By the end of the week, the first two F-35 fighter jets are expected to land at the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) base. The finishing touches are being made on preparations at the base, with many in their final stages. To learn more about the arrival and scope of the jet program, The Other Paper sat down with commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, Col. David Smith, and Col. Dan Finnegan.
Smith is proud to say the F-35s are coming to Vermont.
“The Guard is fielding this airplane concurrently with the Air Force and that’s a really big deal for the Guard,” he said.
And following VTANG’s 33 years of flying F-16 fighter jets above the Green Mountains, he said the base’s experience makes it well-suited to host the next generation.
“We really are ushering in a new era,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of experience with fighter aircraft … we’re proud of our heritage, and we’re proud that we were selected as the first unit and we’re really excited to be as good in the F-35 as we were in the F-16.”
The planes come flying two by two
The jets will typically arrive in pairs, each month from now until June 2020, when the entire fleet of 20 is expected to be here, Finnegan said.
They usually fly in pairs or fours, called four-ships, to offer each other mutual support. According to Smith, four-ships are the foundational model for flying that folks will typically see.
“If you are out there by yourself, you are vulnerable,” Smith said. “If you’ve got a team with you … you just provide each other mutual support.”
With just two planes coming this month, the craft will split time between pilots and maintenance workers, Finnegan said.
“It’ll start out flying maybe one day a week and then it’ll go … to maybe two days a week and then ... to three,” Finnegan said, adding everything is timed with the number of planes and pilots and their respective arrivals. As maintenance crews grow around the new year, and airframes are added, the planes can be flown more, he said.
“It’s all timed to be happening at a steady pace,” Finnegan said. “It won’t be like nothing on one day and then boom we go right to full flying schedule, it won’t be that, it’ll be a steady, steady approach.”
Training schedule and mitigating noise
Eventually, the F-35s’ training schedule will be like that of the F-16s. According to Smith, they’ll fly about four times per week and one weekend per month. Training times will typically occur during the “normal day” in morning and afternoon hours, Smith said. But there are some night flying training requirements.
“When we night fly we really try and do that where sunset is earlier to minimize our impact to people that are trying to sleep and things,” Smith said.
The F-35s’ flight path will be “basically the same” as the of the F-16s, he said, adding it’s usually “straight in and straight out.” But from time to time, air traffic control will vector the crafts, which alters their path.
“Over the decades, flying fighter airplanes here, we’ve really worked to manage our flight patterns to minimize the impact whether that’s altitude or physical space and location in space,” Smith said.
He added that different power settings at take-off and arrival, flight altitudes and using military power – a full-power take off without using afterburner – can help reduce the impact of the jet noise.
“Military power is military power, but through your flying operations you absolutely can mitigate the sound impact,” Smith said.
Despite the F-35s being new to the VTANG base, the craft have been flown elsewhere. Some of the approximately 30 pilots who will fly the plane for VTANG have had several years’ experience flying the jets at other bases such as Hill Air Force Base, Eglin Air Force Base and Luke Air Force Base. Five pilots are fully trained and qualified to fly the jets off the bat and five more are currently training. The rest will complete their training over the next year, according to Lt. Chelsea Clark.
Base-wide the F-35 mission has created 33 new contract positions in addition to the members of the unit. As for those maintenance personnel who worked on the F-16 but now find their jobs obsolete, they can train under a new skillset and remain with VTANG, Clark confirmed.
A difference in technology
One main difference between the F-35 and its predecessor is technology. According to Smith, guardsmen kept manual F-16 aircraft documentation forms in books, with some digital files. But now, with the F-35, many things will be recorded electronically.
“The technology piece is a big difference,” he said. “F-16 it was a book, a three-ring binder with handwritten stuff in it. F-35 it’s all digital.”
Some have wondered if digital records put confidential data at risk. But Smith said there are programs and personnel in place to ensure there aren’t concerns with security.
“We all have concerns with our data, from personal use,” he said. “It’s less about concerns. It’s more about making sure that we have all of the procedures and programs in place so we don’t have to have concerns about it.”
Community concerns, Guard response
But not everyone is eager to see the F-35s soaring over the base. Each night last week there were sit-ins at Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Burlington office in protest of the planes (see accompanying story, page 1). Protestors demanded the senator direct the Air Force to delay basing – though state director John Tracy said that’s not within the senator’s power and that the senator is not opposed to the basing.
Those who oppose F-35 basing at VTANG cite concerns about adverse health effects, noise and mission implications on the public from the planes, among other factors.
One concern in relation to noise, is whether the jets will use afterburner – which increases thrust, and, consequently, noise levels – more than originally anticipated. Documents obtained by VTDigger reveal that the Air Force is internally predicting that, at other bases hosting the F-35, afterburner might be used as much as 10 times more frequently than they originally publicly predicted.
But Finnegan said the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared by the Air Force says the VTANG base will use military power 95 percent of the time and afterburner the remaining 5 percent of the time.
“I can tell you, the EIS says 95 percent [military power] and that is 100 percent what we’re going to do,” Finnegan said. “When people are saying, ‘Oh but our runway is this long, and this is what other units are doing,’ what we know is that that F-35 can operate out of this base in mil-power [military power] without question; and that is absolutely how we intend to do it.”
Another civilian concern has been about the potential for F-35s to carry out a nuclear mission. But the F-35s are not currently nuclear-capable and there aren’t any plans to make them so, according to Smith.
“We don’t have a nuclear-capable mission and there’s no plan for us to have one,” he said.
The Other Paper asked Smith who assigns missions. Smith said they are assigned through the Air Force, which comes down from major commands. Asked if the Air Force ever changes missions, and if units change missions, Smith said that missions can change for units. He gave the example of VTANG going from an F-4 to an F-16 and an F-16 to an F-35. Asked then, despite no current nuclear mission plans, if that could change, Smith replied there are no plans for VTANG to be a nuclear capable unit. The Other Paper asked if that couldn’t change.
“I’m not going to talk about hypothetical,” Smith replied. “Our airplanes are not nuclear capable and there’s no plans for them to be.”
As for those who say three times the number of homes will be affected by noise from the F-35s compared to that of the F-16s, Finnegan said that comparison is not apples to apples.
“The airport just did a noise study in 2018 where they studied the footprint of the F-16, when we had given away most of our jets; so the F-16 footprint obviously got very small,” he said. “If you look at the EIS it’ll show you a footprint between a full squadron of F-16 compared to a full squadron of F-35, and it’s not a three times increase.”
Finnegan added that when the F-35s from Hill Air Force Base made an impromptu landing at the base in May he did not believe anybody thought it was four times louder than the F-16.
“[The F-35 is] going to be here in short order, we just ask people to come out and hear it for themselves,” Finnegan said.
According to Smith, it’s an exciting time for the Vermont Air National Guard. The Guard is looking forward to its new mission and ready to balance that with mitigating impact on the community.
“That’s the beauty of the Air National Guard,” he said. “We live here, we’re in the community with everybody else. It’s important to us.”
He thanked the airmen of the wing, their families and the community, noting their support helps ready the base for its mission.
“We’re really proud of the moment in time right now, we’re proud that the F-35 is coming here,” Smith said. “I can assure you and our communities, this country, we’re going to do this mission really well.”