Keep the jets flying

Published 9:49 pm Saturday, April 21, 2012

The fires that burned following the Virginia Beach crash a couple of weeks ago of an Oceana-based U.S. Navy F/A-18D Hornet trainer had barely been extinguished before some people in greater Hampton Roads were already using the near-catastrophe to argue for moving the East Coast’s master jet base out of Virginia Beach.

The arguments have been made for years: The jets that are based at Oceana are loud and dangerous, and the traffic Naval Air Station Oceana creates is not worth the benefits it brings to the area. Encroachment by residential and commercial development around the air base has made it even more uncomfortable and dangerous for the Navy to continue operating within the city.

Navy critics from Virginia Beach to Southampton County pointed to the crash as the perfect example of the dangers associated with a jet base or an outlying landing field. And it’s impossible to argue with their logic. The flaming debris scattered around a Virginia Beach neighborhood proved their point: Fighter jets can be dangerous neighbors.

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But they’re wrong about their proposed solution. Instead of working to close Oceana, as some have suggested — perhaps selling the property to developers or turning it into an amusement park — Virginia Beach and the commonwealth should redouble their efforts to make the Navy feel welcome and buy back the property that lies within Oceana’s primary danger zones.

The fact is that the military is just too important to Virginia’s economy for officials to heed the cries of those who would use this crash advance their own agendas.

An Old Dominion University professor put things into perspective this week during a talk in Suffolk on the state of the regional economy. Dr. Gary A. Wagner told those attending the event that about half of the area’s economy is dependent on the Department of Defense. And the military has historically helped ease the effects on Hampton Roads of poor economic conditions around the nation, he said.

Of course, Oceana doesn’t account for all of that local defense department spending, but it is a large contributor. And furthermore, losing Oceana to some other East Coast location could wind up being just the beginning of wholesale relocations. Already, the area’s congressional delegation has had to fight off a play for one of Naval Station Norfolk’s aircraft carriers by officials in Mayport, Fla. And a couple of expected rounds of base closures within the next few years still could threaten other military facilities in Hampton Roads.

Considering those factors, it’s clear there’s already enough uncertainty surrounding the military’s future in Hampton Roads. The last thing the people of Virginia should do now is to begin calling for Oceana to be shuttered.