First of F-35s arrive in Burlington to mixed reactions

  • One of the first two F-35 fighter jets to arrive at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington does a flyover at the Burlington International Airport on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VtDigger — GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 9/19/2019 9:51:47 PM
Modified: 9/19/2019 9:51:34 PM

BURLINGTON — The first two F-35s to be based at Burlington International Airport roared into the region Thursday afternoon.

The fighter jets touched down at 1:35 p.m, making Vermont the first National Guard wing to house the F-35. Vermont National Guard pilots Lt. Col. Anthony “Scrappy” Merek and Lt. Col Nathan “Wiz” Graber flew the F-35s three hours Thursday from Fort Worth, Texas, to Burlington.

The landing came after the planes circled the area several times around the airport. A large gaggle of local media watched the landing near a group of around 100 National Guard personnel, who cheered the landing.

The F-35s are replacing the F-16s, which were housed at the base for 33 years. Vermont F-16 pilots were the first military flying over New York City after the 9/11 attacks and patrolled the skies over the city for 122 days afterward.

The guard is set to host a fleet of 20 F-35s by the end of next summer, with an average of two arriving each month until then.

The arrival of the jets was preceded by years of debate and controversy, primarily over concerns about the increased noise. The F-35s will be nearly four times as loud as the F-16s, according to the Air Force.

Brig. Gen Greg Knight, the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, addressed a jubilant group of guard personnel shortly after landing. Knight said he spoke with Sen. Patrick Leahy and Gov. Phil Scott, who passed on congratulations to the guard.

“We’re celebrating the culmination of years of planning, preparation and hard work,” Knight said.

Graber said the three-hour flight went smoothly, although it was cloudy in the Dallas-Fort Worth region during takeoff. The jets did in-air refueling over Tennessee with pilots from Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana.

Instead of the heads-up display on the windshield like the F-16s, the F-35 projects data directly onto the pilot’s helmets, which Graber said was a very big change from the F-16s.

While this takes some time to learn, Graber said the F-35s flies smoothly, like its predecessor.

“It flies very similarly,” Graber said. “I find it really easy to fly; it has a great autopilot, so for a mission like today when you’re just cruising along point to point, it’s perfect for that.”

Both of the planes that landed today have had fewer than 10 hours of flight time, Graber said. The two jets that landed today will be mostly used for training for maintenance workers, he said, and are scheduled to fly again Oct. 1, Graber said.

Graber said the jets likely will fly around one day a week the rest of the year, before picking up to four days a week in January with four jets in the morning and two in the afternoon. The guard will reach its peak next summer, with eight jets in the morning and four jets in the afternoon flying four days a week.

The jets are used for tactical training, mostly in three locations: one in the Mount Washington region of New Hampshire, one from Lake Placid to Watertown, N.Y., and one past Cape Cod.

The largest concern about the noise centers on the use of afterburners on takeoff. Graber said pilots would use military power — not afterburners — close to 100% of the time.

“It is definitely louder, and that’s why we’re not going to take off in afterburner,” Graber said. “That footprint goes right out into Winooski, and it would go right out into South Burlington if we did take off in afterburner.”

Marek, who said he has a “couple hundred” flight hours in the F-35, said pilots are aware of concerns about the noise.

In the future, Marek said the landing of the jets likely would be quieter as the jets will come in higher and land after reaching the base instead of circling multiple times like they did Thursday.

“I know we live in these towns as well, and we try to mitigate the noise,” said Marek, who lives in Underhill. “I think we do a very good job.”

Many more households, primarily in Williston and Winooski, will have average noise levels higher than 65 decibels, according to a noise map released by the airport in May. The total number of people and households with noise levels in the federal government’s “unsuitable for residential use” classification will triple, according to the noise map.

The planes flew over downtown Winooski twice before landing Thursday, drawing attention from residents and the lunch crowd at downtown restaurants.

David Minot, a former pilot who lives in Jericho Center, sat by the Winooski River to watch the planes come to town. He said he couldn’t tell whether the difference between the F-35s and the F-16 was substantial, though he said that’s probably the million-dollar question going forward.

“Decisions are never ‘let’s pick something that’s perfect.’ It’s only picking what’s preferable or relatively the best of the alternatives,” Minot said. “The idea of the guard here being without a fighter wing would really distress me a lot.”

Ali Nagle and Ryan Smith walked out into the street to watch the F-35s pass over. They said they weren’t too worried about the noise, or how it would affect the town.

“I mean we live next to an airbase, so I think you’ve just gotta get used to it,” Nagle said.

“It doesn’t sound that much louder than the F-16s,” Smith added. “But who knows, maybe the takeoff is louder.”

Others were more concerned about the basing.

John Manant, who works in Winooski, said he’s OK with the jets being here — but he said it helps that everyone in town is already used to the noise of the F-16s.

“Whenever the F-16s took off, you couldn’t hear yourself think anyway, so I can’t imagine it’ll be that much worse,” Magnant said.

David Clarke, who also works in the area, said the first flyover wasn’t nearly as bothersome as he expected. But he said when he’s in Williston, even the noise of the F-16s was sometimes intolerable.

“I have friends and neighbors who are violently against it. And I can see why,” Clarke said. “It’s quite disturbing. This whole city now is affected, there isn’t one spot that won’t have to tolerate it.”

Anti-basing activists have increased their intensity in recent weeks, with more than 100 people protesting the impending basing earlier this month and six people getting arrested at the office of Leahy, who played a key role in the basing.

Earlier Thursday, two protesters had their cases sent to the restorative justice program.

Local business leaders and politicians support the jets, with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger recently reiterating his support.

Burlington city council president Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, witnessed the landing with the media as he is a radio host on WVMT. He said the arrival of the F-35s was a proud day for Vermont.

“I did not think the noise was overwhelmingly loud. I thought it would be louder,” Wright said. “I think it’s very important for our air guard and very important for our economy.”

Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, said the landing was a “proud and exciting moment.”

“Bringing the F-35 to Vermont secures our futures for decades, and our country needs this airplane,” Smith said. “I’ll tell you, they picked the right National Guard unit to be the first.”

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