could be "significant" issues with fatigue on the rear portion of the wing.

The environmental review for the 18 Poseidons said the basing would bring an investment of $147.5 million to Kaneohe Bay for infrastructure upgrades.

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