“They’re over Montpelier,” someone called from the tarmac at the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) base.
A mix of several hundred guardsmen and women, retired VTANG members, media outlets and others lined the runway to watch as the first two Vermont Air National Guard F-35 fighter jets made their historic landing this afternoon.
Minutes later –just after 1 p.m. – the jets touched down at Burlington International Airport.
Before landing, the jets circled above the runway like two birds of prey chasing each other. At times they were mere dots against a crystal blue sky. After about 15 minutes of fly-bys, they touched down, officially taking their place as the first such aircraft to be fielded by an Air Guard unit.
“How ‘bout it 158th Fighter Wing? Welcome home to the F-35 Lighting II,” said Adj. Gen. Gregory Knight. “We welcome it as the first Air National Guard unit to do so … there can only be one first.”
Knight congratulated the Wing, noting it was their distinction as “America’s premiere Fighter Wing.” He said the accomplishment was a result of their efforts as a team, adding that while Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Gov. Phil Scott regretted missing the event, they both sent word of their pride in the unit.
The senator’s supportive message comes after a week of sit-in protests at his Burlington office. Opponents of the F-35 mission demanded Leahy direct the U.S. Air Force to delay basing until a list of six criteria was met. Their opposition stemmed from several “immoralities” they associated with the basing and the planes themselves. Protestors say internal documents show Leahy exerted an undo amount of influence on the Air Force in selecting VTANG for the mission.
The two F-35s left from Fort Worth, Texas about three-hours prior to their arrival in Vermont. They were piloted by Lt. Col. Nate “Wiz” Graber and Lt. Col. Anthony “Scrappy” Merek.
“Great flight,” Graber said. “Hardly a cloud in the sky the entire way."
The pilots flew straight from Texas, refueling in-air over Tennessee with the help of a tanker from Grissom Air Reserve Base from Indiana.
These particular jets had less than 10 hours of flight time before heading to Vermont, according to Graber. And after 33 years with the F-16, they are a new venture for the VTANG. Graber wasn’t without some worry before entering the cockpit this morning, he said.
“There's always a little bit of anxiety when you step into the unknown, like ‘is this really going to work like it did in the F-16,’” he said. “But, indeed it's a very intuitive transition.”
Graber and other VTANG pilots have trained on the planes at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. There are five VTANG pilots currently trained to fly the jets and five more in training, according to Lt. Chelsea Clark VTANG Public Affairs Officer. Additional pilots will be trained throughout the year.
For now, the first pair of jets will remain grounded for about a week before taking to the skies again in the beginning of October, Graber said. Their flight schedule will increase as more jets arrive. The full fleet will reach 20 jets by June or July with about two arriving per month until that time, according to Col. Dan Finnegan.
By the new year, trainings should reach about four days per week with four jets flying in the morning and two in the afternoon, Graber said. In the summer, they’ll reach a peak schedule with about eight jets flying in the morning and six in the afternoon. Graber said training departures should be around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. There will also be some weekend and night trainings.
As VTANG has already stated, the jets will take off in military power – a non-afterburning power– about 95 percent of the time. According to Graber, that figure might even lean closer to 100 percent of the time.
“We had had it in the Environmental impact statement as 95 percent [military power use],” he said. “It's actually going to be a little higher than that, I think, closer to 100 percent for this first year here, I don't envision that changing.”
But he did say the jets will be louder than their predecessors, the F-16s.
“It is definitely louder and that's why we're not going to take off in afterburner,” he said. “That footprint goes right out into Winooski and it would go right out into South Burlington if we did take off in afterburner.”
Back at the podium, Col. David Smith, Commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, congratulated the guardsmen and women. He noted the 13-year journey to get the jets on base and the hard work the wing put into that effort.
“It’s official now ... there’s two F-35s on our ramp with Vermont tail flashes,” Smith said. “What a proud and exciting moment this is for all of us ... Our country needs this airplane, and I'll tell you, they picked the right Air National Guard unit to be the first.”
Smith thanked the guardsmen and women, their families and the community for their respective efforts and support.
“It takes a village,” he said.
“We're going to transform this wing into the most highly performing, proud and capable F-35 wing in the Air Force,” Smith said. “There's no question about it."