Naval Air Station Whiting Field near Milton is marking 75 years as one of the major training bases for student pilots from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
Base Commander Capt. Paul Bowdich welcomed the gathering to the cake-cutting ceremony on Monday morning, the server using a Navy cutlass for slicing.
“July 16th, 1943 Naval Air Station Whiting Field was established, commissioned; what a great day. We’ve survived 75 years and now we’re working on the next 75 years,” said Bowdich, as the cake was being sliced using a Navy cutlass.
What makes the installation unique, he says, is that it’s the equivalent of two separate airports – North Field and South Field – with multiple runways, full control towers, and instrument approaches for both. One is for helicopter training, the other for fixed-wing aircraft.
“We typically fly the TH-57 down at South Field, which is the advanced helicopter trainer,” said Bowdich. “And up on the North Field, the T-6 Texan II, which is our primary flight trainer.”
Whiting Field is named after Capt. Kenneth Whiting, who learned to fly in 1914 under Orville Wright. He died three months before the dedication of the base that bears his name. Jet trainers first arrived at Whiting Field in 1949 as part of a new training squadron. And the Blue Angels also once called Whiting home, moving there that same year before eventually going to NAS Pensacola in 1954.
Providing a brief overview of the base was Marine Col. David Morris, Commodore of Training AirWing-5, the busiest squadron within CNATRA -- Chief of Naval Air Training.
“We actually do 46 percent of all the training that CNATRA does,” Morris said. “Five wings within CNATRA, and [TRAWING-5] does almost half of it, right here.”
Last year, Training AirWing-5 logged 132,000 flight hours; this year, that total is expected to rise to around 140,000.
“A hundred-32 thousand flight hours last year, is equivalent to 11 percent of all the Navy and Marine Corps flight hours that are flown,” said Morris. “And if you think about 140,000 flight hours this year, that’s going to be equivalent to 57 percent as much as the entire Marine Corps flies.”
The wing also gets the credit, says Capt. Paul Bowdich, for Whiting Field’s status as the busiest naval air station in the world.
“Last year, Hartsfield-Atlanta fulfilled about 879,000 flight operations as the busiest commercial airfield in the nation; and here at Whiting Field, Training AirWing-5 conducted over 1.1 million flight operations,” Bowdich said. “We’re actually, land-wise, one of the largest naval air stations in the world, with our 12 outlying fields [OLFs].”
And if another round of BRAC – Base Realignment and Closure – should rear its head in the future, Whiting Field appears to be well-protected by Santa Rosa County’s purchase of land adjacent to the base to halt encroachment. Plus, says Navy Capt. Doug Rosa -- Deputy Commodore of Training Air Wing FIVE….
“We’re going to increase operations here; in the next five years we’re going to be training an additional 50 rotary-wing pilots,” Rosa said. “In addition, 30 or so tilt-rotation pilots. Our production requirements are increasing, not decreasing. So I think that’s probably a consideration as well.”
Whiting Field was opened at the height of World War II to fulfill a need for naval aviators. When the war ended, similar bases were closed and faded into history. So how has Whiting endured for three-quarters of a century? Capt. Paul Bowdich says the main reason is the needs of the Navy and TRAWING-5’s ability to fill those needs.
“The wing is training 60 percent of the primary flight students, and 100 percent of the rotary students; we have no other place in the country that has this many outlying fields,” Bowdich said. “If we were to move the helicopter training somewhere else, the infrastructure – in order to build to create the outlying fields to give them a place to go would be tremendous.”
The Navy’s other primary pilot training base – NAS Corpus Christi, Texas – could not handle the 60 percent of the fixed-wing load from Whiting. On the other side of the coin, Whiting could not handle the additional 40 percent of Corpus Christi’s traffic.
“And that’s evident by the increase in the helicopter mission over the years; about 1,100 flight students coming in per year and about 600 roughly coming to the helicopter side,” said Bowdich. “Over half of naval aviation is made up of rotary wing – which is 100 percent trained here.”
On the economic side, NAS Whiting Field provides about 15,000 jobs; and its impact on the local economy is placed at at $1.43 billion. That translates to about 35 percent of Santa Rosa County’s annual gross domestic product.