Officials from the lower Eastern Shore took a two-hour boat trip Friday across the Chesapeake Bay to see firsthand the work that is done at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Two county commissioners from Somerset County were among the visitors. Somerset is the holdout county in the region, refusing to enlist in a federal joint land-use study for Pax River.
Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s, Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester and Wicomico counties in Maryland are participating, along with Westmoreland and Northumberland counties in Virginia. The study is intended to produce land-use guidelines that are compatible with Pax River’s runways and airspace.
Somerset is interested in hosting wind turbine complexes, which could interfere with the ADAMS radar system at Pax River that looks out over the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore and into the Atlantic Ocean.
A cluster of wind turbines could give false radar readings and appear to be aircraft.
This year, Maryland lawmakers established a 46-mile radius around Pax River, to add another layer of scrutiny for applications of smaller wind turbine systems. Larger proposals already go through a similar review process.
The two commissioners from Somerset County who made the trip Friday, Jerry Boston (R) and Randy Laird (D), said it was their first trip to the Navy base.
Aboard a touring bus, Capt. Ted Mills, commanding officer of Pax River, told the visitors, “It is a gigantic facility.”
Pax River employs 22,400 people and brings $7 billion to $10 billion to the state’s economy, he said.
“One of the biggest assets we have here is the airspace,” Mills said. The installation has five runways. The longest, at 11,800 feet, can accommodate Air Force One, he said.
Pax River has 4,000 square miles of restricted air space and 5,000 square miles of controlled air space. Air space is a dear commodity on the East Coast now. “You can’t recreate that today,” Mills said.
Naval aircraft can be tested in the deserts of California, but that does not replicate the real-world use on the water, dealing with a corrosive salt environment, he said.
Pax River sees about 140,000 flight events each year, Mills said.
The group was taken to the Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility. Inside the instrumentation lab, aircraft are hoisted inside a hangar that shields out all outside radio frequency interference as tests are run on sensors and software.
The hangar is large enough to accommodate a 707 aircraft.
“This is the only one of its size on the East Coast,” Mills said.
The group also got to see manned flight simulators, which allow pilots to “do all the dangerous stuff before you get into an aircraft,” said Lloyd Montgomery.
St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), a program manager for defense contractor SAIC, said he felt it was a productive tour for those from the Eastern Shore. “Like many, they had no idea the complexity or size of the base,” he said in an email. “They had heard a lot about it. I feel the more we can show what goes on, the more they will appreciate and understand.”
Somerset County has a lot of residents who work at the Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, he said, “and what we tried to stress was how the Navy is working in a coordinated manner and while the wind turbine issue is out there, there are a lot of jobs tied to both regions.”