F-35 Operational Basing at BIA: To Be or Not To Be

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Thursday May 24, 2012

How suitable is South Burlington as a bed down location for the Air Force’s F-35 operational aircraft? There are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue.

The 158th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard has been based at Burlington International Airport (BIA) since 1946. They have been flying F-16s since 1986, conducting training flights in three locations:  the Viper Complex over New York’s Adirondack Mountains; Condor Scotty over New Hampshire and western Maine; and Yankee Laser encompassing areas in New Hampshire including White Mountain National Park. The Air Force plans to replace the legacy F-16s with state-of-the-art F-35As throughout the country.

The F-35A is a supersonic, single-seat, all-weather stealth fighter jet. F-35s can fly at higher altitudes than the F-16s and would do so most of the time during exercise maneuvers. Currently, about 80 percent of the F-16 flights are below 23,000 feet in altitude, but 90 percent of the F-35 flights would be higher than 23,000 feet. That means that although the number of missions flown over the area could increase, local people would hear less in-flight noise in the flight zones. For people located near BIA, however, takeoff and landing noise is more relevant. Some say the noise is an unacceptable interference with quality of life, while others say it is worth putting up with given the benefits of having the base here.

Support for locating the base at BIA is based on several considerations. The current Air National Guard with its fleet of F-16s includes hundreds of men and women who are part of the greater Burlington community. The Guard provides free fire and rescue services at BIA. They have also played major roles during emergency situations such as the ice storm in 1998 and tropical storm Irene in 2011. The presence of hundreds of Guard members and their families strengthens the economic vitality of the greater Burlington area.

In a broader sense, Vermont Air National Guard plays an important role in the defense of the eastern seaboard. One has only to remember the role they played during the aftermath of 9/11, when they were called upon to patrol the skies along the U.S. east coast.

On the other side of the issue, opponents are concerned about the impact to the quality of life in the region. Noise and air pollution are major concerns, and the fact that this is a region that relies greatly on tourism weighs against disruptions and annoyances caused by military aircraft exercises. Since Chittenden County is the most urban area of Vermont, some say it makes more sense to locate the F-35 base in a less populated part of the country.

There are two possible scenarios proposed if Burlington is chosen as the site. Scenario 1 would bed down 18 F35-A aircraft, the same number as the current F-16s. There would be a reduction by 2.3 percent of airfield operations. Airspace operations would decrease by 7 percent. The number of personnel would remain the same. Scenario 2 would bed down 24 F-35As, an increase of 6 aircraft. There would be a reduction by 0.7 percent of airfield operations. Airspace operations would increase by 19 percent. This would entail a personnel increase of 24 percent or 266 employees.

In both scenarios, no additional buildings would be added but $2.4 million worth of modification would take place to existing airfield structures.

Noise impact is one of the most contentious issues. In 1978, the FAA established a noise threshold of 65 decibels (dB) as the maximum limit that is compatible with residential living. This level was selected based on economic and technological factors at the time rather than on clear-cut measurable health impact considerations. The EPA argued that 55 dB should be the maximum level considered to be healthy. The FAA won the argument because military aircraft in 1978 did not operate at less than a 65 dB level. The 65 dB level continues to be the benchmark for determining if airports and military bases need to consider sound mitigation procedures. In any neighborhoods where 65 dB level are exceeded, airport operators may take mitigating procedures, including buying property and providing noise insulation in homes, schools and hospitals. For analysis purposes, dB are calculated in DNL, Day/Night Levels, the scale that most closely approximates the response characteristics of the human ear to sound.

According to the Fact Sheet put out by the Air Force summarizing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), “Under both scenarios, the overall area affected by noise levels of 65 to 85 dB DNL or greater would increase as would residential land use areas subjected to these noise levels.” The Fact Sheet goes on to say that some residential areas would be newly subject to noise above 65 dB DNL under either scenario and that the F-35A would generally be louder than the F-16 under most modes of flight (except afterburner/takeoff). This comparison is based on a measurement called Sound Exposure Level (SEL), which measures the net impact of an entire acoustic event rather than the sound level at any given time.

The question of noise impact continues to spark discussion and controversy. According to a letter of May 14 from the SB School Board in response to the Draft EIS, the Air Force used two different models when measuring and analyzing the noise impact in the surrounding area. The first analysis used data based on the NOISEMAP software program. This analysis indicated residential noise impact in South Burlington would decrease under either scenario, even though the overall noise impact to the surrounding residential community would increase. The increase in overall noise impact is due to the extension of the 65 dB contour northwest of the airport to residential areas of Winooski.

The second analysis, the letter states, used a different set of noise contours, those used in the FAA Part 150 Noise Compatibility Program. This is the program through which the airport acquires residential property impacted within the 65 dB noise threshold The results of this second analysis indicate that noise impact would extend further into South Burlington and Winooski. The School District letter calls the Air Force’s resulting noise analysis “insufficient.”

The Air Force prefers two alternatives of the six possible locations for the F-35s operational base. Burlington is one of them. The other one is Hill Air Force Base in Utah. However, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanak commented to a reporter from the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine shortly after the draft EIS was published in April that, “For the Air National Guard, Burlington is the preferred alternative. That’s kind of the first choice.”

SOURCE: Lois Price, Correspondent