Senate nixes bill barring Navy airstrip in North Carolina

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday rejected a last-ditch effort by North Carolina to keep a Navy airstrip out of two rural, northeastern communities that want no part of it.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr went to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon against the wishes of both leaders of the Armed Services committee to offer his amendment to prohibit the Navy from building its outlying landing field on two potential sites in Gates and Camden counties.

The amendment, supported by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, went down on a voice vote in a nearly empty chamber. It would have been attached to the defense authorization bill now being debated.

After years of controversy on the issue, the Navy now has five sites it wants to consider for a new landing strip for fighter pilots to practice nighttime landings. There are three locations in Virginia and the sites in Gates and Camden. The Navy says it needs a rural, undeveloped area that falls into complete darkness to replicate air carriers on the ocean.

The outlying landing field would serve pilots from Oceana Naval Air Base near Norfolk, Va., and be accessible to pilots from the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station near Havelock, N.C.

Both of the Senate Armed Services Committee's ranking members, Sen. John McCain and Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, opposed Burr's amendment, giving it little chance of passage.

Still, Burr said he appreciated the chance to make known his views.

"I think I probably know the outcome of the vote, but we've got to be vigilant," said Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, in his speech.

"North Carolina's an incredible state when it comes to the military," Burr continued. "That doesn't mean the military can just walk in (and) make a decision that's inconsistent with our state and potentially forces an adverse relationship with our state."

Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, spoke later on the floor, pointing out that the state legislature had passed a state law prohibiting construction of an outlying landing field at either the Hales Lake or Sandbanks sites in Camden and Gates counties. She warned that the Navy could find itself tied up in a lawsuit.

Both McCain and Levin said they reluctantly opposed Burr's amendment, and both pointed out that the Navy had not handled the process well.

"The facts are the facts," McCain said. "The Navy needs a field to train carrier pilots."

Burr said in an interview later that he hoped remarks by both Levin and McCain would send a signal to the military.

"I think the Navy was put on notice by them today: 'You better follow every guideline,'" Burr said.

Once the Senate passes the full defense authorization bill, it must be merged with the bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives.