The ever-unpopular but highly necessary night landing practice for USS Kitty Hawk aviators gets under way in Japan next month — with U.S. Navy officials saying they’re doing all they can to minimize the noise, even as aviators practice in their new, loud Super Hornets.

“We remain very cognizant of the concerns and we always strive to be a good neighbor to our host nation,” said Brian Naranjo, Atsugi Naval Air Facility spokesman.

Japanese city governments near the base, however, on Tuesday already had visited Atsugi to present a letter they also were sending to U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker, among others. The letter, like those Japanese officials usually send before or after each night landing practice, asked that the practices be removed from Atsugi, in recognition of residents “who have been suffering from the noise problem every day.”

Night landing practice is required before pilots can land on a carrier whenever they’ve gone 10 days without performing the demanding carrier landing.

Night landing practices generally are held twice annually for the entire wing of about 60 aircraft and 100 aviators — and they’ve long been a source of noise complaints.

In 1983, the Navy made its biggest gesture to minimize the irritation by moving much of the practice to the uninhabited island of Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima is not ideal, the Navy says, because it often has bad weather and there’s only one runway. Additionally, it’s about 750 miles and a few hours flying time from the Carrier Air Wing 5’s home base of Atsugi — and with nothing below but ocean if a problem occurs.

“It’s only a matter of time; things go wrong, and somebody’s eventually going to have to put down in the ocean,” said Jon Nylander, a spokesman for Commander, Naval Forces Japan.

Two months ago, local Japanese officials noted the move to Iwo Jima had helped but said they’d also noticed more noise, from more flights, just before night landing practice was held.

John Wallach, CNFJ spokesman, said the citizens weren’t imagining it. “There’s a certain amount of practice before you do your night landing practice,” Wallach said. “The reason it’s kind of a unique problem in Japan is we don’t have any outlying fields. Iwo Jima is our outlying field.”

Iwo Jima is where the air wing’s new Super Hornets — which arrived this fall and are many decibels louder than the F-14s they replaced — will practice. The 20 or so Super Hornets will be landing and taking off from noon to 3 a.m. Feb. 4 to Feb. 14, if all goes well, according to CNFJ.

Quieter jets (such as the E-2 Hawkeye, C-2 COD and S-3B) and the handful of propeller planes that are part of Carrier Air Wing 5 will practice at Atsugi for four nights, from 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 10 through Feb. 13, Nylander said.

But if bad weather at Iwo Jima curtails the practice landings, they will be moved to Atsugi, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station and Yokota and Misawa air bases. That happened in 2002, when the quieter F-14s were assigned to the Kitty Hawk. The result was 40 complaints near Misawa, 151 near Iwakuni and 288 near Atsugi. Two cities near the bases suspended friendly relations with the Navy.

The Navy says it also changed its flight pattern for the practices, flying at a higher altitude than when operating from the Kitty Hawk; minimized the use of afterburners; limited the number of aircraft and refrained from jet engine testing from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. And in 2001, the Navy discontinued the Atsugi air show it had staged for years — all in an effort to keep noise levels down, Wallach said.

“There’s not a whole lot else we can do,” he said.

At the same time, as a Navy news release points out, the purpose of the training — to maintain pilot proficiency, flight safety and combat readiness — ultimately is needed for the “defense of Japan and to meet our obligations under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”

But jet noise may not be only an irritant. Over time, exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing, a nonprofit group based in New York and Florida. And the louder a sound is, the less exposure is needed to cause damage, according to the League.

Nor are concerns about jet noise limited to the Japanese. Some residents of Virginia and North Carolina were opposed to placing Super Hornet squadrons at bases near their communities. In addition to noise, residents were concerned about fuel dumping, bird migration patterns and other environmental issues.

An environmental impact statement the Navy issued last year studied the noise caused by the Super Hornet compared to other aircraft. According to that study, provided by CNFJ, the Super Hornet was noisiest of the aircraft tested, registering 117 decibels on takeoff and 114 on landing. An F-14 measured 110 decibels on takeoff and 93 on landing.

Decibel readings are known to be variable, depending on numerous factors, and inconclusive. Normal breathing tests at 10 decibels, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing, and shouting in someone’s ear registers at 110. A jackhammer, air raid siren and symphony percussion section all test at 130 decibels, louder than the tested Super Hornets.

But according to the League, a jet taking off registers at 150 decibels. The noisiest thing listed on the League Web site was a rocket launching, at 180 decibels.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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