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.