The buzz of a woodworking saw may soon replace the roar of jet engines for NAS Whidbey Island’s commanding officer, Capt. Mike Nortier, who will step down as base commanding officer and enter civilian life in a dual change of command and retirement ceremony to be held Feb. 19. But as far as Nortier is concerned, he’s going out on top.
“What better job in the Navy is there?” asked Nortier from his office on the Quarterdeck overlooking the flight line, the background rumble of aircraft engines a steady rhythm.
“Any other job I’m going to do, while it may be fulfilling, will not be nearly as fulfilling as this job,” he said.
The decision to retire after 26 years – the toughest thing he said he’s done while commander – was based on a lot of factors, he said, many of them personal.
“I have family in the area, my son is a freshman at the University of Washington, my daughter is a junior here in high school and I think it’s important for my kids, particularly as teenagers, to have a stable environment,” Nortier said.
A helicopter pilot, Nortier, 47, came to this duty station nearly three years ago having never served on NAS Whidbey Island. The steep learning curve of what essentially amounts to running a small city was smoothed somewhat by well qualified personnel.
“It’s not about necessarily being a subject matter expert,” he said. “The base is full of subject matter experts. We have folks who lead those departments and are very good at their jobs.
“As you get here you learn those capabilities, learn those departments and then learn where you can help and lead or shape and build those teams to achieve goals.”
Certainly Nortier has been pleased by the success of the base, named the Navy’s top installation for 2015, but there have been challenges as well. Making the transition to the new P-8A Poseiden aircraft while maintaining current operations is one such challenge.
“It’s about making sure the base is ready for the aircraft, the personnel, the families that are coming,” he said. “The military construction projects, it’s easy to design those and put those in place. The hard part is execution. It’s being able to come up with a plan that encompasses both preparing for the future and being able to sustain and train for today’s operations.”
The other big challenge, said Nortier, has been the lawsuit brought against the Navy by the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, a group apposed to jet noise from operations conducted at Outlying Field Coupeville on central Whidbey Island.
“Certainly the lawsuit elevated the public interest, made more of a media story than it had in the past and it certainly got more attention around the region,” he said. “So that changed not necessarily the roles and scope of our public outreach, but reinforced the need to continue that and make sure we had an opportunity to convey information, versus only partial truths or misunderstandings that a great number of people had.”
Nortier said he understands what living next to an airport entails and why some may not like it.
“If they aren’t exposed to noise all the time, if they aren’t part of the airport environment, if that’s something that’s not welcome to them, then I don’t expect them to necessarily enjoy living next to an airport,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that the nature of our operations are different. We’ve been doing this same consistent type of training and preparing our crews to deploy around the world for decades. We try to minimize the impact on the community; we can’t eliminate it.”
On the flip side, Nortier said he has never lived anywhere in his 26-year career with more community support.
“I’ve seen my fair share of Naval installations – and there’s even one Air Force in there – but it’s very distinct here. In no place have I ever seen a tighter-knit community or more community support than Oak Harbor,” Nortier said. “I don’t say that because I’m the base commander or because I’m retiring here.”
It is a two-way street. Not only is the community good to the Navy, according to Nortier, having the Navy on Whidbey Island is good for the community.
“There’s a lot of benefit the community derives from the Navy being here, whether it’s economic or things as simple as search and rescue availability, air traffic control, so there’s a number of things that come with the Navy being here,” he said. “It’s not just taxpayer dollars being spent for national security, it’s a combination of, certainly, that’s what our mission is, but there’s a benefit to the community as well. And that’s important.”
As far as favorite memories he’ll take with him, Nortier said his high point was being able to reenlist a sailor from North Pole, Alaska in a snowfield at Heather Meadows, near Mount Baker.
“What better picture is there than standing on a mountaintop in a snowfield in uniform, doing an oath of enlistment?” Nortier said.
The skipper also copped to taking the controls of both an EA-18G Growler and a P-3 Orion on occasion, both a far cry from the choppers he’s used to, but still a thrill of the job. As for whether flying will be part of his future, he said he has no plans on flying with the airlines, but anticipates it could be a part of his private life. He is, however, looking forward to doing some woodworking projects – furniture is his speciality – when he finishes his command. He also plans on watching NAS Whidbey Island’s transition to the P-8A as the base continues to grow.
As far as what he will miss the most, it’s the people.
“Over three years you develop a number of relationships with folks,” he said. “The team here, the people here are just phenomenal.”
His words of advice to his successor, Capt. Geoffrey Moore, are simple.
“You’re taking over with a great team,” he said. “Trust and learn from one of the best in the Navy. The best in the Navy.”