Whidbey Island March 18, 2024

A Bit of Island Airplane History

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) was born suddenly. Before World War II, the U.S. Navy knew it needed a base for its patrol planes, one part of the defense of the northwest corner of the 48 states. The attack on Pearl Harbor energized action. Within a few months, construction had begun. Since then, the base has had a history of adaptation and change. Follow along for a bit of island airplane history. 

Flat farmlands were turned into airfields

Space was found and made for seaplanes. Land-based and sea-based planes had found homes. In 1943, OutLying Field (OLF) was born from the need for an auxiliary airfield.

Patrols guarded the entry to the area. Naval gun crews trained on the island. 

Seaplanes excelled at long, slow cruises over the ocean looking for – anything. There’s a lot of empty ocean to our west, and there weren’t satellites to show us what was out there. Ships helped, but planes could cover more territory. The PBYs could also stay up for a day searching for other planes, ships, subs, and sailors in need of rescue.

The need for change

World War One proved the need for projected air power, a technology that was changing rapidly. Training was a constant requirement. Flying was still a relatively new thing. The Navy needed lots of pilots, and as airplanes changed, the pilots had to change too.

Aircraft carriers were a new thing, too. That meant more training. They’d used the Great Lakes, but that was rather far from the coast. 

Carriers carried fighters, smaller airplanes that were fast, rugged, and capable enough for combat, but that also had to take off and land from a floating sheet of metal and wood. Give an airplane a long enough runway, enough power, and eventually, it will probably fly. Carrier planes didn’t and don’t have that luxury. The end of the world was visible from their cockpits. That training took guts, but it was too much to ask for them to practice at sea. Practicing with a runway on land allowed for a margin of error.

Those planes were props, propellor-driven airplanes that were noisy (it was a war) and new. A decade or two earlier, airplanes were more likely to be biplanes made from fabric stretched across wood frames. The original engines were much smaller, too. A new class of pilots had to learn the latest technologies and how to operate in the new environment that was a carrier at sea in a war.

Whidbey before World War II

Before World War II, Island County’s population was about 6,100. That was all of Whidbey Island and Camano Island. That changed. Service members were assigned here. Businesses and families grew. The location couldn’t be ignored. 

After World War II

After the war, many stayed or moved back when they could.

The Navy’s needs increased. War remained, including the Cold War. Fliers still needed to be trained, or retrained. Sometimes, the retraining was because the airplanes’ changes were radical: faster, heavier, more capable. Welcome the jets.


Jets were being developed during the war, but it took years before jets became viable solutions for the Navy. The carriers were bigger, but the takeoff requirements were tougher. Flying from a deck was never easy.

The tight turning maneuverability of prop planes became less important than the speed of jets. And the jets just kept getting faster. It wasn’t until the mid-50s that A-3D jets began to fly in and out of the Navy’s Whidbey Island facilities. The A-6s were introduced in the mid-60s. The EA-18G began to arrive in 2009. Planes could finally go supersonic and could even accelerate while going straight up. Thrust!

Throughout, propeller-driven patrol planes like the P-2 and P-3 operated and remained on watch. It wasn’t until 2012 that the patrols went to jets with the P-8.

Helicopters were added, something that local rescues benefited from.

The missions changed

Dogfighting wasn’t as important as missiles and electronics. Wait a few years, and the missiles were targeting other missiles in enemy missile systems. Electronic cat and mouse is an understatement for the new fight. 

And there are undoubtedly new missions civilians won’t know about. That’s the nature of security.

Welcome the drones. They’re harder to notice, on purpose. Their operators have training and operational needs, but they may be less dependent on places like OLF. Vehicle hardware and software upgrades can happen elsewhere. But drones don’t work alone, or at least don’t have to. Operations can involve several kinds of vehicles with several sub-missions. That coordination takes practice, too.

Whidbey grew

Things have grown. In 1940, Island County (Whidbey plus Camano) had about 6,100 residents. Whidbey alone has over 67,000 now, more than eleven times the population of the County back then. Currently there are about 11,000 personnel associated with NASWI, almost twice that original population. They, and our allies’ pilots who also train here, mean the base is busy. Finding room for everyone has become more of an issue. Both people and planes are taking up more space. There are overlaps. There are adjustments.

The U. S. Navy’s presence has been one of responding to needs and requirements for almost a century. What’s next? At this pace of change in the world, guessing what’s next may be like trying to imagine a supersonic jet from the viewpoint of a grassy strip after the war to end all wars. 

There’s more to the story. There always is. If you are interested in digging deeper follow these links to fill out how we got here.

If you are considering a move to Whidbey Island or are getting relocated to NAS Whidbey make a connection with us here, not only to help you find your home but also to learn about life on Whidbey.

Real Estate January 22, 2024

Working On Whidbey

Are you thinking of moving to Whidbey and wondering what working on Whidbey looks like? We’re not all retirees. Of Island County’s ~87,700 residents, ~28,000 residents have full-time jobs. (EDC Island County Profile 2020) The Navy accounts for ~11,000, so estimate that total at ~39,000. There are many retirees, children, and people employed part-time or not at all. One answer doesn’t fit all. Keep reading for the details.


The Navy Dominates

The Navy is the largest employer by thousands. If you live in or around Oak Harbor, they are hard not to notice. Some people in the military live as far south as Clinton. Others are quite far off-island and commute 45 minutes or more. Take a look at a map and notice the roads heading to the big blank space just north of Oak Harbor. Not everyone working on base are military personnel. Military bases tend to have a little bit of everything, including jobs for civilians. The base is why the Island’s population is concentrated on the north part of the island. It is also the reason there are so many businesses and jobs around it.

Airplanes Need Built

Ironically, the next biggest employer of islanders is also dealing in airplanes but is not on the Island. Boeing’s Everett plant builds the wide-body jet airplanes people are familiar with. Approximately 900 Boeing employees commute to the plant. That’s more than four times the number Walmart employs on the Island, and no on-island business is bigger. Boeing is only one example of off-island employers with island commuters. Over 35% of Island County’s employees leave the county to get to work. Some may have switched to “Work From Home”, but those jobs are in flux as employers and employees maneuver around each other while trying to find that remote vs. on-site balance. 

Keep in mind, much of this data includes Camano Island because the government reports cluster data by county, as in Island County, rather than by geography, as in by island.

So, where is everyone else working on Whidbey?

As we noted, the Navy dominates with 63% of the workforce. The next biggest batch is 20% from governmental jobs like schools, city, county, state employees and hospitals. Then comes the private companies. The ones with more than ~50 employees add up to ~17%. Those three segments add up to ~100% but miss a large contingent that is harder to track. The number of people employed by small companies and entrepreneurs is about 6,000. 

Understanding what works on Whidbey is different from what works in more conventional places, like big cities. Island County is officially designated as a rural county. Farm payrolls shift dramatically. Whidbey Island also has officially declared spaces that are Creative Districts. Wander around Whidbey and notice the many artists, studios, galleries, public displays, events, and performances. They also have supporting businesses supplying them with supplies, services, marketing, and such. Artists and farmers are so busy tending their projects and fields, and tend to be soloists, which means dutifully reporting data easily gets out-prioritized.

Is remote working on Whidbey a possibility? 

While remote work may be a new thing for much of the world, Whidbey has also held a population of people who live here and commute to the rest of the world. Negotiating a deal in Kuala Lumpur? Your house address isn’t as important as having an airport available. Thanks to the Island’s connections, SeaTac (south of Seattle), Paine Field (close to the Clinton Ferry), and Bellingham’s international airport, a flight can be a drive, bus ride, or shuttle trip away. Canada’s even close enough that some will fly out of Vancouver’s airports when the flights are right. It is hard to track such travelers because they may be employed anywhere.

Sometimes the employers come to us, like when a movie or ad is being filmed here, or a retreat is being hosted here.

It is too easy to label such a big island with the impact of one employer. The Island has hundreds, thousands. We even have a boat builder and a few colleges.

And, of course, people move here and bring their businesses with them, or move here, and the island inspires their next enterprise. 

But, retirement, or at least a sabbatical, that can work well for Whidbey too.

For a more in depth look at the data you might like to geek out on the Economic Development Council’s Island County Profile for 2020 by clicking here

If you are considering a move to Whidbey and would like to discuss this in more detail and are not currently working with an agent connect with us to start the conversation.