Naval Air station Whidbey
History From Pistons to Prowlers
(From NAS Whidbey's website)
On Jan. 17, 1941, almost 11 months before the U.S. entered World War II, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant of the 13th Naval District to find a location for the re-arming and refueling of Navy patrol planes operating in defense of Puget Sound, should such defense be necessary.
Lake Ozette, Indian Island, Keystone Harbor, Penn Cove and Oak Harbor were considered and later rejected because of mountainous terrain, bluff shore front, inaccessibility, absence of sufficient beaches and lee shores. But within 10 days, the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Seattle recommended the site of Saratoga Passage on the shores of Crescent Harbor and Forbes Point as a base suitable for seaplane takeoffs and landings under instrument conditions.
A narrow strip of land tied Oak Harbor to what is now Maylor’s Capehart Housing. Dredging, filling, and running water and power lines to the city was under way when at the end of November came the word to find a land plane site.
On Dec. 8, three workers started a topographic survey of what would become Ault Field, about four miles to the north. The crew would soon grow to 17. None of them were engineers, but with the attack at Pearl Harbor, everyone went to work. Regardless of the weather, there were 175 men on the job at the peak of survey work. Bewildered citizens, caught up in the war effort, signed up for jobs to build the station. There were approximately 20 farms on 4,325 acres. Farmers turned over the titles to their ancestral lands, known for growing some of the finest wheat in the country, to the government for runways and hangars. They quietly moved to other farms in Skagit County.
level, well drained and accessible from any approach - was tailor-made for a landing field. The strategic location, commanding the eastern end of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, guarded the entrance to Puget Sound. It was far enough from populated areas to carry on operational training flights with live loads. The area experienced visual flying conditions about 89 percent of the time and there was plenty of room to grow.
Actual construction of Ault Field started on March 1, 1942. The first plane landed there on Aug. 5, when Lt. Newton Wakefield, a former civil engineer and airline pilot, who later became Operations Officer, brought his SNJ single-engine trainer in with little fanfare. Everyone was busy working on the still-incomplete runway.
Commissioning Day ~ On Sept. 21, 1942, from the steps of Building 12, Commanding Officer Capt Cyril Thomas Simard read the orders and the watch was set. U.S. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was duly commissioned. There were 212 people present for the ceremony.
A year later, on Sept. 25, 1943, the land plane field was named Ault Field, in memory of Cdr. William B. Ault missing in action in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Following the recommendation of the Interdepartmental Air Traffic Control Board, an area 2 1/2 miles southeast of Coupeville was approved as an auxiliary field to serve NS Seattle. Survey work began in February 1943, and work started in March. Outlying Field Coupeville was in use by September.
Crews surveyed the Rocky Point area in the summer of 1943. It became the transmitter and machine gun range. Air gunners going to the fleet were trained there.
Patriotic fervor ran high in the early 1940s. The need to train America’s fighting force in a hurry was evident here on Whidbey Island. In December 1942, Lt. J.A. Morrison brought in the first PBY Catalina to land at the Seaplane Base. He was forced to land about five miles out because there were too many logs in the harbor, so a log boat helped clear his path.
Wildcats and Hellcats
Over at Ault Field, the earliest squadrons of aircraft were F4F Wildcats which came aboard in 1942, followed by F6Fs. Later that year, PV-1 Venturas arrived for training. By the end of 1943, the F4Fs were gone, replaced by the F6F Hellcat. In 1944, SBD Dauntless dive-bombers became the predominant aircraft at Ault Field.
At the Seaplane Base, several PBM seaplanes were aboard in the summer of 1944, and a few B-26s arrived early that year to be used in towing targets. Like big flying boats, PBY patrol bombers took off with a churning of water and a roar of engines for their practice runs in Saratoga Passage, then returned, skimming the hill above the hangar and settling into the bay to repeat the maneuver.
Residents of Oak Harbor soon became accustomed to the circling bombers training for the real thing in the Aleutian Islands. And with the attack by the Japanese there, a very real concern gripped Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Wartime training continued at a furious tempo. Patrol planes flew long-range navigation training missions over the North Pacific. Fighters and bombers made bombing, rocket and machine gun attacks on targets in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Recruits, petty officers and officers went to training schools.
Torpedo overhaul equipment was transferred here unexpectedly in 1942 from Indian Island, Wash. At the start, the torpedo shop refurbished six torpedoes per day. By January 1945, production had increased to 25 per day.
World War II Ends
Originally commissioned as a temporary station, operations slowed at war’s end. It was almost certain the base would be earmarked for decommissioning. Many bases were closing because they couldn’t meet the requirements of the new Air Navy; 6,000-foot runways were now the minimum standard. Approach paths had to be suitable for radar-controlled approaches in any weather.
In December 1949, the Navy decided that, while NS Seattle, the major pre-war naval installation in the Northwest, was suitable to train Reserve forces and support a moderate number of aircraft, it could not be expanded as a major fleet support station. Thus, NAS Whidbey Island was chosen as the only station north of San Francisco and west of Chicago for this all-type, all-weather Navy field to support fleet and Alaskan activities.
Neptunes and Marlins
Taken out of reduced operating status, Whidbey had a new lease on life. Expansion and construction accelerated with the Korean conflict. -2V Neptune patrol bombers, which arrived in the late 1940s, would eventually make up six patrol squadrons here. VP 50 moved up from Alameda in June 1956, returning seaplanes to NAS Whidbey. Flying the P5M-2 Marlin patrol squadrons dominated the base until the 1960s.
During the Korean War, patrol activity was stepped up again with several Reserve units being called up and then re-designated active squadrons. By the end of the war, there were six VP (Patrol) squadrons and two Fleet Air Support squadrons here. In 1955, VP 29 returned from deployment to the Pacific and was re-designated Heavy Attack 2, or VAH 2, the first Heavy Attack squadron on the West Coast. Later that year, it moved to San Diego to transition to the A-3D Skywarrior. In December 1956, the first A-3D Skywarrior was delivered to Whidbey to be flown by Heavy Attack Squadron 4. Heavy Attack Squadron 8 was commissioned here on May 1, 1957. In July 1957, Heavy Attack Wing 2, Heavy Attack Squadron 2 and Heavy Attack Training Unit, Pacific, were transferred from NAS North Island to NAS Whidbey to form the nucleus of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet heavy attack program. Heavy Attack 6 came up from North Island on Jan. 15, 1958, and became the first heavy attack unit to deploy to the Far East with the A-3D. By the end of 1958, heavy attack squadrons outnumbered patrol by five to four. That number continued to grow with the commissioning of Heavy Attack Squadron 10 on May 1, 1961, and the transfer of VAH 13 here from Sanford, Fla. All flew the Skywarrior.
The "whales" were the backbone of attack aviation until the arrival of the A-6A Intruder in August 1966. VAH 8 was decommissioned on Jan. 17, 1968; VAH 2 and 4 changed homeport to NAS Alameda on Sept. 13, 1968, and on Nov. 1, 1968, they became Tactical Electronic (VAQ) squadrons 131 and 132. Patrol squadrons began to leave in early 1965; VP 47 went to Moffett Field and VP 17 to Barbers Point. In July 1969, the patrol community appeared to be reviving with the delivery of the P-3 Orion as a replacement for the P-2. That September, VP 2 and VP 42 were deactivated. On March 1, 1970, VP 1 moved to NAS Barbers Point, ending patrol operations by active forces at NAS Whidbey Island. This also brought Fleet Air Wing Four to an end on April 1, 1970.
The Grumman A-6 Intruder served the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as their primary all-weather attack aircraft for over 30 years. Brought into service during the Vietnam Conflict, the Intruder saw action in every major crisis through the first Gulf War. The aircraft immediately developed a reputation for reliability, durability and accuracy that persisted over its long years of service. The Marine Corps phased the Intruder out of its inventory shortly after Operation Desert Storm. In all, 16 Navy squadrons maintained and operated this flying workhorse. Whidbey was the West Coast training and operations center for these all-weather, medium-attack bomber squadrons.
Attack Squadron 196 became Whidbey’s first squadron slated to receive the A-6A on Nov. 15, 1966. VA 165 and VA 145 reported aboard on Jan. 1, 1967 to transition from the A-1 to the A-6. VA 52 reported aboard on July 1, 1967, and VA 128, the A-6A fleet replacement squadron for Commander, Naval Air Force, Pacific Fleet, was commissioned after splitting from VAH 123 on Sept. 1, 1967. On Jan. 1, 1970, VA 115 came to Whidbey, bringing the total number of A-6 squadrons at Whidbey to six. On Jan. 15, 1971, Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 132 was officially moved to NAS Whidbey Island.
During its 12-year history, VAH 123 trained 555 pilots, 625 bombardier/navigators, 464 crewmen/navigators and 9,277 maintenance personnel. It was disestablished on Jan. 29, 1971. In May of 1970, the first Naval Reservists from NAS Sand Point arrived as air activities ended there. Naval Air Reserve Training Unit and Marine Air Reserve Detachment were officially welcomed aboard on May 14, 1970, signaling the station’s role as a Reserve training center in the Northwest.
With the departure of Whidbey-based A-3D Skywarriors, the EA-6B came into prominence here. In October 1970, Heavy Attack Squadron 10 was re-designated Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 129, the Navy’s first EA-6B squadron and the training squadron for Prowler crews.
Since its initial deployment to Southeast Asia in 1972, the Northrop-Grumman EA-6B Prowler has assumed the primary mission of strike aircraft and ground troop support. Through employment of the Prowler’s highly specialized electronic intelligence receivers and jamming equipment, the EA-6B degrades or destroys enemy radar and command and control capability, enabling safe passage of friendly strike aircraft.
Capable of carrying the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) the Prowler brings a formidable depth to its Electronic Attack (EA) arsenal. In addition to jamming pods and HARM, the Prowler also carries externally mounted chaff pods and fuel tanks. In the EA role, the Prowler usually carries a mix of five of the stores listed above, tailored to specific mission requirements.
NAS Whidbey Island is home to the majority of the Navy’s Prowler squadrons. It supports 15 Prowler squadrons, 10 of which deploy to aircraft carriers, four expeditionary squadrons not assigned to carrier air wings and one Whidbey-based training squadron.
Even though VAQ 128, VAQ 133, VAQ 134 and VAQ 142 do carrier training, they deploy in support of joint forces from land bases in the Mediterranean area and Middle East. As the U.S. Air Force EF-111A Raven fleet was phased out of service, Air Force personnel from that program integrated into these expeditionary squadrons and at VAQ 129.
In late 1993, the P-3C Orion patrol aircraft came aboard, and were joined in 1994 by fleet air reconnaissance aircraft, the EP-3E Aries
The air station also maintains a Search and Rescue Unit , flying the UH-3H Sea King helicopter, as well as two C-12 Hurons for fleet logistic support. In all, there are 19 active duty squadrons currently based on Whidbey Island. The base is the center of activity for Naval Air Reserves in the region. One reserve patrol squadron, flying the P-3C, and a Fleet Logistic Support squadron, flying the C-9 Skytrain aircraft, are also located here. Over 50 tenant commands are located at NAS Whidbey, providing training, medical and dental, and other support services, including a Marine Aviation Training Support Group for Whidbey’s Marines.
Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 started as Patrol Squadron 101 in Cavite, Philippine Islands in September 1939. Comprised of Catalina Flying Boats, she was the Navy's initial squadron of large seaplanes deployed to the Asiatic.
Patrol Wing 10 was officially commissioned in December 1940 at Sangley Point, Philippines. In March of 1942, the Wing relocated to Perth, Western Australia, where her staff coordinated and directed the legendary "Black Cat" operations. Night attack missions launched against Japanese shipping throughout the Pacific, the Catalinas were painted completely black and were very effective against the Japanese during World War II.
Later that year, Patrol Wing 10 was officially renamed Fleet Air Wing Ten. In August of 1944, Wing 10 moved back to the Philippines where it remained until being decommissioned on June 7, 1947, after distinguished performance during World War II to include operations in the Admiralty Islands and in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Fleet Air Wing 10 was re-commissioned on June 29, 1963 at NAS Moffett Field, Calif., when the Navy's P-3 Orions were introduced. Shortly thereafter, Wing 10 was restructured and from it emerged Fleet Air Wing Eight. Wings Eight and 10 were built up to better support efforts in the Vietnam War and alternately deployed to the Philippines in six-month cycles.
Fleet Air Wing 10 returned from its last deployment in February of 1972. As the war died down, Fleet Air Wing Eight was deactivated and on June 30, 1973, Fleet Air Wing 10 was disestablished. Patrol Wing 10 was revived on June 1, 1981 at NAS Moffett Field to provide command and control to the seven patrol squadrons stationed there. In the summer of 1990, Patrol Wing 10 assets were among the first on station during the first Gulf War. Crucial to the war effort, VP crews were used to detect, target and vector in attack aircraft against Iraqi Naval Forces.
NAS Moffett Field was closed and was reduced to two patrol squadrons, VP 40 and VP 46. NAS Agana, Guam closed in 1994, which brought VQ 1 to the Wing 10 family, at which point Patrol Wing 10 became Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10.
Finally, in 1995, VP 1 joined the Wing out of NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii when that base closed.
Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 squadrons deploy to the Fifth and Seventh Fleet areas of responsibility, providing ASW, maritime patrol and reconnaissance support throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and extending into the Persian Gulf. During the second Gulf War, in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the VP and VQ communities provided countless hours on station and mission essential data and imagery to ground troops as well as surface assets.
In February of 2003, Wing 10 staff were forward deployed to Masirah, Bahrain, as well as onboard USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Constellation and USS Nimitz, to provide direct operational support.
Wing 10 staff returned home to NAS Whidbey Island in April 2003, along with VP 1 aircrew and personnel "surged" to supplement VP 46. Although P-3 and EP-3 aircraft were consistently called upon to fly overland Afghanistan, anti-subsurface warfare and maritime patrol remain as Wing 10's priority in training the squadrons' aircrews.
NAS Whidbey’s award winning recycling programs, improved housing and quality of life for families and single Sailors, environmental restoration and protection, training and fleet support stand as models for the entire Navy. The air station actively supports DEFY - Drug Education for Youth - a two-phase program designed to teach young people between ages 9 and 12 about the dangers of drug abuse and gang involvement. The School Partnership Program, or Personal Excellence Program, recruits and places sharp military volunteers into local schools where they work as tutors, mentors and role models.
Newcomers are still struck by the fact that a military installation and small community can live together in such harmony. The spirit of excellence touches everyone here - on the job, in the fleet and in the community - making this a favorite duty location and retirement home of choice.