NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE, Calif. — Tucked into the heart of central California's farm country, this West Coast hub of the Navy's strike fighter community has an image problem. And it needs to be fixed, fast.
It's a base with an image problem that needs to be fixed, and fast.
Most sailors would be hard-pressed to locate it on a map, said Capt. Monty Ashliman, commanding officer of the base, in an April 29 interview with Navy Times.
Now he and other Navy officials are actively working to turn around the reputation of this little known, little understood base.
And that number just includes the active-duty personnel who will be arriving, not the thousands of dependents who will undoubtedly accompany them.
Roughly 7,200 military and 1,300 civilians now work at Lemoore, and almost 11,000 military dependents call it home.
Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the F-35 fleet replacement squadron, is expected to relocate to the base from it's current home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, beginning in January 2017.
In addition, two more strike fighter squadrons, VFA-136 and VFA-11 will move from Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, in June 2016 and January 2017, respectively, bringing even more aircraft, personnel and family members to the base.
To handle this influx, changes at the base are either underway or being discussed and planned, and Ashliman says it's his job to show Navy officials where and how the base needs to grow to accommodate the new arrivals.
Once the plus-up is complete, NAS Lemoore will have nearly 60 percent of Navy strike fighter airpower, a megabase worthy of the "master jet base" moniker it's had since it was designed.
The feel of the place
Lemoore has one of the most unique designs in the Navy, as it is actually two bases in one.
But it's this design, and the fact the base is surrounded by miles of farmland, that makes it good for training strike fighter crews.
"From a strict professional standpoint, I think it's the best air station in the world to prepare aircrews to go out to aircraft carriers," Ashliman said. "We have here what I like to call unimpeded training."
"Our air traffic patterns and how we do operations around the airfield is exactly how we conduct operations around an aircraft carrier at sea," Ashilman said. "You don't get that anywhere else in the Navy."
NAS Lemoore has all the amenities a sailor would expect on a base of its size.
Photo Credit: Mark Faram/Staff
The 66,000 square-foot facility includes two college-size basketball courts, large weight rooms with the latest gear, exercise rooms and athletic fields used by many sports leagues and more than 20 fitness classes each month.
About 40 of the units date to the 1960's, most of the base housing is less than 12 years old and meticulously maintained. Units range in size from two to four bedrooms and the housing areas have community centers which routinely have family events scheduled throughout the month.
"It's a possibility, it's being talked about," Brown said. "But nothing is final, and it will be based on need and necessity."
The housing stays full most of the time according to Tom Brown who manages base housing for Lincoln Military Housing, which manages the units under the military's public/private venture agreement. But unlike some bases, waits are short, ranging from one to eight months, depending on family size.
The median price of an off-base house is just $175,000, but there's now plenty of quality housing on base. Navy officials are preparing for a large influx of residents.
Photo Credit: Mark Faram/Staff
"The biggest things are communicating to our sailors what's available on base," he said. "And then we have to deliver on that and be open when we say were open. If we say something is open until 2100, then we don't close the door until then, even on a slow night."
Rumors and misconceptions
Even the skipper himself says he wasn't very familiar with the base himself when he was selected for command after spending most of his flying career on the East Coast at Oceana.
"The great percentage of folks who say they don't want to go to Lemoore can't tell you why," he said. "If you ask them their reasons, they don't have direct knowledge, they've simply 'heard things.' "
What stops many people is the fact it's not in a fleet concentration area such as Norfolk or San Diego, he says, and even if a sailor hasn't been to either, they know they'll be living in a large area where everything they will need is readily available.
And oOf those who do take orders, many of them opt for the geographic bachelor gig and leave their families in Norfolk or San Diego and spend their tour commuting when the can from the base back to their families.?
Such was the case of Chief Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) (NAC/AW/SW) Eldukl Ngiraingas, a 19-year veteran who spent an initial tour at the base as a geo bachelor and commuted back to San Diego on the weekends.
"I never really got the feel for the place because I was either working on base or was commuting to see my family in San Diego," he said.
But then he and his wife, Rizalina, a first class air traffic controller, got a dual military three-year tour at the base and moved up with the family.
"It changed my perspective about the place, bringing my family," he said. "This is a great place for families to come, it's a small-town environment and very safe, base housing is great and it's very affordable to buy a home here and live off base, too."
"Duty here is one of those hidden gems the Navy has to offer," Ashliman said. "You don't run across too many folks who don't like it once they're here and some, but not all, leave here kicking and screaming."
Location, location, location
Many, Ashliman says, believe the base to be in the desert and have no idea the base is actually in California's central San Joaquin Valley and really a stone's throw from everything the state of California has to offer.
Nearly 15 of his 25-year career has been spent in flying billets at Naval Air Station, Oceana, and if he'd not been picked as the base CO, he said he'd have missed out on a chance to experience how unique and special a place Lemoore really is, he said.
"Instead of thinking this place is in the middle of nowhere, you come to realize it's in the middle of everything, with a one to three-hour drive to most of everything California has to offer," he said.
"If you want the big city hustle and bustle, two and a half to three hours away is San Francisco or Los Angeles," he said. "All those things, if they're an hour or two away, they are always an hour or two away because there's no traffic here.
"This is probably the most busy and stressful job I've had, yet it's probably the best and most enjoyable personal time I've had in the Navy — the family time here is just out of this world."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.