A few months back I received an invitation to attend a victory celebration. A small group of mostly Washington County, N.C., farmers and rural landowners with the help of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and assorted other strange bedfellows had banded together to win a multi-year fight against the U.S. Navy.
Few gave the over-motivated, under-funded group — the No Off-site Landing Field Committee — a chance to defeat the Navy. They did, or at least so far they have.
Having been handed their head by this rag-tag group the Navy moved a hundred or so miles up the coast to a site in Camden County, N.C., and proclaimed this their preferred site for their facility.
Though much more complicated, the Navy plans to use the OLF to simulate nighttime carrier landings by F-18 Super Hornet aircraft. Late night, unannounced squadrons of 10 Super Hornets circling at low altitudes over Elizabeth City, N.C., and surrounding areas generated the expected response from local residents.
On a drizzly, gray November day I was visiting Ferebee Farms in Camden County, N.C., and talking with Jeff Jennings, his wife Susan and Susan's sister Martha Meiggs, who own and operate the farm.
The heart of their farming operation and a new house Jeff and Susan Jennings waited nearly 20 years to build are roughly at the end of the proposed runway for the Camden County OLF site.
Having written a couple of articles in opposition to the Navy's plans in Washington County and being considered a comrade-in-arms by the local folk there, I felt some sense camaraderie with the Jennings and Meiggs.
These are good folks — hard-working seventh generation North Carolina farmers. I listened to their sinister tales about collusion between the Navy and Black Water International.
Black Water trains security personnel for Iraq, Afghanistan and assorted other places around the globe where U.S. business interests are threatened. Some would say ‘security personnel’ is a euphemistic way to describe mercenaries.
Being a see-for-myself kind of guy I jumped at the chance to ride with Jeff to see the proposed Navy site and its proximity to Black Water International.
My first thought was: How could anyone in their right mind take 50,000 or so acres of this magnificent farmland out of production. We're talking really good ground — 200 bushel per acre corn land that's just hard to find in the Southeast.
My second thought was: How could anyone live or farm this close to intermittent buzzing by Super Hornets. They couldn't — that's now clear.
I took some pictures of the proposed landing site, then we drove across land farmed by Ferebee Farms to the backside of Black Water International — which borders the proposed Navy site.
It looked like a military base, complete with fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and lots of people running around in what looked from a couple hundred yards away like military uniforms.
There was an operational landing strip, plus what looked like an unfinished landing strip running roughly toward the proposed Navy site.
Jeff conjectured that Black Water liked the Navy's chances of getting the landing site well enough to stop construction of their own runway.
As we started back to Ferebee Farms headquarters, I noticed a helicopter flying in a zig-zag pattern over the farmland we had just photographed. Jeff noted Federal regulations require helicopters to fly at least 300 feet above private land. I'm not an air traffic controller, but I do know the difference between 30 feet and 300 feet.
As we traversed the farm road back to the Ferebee Farms Headquarters the helicopter seemed to be watching us. There was no mistaking the Black Water insignia on the helicopter as the pilot criss-crossed our path several times and definitely not at 300 feet above our truck.
I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories — I don't know if Lee Oswald acted alone to kill President Kennedy, and I'm not real sure that the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees had anything to do with the Bosox only winning a couple of titles in nearly a hundred years.
I do know intimidation and a helicopter flying straight at you, buzzing over the roof of your truck at significantly less than 300 feet was definitely intimidating. I've got decent eyesight, but I don't think I could have seen the pilot looking at us had he been where the government says he legally should be. Yes, the pilot was a ‘he’ — the moustache gave him away.
The people of Camden County don't want the Navy facility. They don't want to have their land condemned and purchased at a fraction of its real value. Most of all they don't want to lose their livelihood, nor the homes they have known most of their lives.
Camden County North Carolina is not really a rural county. In fact, it is the eighth fastest growing county in America, with plenty of economic potential. Scratch that potential if they have very large, very loud Navy jets coming and going through the night on a regular basis.
I don't know what, if any, collusion there is between Black Water and the U.S. Navy, other than it being a training center for Navy SEALs and Black Water's owner being a former Navy SEAL. Maybe that's enough!
I do know there are better places for the Off-site Landing Field, and I hope the U.S. Navy has the good sense to find it.