The Secretary of the Air Force confirmed that 18 F-35A fighter jets will be based at the Vermont Air National Guard in the year 2020.

F-35 Decision Elicits Mixed Reactions

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Thursday December 12, 2013

It’s been a long road for Vermont since Oct. 29, 2009--the day the Congressional delegation announced that the Vermont Air National Guard was among the six finalists under consideration to receive F-35A fighter jets. Vermonters on both sides of the issue dissected and challenged all angles of what this would mean for the Green Mountain State. Dec. 3, 2013, the Secretary of the Air Force called Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, and then the decision was made public.

The call came around the same time another decision was announced to the chosen active duty base, Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Hill Air Force Base will receive 72 of the fighter jets.

Later that day, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, and South Burlington City Council Chair Pam Mackenzie celebrated the official announcement with hundreds of VTANG members after Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, Adjunct General of the Vermont National Guard, announced the official decision to a gathering at the air guard hangar.

A press release stating the Air Force’s Record of Decision confirmed the reasons supporting the choice.

“Burlington Air Guard Station (AGS) was selected because it presents the best mixture of infrastructure, airspace, and overall cost to the Air Force,” the press release quotes Timothy Bridges, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning confirmed that 18 F-35A fighter jets will be based at the Vermont Air National Guard in the year 2020. The F-35A is the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) or F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft.

Before the new aircraft’s arrival in 2020, VTANG pilots will receive flight training at another base. The location of the base has yet to be announced; the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is a possibility, as is Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, according to Lt. Col. Chris Caputo. 

Luke Air Force Base is where pilots received their training for the current F-16 jets housed in the VTANG Base, Caputo said. The Eglin Air Force Base is where Gov. Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Weinberger, and Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien made a Greater Burlington Industrial Coropration-funded trip to hear an F-35 to F-16 comparison just a year ago.

There will be also be over $4 million for base improvements and maintenance crew training to tend to the aircraft. The fighter jets themselves are $85 million a piece, or $1.53 billion total for the squadron of 18, according to the F-35 Joint Program Office.

The Vermont Air National Guard will enter a transition stage in preparation for the bed down. A Site Activation Task Force with appropriate representation, such as a group from VTANG and the National Guard Bureau staff, will map out future planning, Caputo explained.

“We’re very excited about the decision and it’s a great opportunity for us,” Caputo said. “With that comes great responsibility to the community, the state, and the defense of our nation...responsibility that VTANG is ready and willing to accept.” Nicole Citro, a South Burlington business owner and founder of Green Ribbons for the F-35, said she is organizing a congratulatory event for VTANG after the holidays. The venue and date are to-be-determined. Citro still receives requests for ribbons, stickers and other support paraphernalia.

“People were always so incredibly generous,” she said, recalling how one man gave her a $100 bill for a $1 sticker. “I appreciate the support of the community, and how they embrace the campaign is humbling to me.”

Citro said funds were used for projects  like the support rally and the postcard campaign to the Pentagon. Any surplus of money will be donated to charity. 

While VTANG, the congressional delegation, and F-35 proponent groups see the decision as an honor and a victory, there are other organizations and individuals who do not share this reaction.

Opponents have consistently brought to light the negative impacts the F-35 will have on citizens living near the airport, with the most significant impacts here in South Burlington. Arguing points include — -but are not limited to — risk of crash in a residential area, devaluation of homes, noise impacts on children’s health and learning, noise impacts on other vulnerable peoples such as the elderly and refugees, and harmful composites that can be released if burned.
These issues have resurfaced at countless meetings, including the July South Burlington City Council meeting whenthe Council reversed its July 2012 4-1 opposition decision to a new 3-2 approval. The majority of the speakers that night were residents who opposed the basing.

Council Chair Mackenzie, Winooski Mayor O’Brien, and Burlington Mayor Weinberger said on Tuesday Dec. 3 that they would work with the Air Force to make certain the mitigation process addresses citizen concern. The Record of Decision cites that the Air National Guard must put together a mitigation plan in the next three months. Afterward, the Air Force will need to conduct a noise study once the planes arrive.

Carmine Sargent, who resides in the neighborhood,  said that she was not surprised by the decision.

“This was all about power and money, and people in my neighborhood don’t have either of those,” she said. 

However, her next focus is not strictly stopping the F-35. Instead, she is working on mending a relationship with the airport for the sake of her neighbors--or what’s left of them in an area that’s seen its fair share of change under the FAA home buyout program.

“I want to bridge the gap and influence what happens next,” she said. “My role is to work with whomever to get this neighborhood rehabilitated.”

Sargent is currently gathering petition signatures from Elizabeth Street, Patrick St., and now Mills St., asking for a sound mitigation structure she calls a “crescent”.  The petition advocates that this method be incorporated in the airport’s master plan.

For opponents, who based their opposition largely on the Environmental Impact Statement, personal experiences, medical studies, and other bases, the promise of mitigation does not smooth the issue over--and the fight to keep Vermont F-35-free will continue with  the filing of state and federal lawsuits. Attorney James Dumont, is the legal representative for the Stop the F-35 Coalition.

On the federal level, there will be a lawsuit challenging the National Environmental Policy Act, at the state level, the opposition already has a filed to argue the need of an Act 250 permit.

“There are many of us that will do whatever it takes to protect and look out for the interest of the people who live near the airport,” Rosanne Greco, South Burlington Councilor and retired Lt. Col. said. 

“We have many years to expose what has been happening behind the scenes,” she added. “All of those things will come to light in the next few years...We will block the F-35.”

2020 may be six years away, but Vermont--the most politically active and vocal among all states considered for the F-35 basing — will surely continue the conversation. 

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent