The story of Whiting Field is one of evolution.
Nestled between cotton and soybean fields several miles north of the sleepy town of Milton, Fla., the air base has been a vital part of both Northwest Florida and America’s naval air training apparatus for nearly three-quarters of a century. Established in 1943 as Naval Auxiliary Air Station Whiting Field, the base has grown to become the world’s busiest naval air station, with more than 1.2 million flight operations last year alone. To put that into perspective, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the busiest commercial airport in the world last year, had less than 900,000.
In the 19th century, the town of Milton was a thriving lumber community, but by the 1930s, opportunity had dried up. The Great Depression and the inevitable clearcutting of the area’s longleaf pine stock left Milton and other Santa Rosa communities without a industry to fuel the economy.
The wartime establishment of Whiting Field provided a shot in the arm to Santa Rosa County. Whiting was conceived alongside a number of outlying and auxiliary airfields surrounding NAS Pensacola — fields like Ellyson, Saufley, and Corry — but it has far outgrown and its siblings. Today, Whiting Field is the U.S. Navy’s largest air training center, accounting for more than 11% of all Navy and Marine Corps flight hours last year. Economically, the base is a juggernaut, directly or indirectly supporting more than 14,000 jobs and registering an overall economic impact of $1.1 billion annually.
Home to Training Air Wing FIVE, Whiting Field is actually two airfields joined by a single support base. The north field is utilized by the the base’s fleet of T-6 Texan II training planes, while the south field is home to the base’s rotary wing training, utilizing TH-57 helicopters.
With more than 260 total aircraft, the two airfields at Whiting are insufficient to handle all the air traffic, a reality Whiting manages by utilizing a network of 13 outlying airfields spread across five counties and two states. Between the main base and the outlying fields, the total Whiting complex consists of more than 13,000 acres and 4,500 nautical miles of airspace.
More than sixty percent of all naval aviators receive their primary flight training at Whiting Field, including every Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard helicopter pilot. Last year, more than 1,500 students completed training at Whiting. That figure includes a number of students from international allies, including Italy, Saudi Arabia, and others.
“We’re training the world’s best naval aviators,” said Colonel Gary Kling, commodore of Training Air Wing FIVE. “Whiting Field produced 68% of every naval aviator made last year. Sixty-eight percent of them, for the entire U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard went through T-6 primary flight training here. One hundred percent of every helicopter pilot in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, ever, is built right here. Hand-crafted. This is not a factory — it’s hand-crafted artisanship.”
This week, Whiting hosted the 26th annual Naval Helicopter Association Fleet Fly-in, in which helicopters and flight crews from nearly every active platform in the maritime services descended on the airbase. The event provides flight students with the opportunity to meet active pilots and familiarize themselves with fleet aircraft.
“They have the ability to interact and engage with all of the fleet air crews and talk to them as they make their decision on what is it that they would like to go fly for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard,” said Kling. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity for these young men and women to go see all the mission systems and weapons systems integrations that these platforms have.”
As the naval aviation fleet has evolved, so too has the technology that Whiting Field incorporates into its training programs. As part of their syllabus, prospective pilots must complete 40 hours of training in one of the base’s several simulator bays.
Helicopter simulators provide students with an immersive full-motion experience, using hydraulics, night vision, and other technology to simulate real-world flight conditions. The base’s fixed-wing simulators, installed at the time of the base’s transition from the T-34C to the T-6B aircraft in 2010, feature a 270º screen and state-of-the-art software which allows the simulator to replicate an almost infinite number of locations, conditions, and variables.
As Whiting Field has grown and evolved, so too has local government’s efforts to support the base’s mission. Over the past fifteen years, Santa Rosa County has acquired more than 1,300 acres of adjacent land, determined to create a buffer between the base and incompatible development. Together with purchases by the State of Florida and the Department of the Navy, more than 3,000 nearby acres have been added to the buffer.
The county has also worked closely with the Navy toward a limited use agreement which would allow the county to construct an aviation commerce park adjacent to the airfield. County officials have said such a park could generate hundreds or even thousands of new jobs for the area.
Asked about the future of helicopters given the increasing role of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, base commanders are confident that rotary-wing aviation will remain essential to the armed forces’ mission.
“Helicopters are doing more now than they’ve ever done,” said Kling. “For the first time in 102 years of naval aviation history, helicopters are 51% of the naval aviation force.”
“We don’t need runways,” said Commander John McBryde, commanding officer of the HT-8 helicopter training squadron. “We don’t need prepared sites to go take people, supplies, logistics. We can pretty much go anywhere, anytime.”