MILTON — Congressman Matt Gaetz hosted a congressional field hearing Monday on the mission of Naval Air Station Whiting Field, addressing questions and issues regarding its importance to national defense. The meeting brought together leaders from federal, state and local government to discuss the base's importance, its local economic impact and ways to keep it viable in the future.
Whiting Field provides initial flight training to 60 percent of Navy, Marine and Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft pilots, and it trains all of the three services' helicopter pilots. Currently, Whiting Field trains 1,200 pilots annually and includes 12 outlying fields in Florida and Alabama. Last month, Whiting Field celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Gaetz, a Republican who represents Northwest Florida in Congress, recently steered $10 million in federal defense funding to refurbishing Whiting Field's North Field Air Traffic Control Tower.
Additionally, an $8.5 million Triumph grant will be used to enhance the Whiting Aviation Park, a commercial enterprise just outside Whiting Field. The grant, part of a settlement between Florida and BP in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, will allow commercial industries to provide maintenance, repair and overhaul services to military aircraft.
During Monday's hearing, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole stressed the importance of educating citizens about the impact of Whiting Field on the county, including the fact that it helps sustains a wide range of private businesses.
Also at Monday's hearing, Amy Newburn, assistant director of the University of West Florida's Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development, provided a look at what Whiting Field provides to the local economy, what the county could lose if the base closed, and how to ensure the installation's viability for the future.
According to Newburn's presentation, Whiting Field supports thousands of jobs in the area, and has an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion. Should the base ever close, Newburn's figures indicated that 87 percent of military personnel younger than age 40 would be lost to the community.
Among the ways to ensure growth at Whiting Field would be the absorption of a Naval Air Station training wing in Corpus Christi, Texas. Moving that wing to Whiting Field would bring an additional 600 pilots into the area for training, and would result in the creation of nearly 1,200 new jobs. That, in turn, would add nearly 4,000 people to the population of the area. In dollars and cents, increasing the mission at Whiting Field would boost the local economy by $82.4 million annually, according to Newburn's presentation.
A challenge for Whiting Field, however, is the need to replace the outdated TH-57 helicopters in which it trains pilots, a fact noted Monday by retired Capt. Mark Murray, assistant Santa Rosa County administrator.
Gaetz provided some assurance that the need for upgrading Whiting's helicopter fleet will be addressed.
"It is my expectation that the TH-57 will be replaced with a commercial alternative," Gaetz said.