Digital image of F-35 courtesy USAF.
by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine If the skies seem a bit quieter around Burlington International Airport these days, it’s because the Vermont Air National Guard’s F-16s have been flying fewer sorties. And it will keep getting quieter for about the next 18 months, which will include, starting next March, about six months of no F-16 activity. But for the next few days, the political noise will get louder, and who knows when that might quiet down.
A Burlington ballot question on Tuesday requests the cancellation of the Vermont Air National Guard’s F-35. It’s an advisory vote only. The F-35s that will replace the F-16 at Burlington International Airport are expected to start to arrive in the fall of 2019. VTANG’s F-16 mission will conclude in March of that year.
While a “yes” vote will not cancel the mission, opponents have been steadfast in saying the new aircraft will make a noisy situation even louder.
Empty aircraft bays look back toward the commercial part of the airport. F-16 sorties are being phased out and will end all together in about a year as construction continues to prepare for the F-35. VBM photo.
Opponents also maintain that the new jets will be more dangerous.
On both fronts, VTANG says that neither is the case.
“My opinion is they’re not going to notice a difference,” Colonel Henry Harder, who previously had testified before the Burlington City Council, said of residents of Winooski. Winooski gets the bulk of the flyovers from the airport because of the location of the runway and the prevailing wind direction.
The future F-35 simulator room. VBM photo.
While the F-35 has bigger engines, Clark said 95 percent of the time it would not use after-burners on takeoff, which is the loudest part of the flight. The F-16 requires after-burners, which increases thrust on takeoff. The "pitch and tone" will be different, but not the loudness.
As for safety, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Finnegan, a pilot and instructor, said there has not been a single crash of an F-35 in its history, which stretches back more than 10 years. He said he has never heard of a fighter plane with such a safety record.
In an unprecedented press conference that allowed reporters access to behind-the-scenes parts of the air base, VTANG officials made no secret that they wanted the public to know their side of the story.
Reporters and TV crews got an up-close look at the $83 million in upgrades to the apron, hangars and even into the simulator rooms, which are just empty concrete rooms now full of wire and duct work. The F-16 simulators have been removed and the base is preparing for the larger F-35 simulators.
Some of that $83 million was part of needed upgrades and would have been undertaken in any case. General Clark said there will be more cost, but that has not been contracted yet, but he said it would "not be double."
A total of 18 F-35s eventually will be based in Burlington.
As for the vote, VTANG Brigadier General Joel Clark said, “I’m not telling anybody how to vote,” but that in his opinion a “no” vote would support the Guard.
Clark was referring to the controversial wording on the ballot item which says, “Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to 'protect the citizens of Vermont,' advise the City Council to:
“1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and
“2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?”
Some city councilors at one point sought to change the wording of the non-binding ballot question, but following legal advice, left the citizen petition as is.
The opponents hope their cries will be heard by Vermont’s political leaders. The last three governors and the entire congressional delegation and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger have supported the F-35 mission at BTV.
Senator Patrick Leahy acknowledges applause from Guardsmen on December 3, 2013, the day the Air Force announced that BTV would host the F-35. Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Governor Peter Shumlin, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott and Burlngton Mayor Miro Weinberger also supported the F-35 basing decision. VBM photo.
Opponents maintain that a different, quieter aircraft could be based here. The Air Force maintains that the F-35 is the only mission planned for BTV.
While the press conference with VTANG was on Wednesday, the opponents, led by the Peace & Justice Center, enlisted seven Chittenden County state legislators in their own last-ditch effort to sway public opinion.
They signed a letter (see below) that says the planes are loud and dangerous, and that a different plane could not only satisfy those two concerns, it could possibly employ more Guardsmen.
The Air Guard employs about 1,000.The Army Guard employs about 2,400. Some pilots and airmen are training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in preparation for the F-35. Some of the F-16s have already moved out of Burlington permanently.
General Clark said the mission of the Air Guard out of Burlington will remain relatively unchanged under the F-35.
Peace & Justice Center
Burlington, VT, March 2, 2018 – We are pleased to announce that Burlington Representatives and Chittenden County Senators, have signed a group letter urging Burlington voters to vote "Yes" on ballot question #6 regarding the F35s. The letter follows:
To whom it may concern,
We stand together in favor of Burlington’s ballot question #6 to oppose the basing of the F-35s at the Vermont Air National Guard. The issues are as follows:
1. Noise/Housing: The F-35 is over four times louder than the current F-16, which will put over 6,600 people’s home in a high decibel noise zone that the Federal Government classifies as unsuitable for residential use.1
2. Crash rate: The planes are still new and as such have an eight times higher crash rate than the F-16s. Typically the Air Force chooses a remote base for the new military aircraft. With 1,400 homes in the crash zone, we cannot take this risk. The current runway aims directly at the largest shopping area in Vermont with two dozen big box stores one mile away in Williston. This is not an abstract issue. In 1965, a military jet crashed in Williston. Fortunately, the area was an open field at the time so the casualties were limited to the two people on board.2
3. Jobs/Air Guard base closure: The Air Force has repeatedly stated that there were any number of other military aircraft for the VT Air Guard to fly if the F-35 did not come here. They would simply get another flying mission, as they have in the past. They could fly another fighter aircraft, or a military transport, or drones, or perform cyber security missions. And the jobs could increase. For example, the C-130 is a possibility and it needs three to five crew members per flight as opposed to one sole pilot for the F-35.3
4. Timeline: We know that it is not too late to take a stand and change the trajectory of this decision. Basing decisions have been reversed because of public outcry, congressional action, or legal action in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alaska.4
We urge you to vote yes to ballot question #6 to oppose the local basing of the F-35s. Thank you for joining this growing movement for a safer, quieter, mission.
Senator Philip Baruth
Senator Chris Pearson
Representative Brian Cina
Representative Diana Gonzalez
Representative Mary Sullivan
Representative Selene Colburn
Representative Curt McCormack
Studies show that children exposed to this noise level have significant increases in blood pressure, significant increases in stress hormones, and cognitive impairment.
The Air Force said F35s will be 21 to 25 decibels louder than F16 during takeoff and arrival (EIS, NS-40). Every 10 dB increase is perceived as a doubling of the noise (EIS, C-2). 21 to 25 dB increase means F35 is OVER 4 times louder
Air Force said while F35 flight ops might be less than the F16, this would be offset by the dramatic increase of the F35 noise over the F16 (EIS, BR4-25)
Properties within the 65 dB DNL may not be eligible for federally guaranteed loans, program assistance, subsidy, or insurance Should they try to sell their homes. (EIS, C-49).
2. Crash rate
The Air Force revised Environmental Impact Statement says they anticipate the F-35 crash rate will be like that experienced by the F-22 during its first years of operational basing. During the first two years of F-22 squadron operations, a table in the EIS states that the accident rate was 869.57 major accidents per hundred thousand flight hours (page BR4-49). That crash rate declined to 59.51 during the first four years of squadron operations and to 40.66 during the first five years. The crash rate fell to 7.34 when averaged over the first 12 years ending in 2012. That lifetime crash rate for the F-22 was double the lifetime crash rate for the F-16 which the EIS gives as 3.68.
On March 4, 1965, a Vermont National Guard F-89J Scorpion jet was approaching Burlington Airport when an onboard fire broke out. The aircraft went down about three miles from the airport in the town of Williston, in an area known as Taft Corners, barely missing some trailer homes. Nether the pilot or the radar observer survived. From New England Aviation History.
3. Jobs/Air Guard base closure
The Air Force said VT guard would always have a flying mission regardless of the F35 basing decision (Environmental Impact Statement, PA-47 and federal court case 5:14-cv-132, p59). Fire and rescue services will continue regardless of the mission.
No jobs are at risk since the Air Force guaranteed our Guard will continue to have a flying mission. (EIS, 2-29). MG Dubie said maintainer jobs would be LOST if F35 comes here. (So Burlington City Council Public hearing April 19, 2010).
Getting transport aircraft will triple the number of current Guard jobs (USAF C-130 fact sheet).
The Air Force states in court documents, “Had the F-35A not been selected to replace the F-16s, there could have been ‘any number’ of reasonable alternatives available to the Air Force on how to configure Burlington.” Federal court records (Civil Action No. 5:14-cv-132, Defendant’s Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion), March 7, 2016, page 60.
Recently other Air Guard bases have switched from fighter aircraft to other missions. The Great Falls Air Guard Base in Montana changed aircraft from F-15 fighter aircraft to C-130 transport aircraft in 2016: “120th Airlift Wing Prepares to Deploy,” Jenn Rowell, Great Falls Tribune, October 1, 2016. The New Mexico Air National Guard changed from a fighter mission to training aircrews in special operations and personnel recovery in 2013:“150 Fighter Wing becomes 150th Special Operations Wing,” NM National Guard Public Affairs, December 4, 2013.
The Air Force reports that demand for mobility aircraft (transports, cargo and refueling aircraft) is increasing. From “Air Mobility: A clear need for future environments,” Col Chris Karns, Air Force Times, January 21, 2018:
• The demand for mobility aircraft, which includes transport aircraft, is trending upwards. Without it, a team doesn’t move.
• Deliver critical equipment and supplies to forces stateside and overseas
• Transports deliver powerful humanitarian and diplomatic effects
• During the 2017 hurricane season, transports delivered 28 million pounds of supplies to victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria
• Transports delivered critical supplies and expertise to Mexico, Peru and Argentina
• Air Force transports help others and enhance U. S. global reputation and build trust
Eglin AFB, FL F-35A basing decision was changed after a lawsuit was filed.
• F-35 flying operations were significantly reduced
• F-35 runway use was changed
• Some F-35s were re-assigned
• “Valparaiso settle suit with F-35 noise concerns,” Meaghan O’Halloran, WJGH.com March 2, 2010
• “Air Force to impose limits on F-35 training flights at Eglin,” Dan Cohen, defensecommunities.org, July 9, 2014
• Addendum to the June 26, 2014 Record of Decision, for the Final Supplemental EIS ROD F-35 Beddown at Eglin AFB, Fl, April 23, 2015
• “Up in the air: F-35 training program remains strong despite reduction in aircraft, students,” Kelly Humphrey, NWFdailynews.com, April 23, 2016
Oceana Naval Air Station, VA Navy plans to base the F-35 were cancelled when citizen opposition groups took action.
• “F-35C not likely to be based at NAS Oceana,” The Virginian, Dianna Cahn, November 19, 2013”
Oceana Naval Air Station, VA F-18 flight operations were changed after homeowners objected.
• “Jet noise can make you rich”, Defense Tech, May 16, 2007
• F-18 flights were reduced significantly
Washington County, NC Navy plans to build an outlying landing field were cancelled after opposition from residents.
• “Environmental Law Center to file suit challenging Navy’s OLF plan” wrap.com, Jan 9, 2004
• “Notice of Intent to Terminate the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” Federal Register, Vol 73, No 69, Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Air Force plans to move F-16s from Eielson AFB to Joint Base Elmendorf in June 2013 were stopped when Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) objected.
• “F-16 transfer debate highlights flaws in Senate’s decision-making,” Robert F. Dorr, Air Force Times, July 9, 2012, page 5
• Press Release, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, March 1, 2013