The first two F-35 fighter jets have completed their first week of flight at Burlington International Airport. To talk about their basing and assuage public concerns, Col. David Smith, commander of the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont National Guard, briefed the city council on the mission during its regular meeting on Monday.
There were a few protesters in the audience, some with anti-nuclear signs which were held up during Smith’s remarks.
“I know the F-35 has brought concerns to some in this community. ... I hope I can answer your questions and allay some of those concerns tonight,” Smith said.
The F-35s are on track with Environmental Impact Statement assumptions thus far, Smith said, and they have not and will not use afterburner, barring extraneous circumstances, he added.
The F-35s will arrive, on average, in pairs between now and June when the full fleet will total 20 planes. But despite having 20 planes, Smith said the wing will remain an 18-aircraft squadron. He added that it’s normal to have more planes than the number of the squadron, and that the extra planes fit into normal maintenance procedures.
“Twenty airplanes doesn’t drive our training requirements for anything,” he said.
Flight training will usually occur during morning and afternoon hours, four times per week. The F-35s will take off no earlier than 8:30 a.m., barring extraneous circumstances, Smith said. The wing’s primary flight days are Tuesdays through Fridays, with one training weekend per month, usually during the first weekend of that month. Typically, weekend trainings fall on Saturdays, Smith said. But, should they fall on a Sunday, take off will typically be no earlier than 12 p.m., he added.
As the wing receives more of its F-35s, the flight schedule will increase. By June 2020, locals can expect a similar flight schedule to that of the F-16s.
“You’ll see very similar times, you’ll see very similar numbers,” Smith said. “It will look very similar to what the F-16 was here for three decades in Vermont.”
The planes will usually fly “Eight turn Six,” meaning the guard will fly eight planes in the morning and six in the afternoon, he said. The planes take off one at a time with about 15-20 seconds in between their respective takeoffs. In the air, they usually fly in pairs of fours, called four-ships.
Council Chair Helen Riehle asked Smith if the guard could talk to Chamberlin School officials about their flight schedule so that they would not have flyovers while the children were outside at recess.
“We’ve worked with the community for years,” Smith replied. “To fit two flying periods into a day there’s only so much that you can slip or that you can slide.”
He said it would depend on what the school asked for, as the Guard’s flying times have to fit into a regular day – not too early so as to interrupt the sleeping hours of other locals.
Smith addressed a key concern among many residents regarding the F-35’s ability to carry nuclear weapons. The jet can be outfitted to carry nuclear weapons, but federal, state and Guard officials have repeatedly stated that there is no plan to equip the Vermont Air National Guard F-35s with nuclear weapons.
“I just want to be really clear – we don’t have a nuclear mission with the F-35 and there’s no plan for one,” Smith said.
Councilor Meaghan Emery asked Smith if there would ever be a situation where the wing was based abroad and would have nuclear weapons. Smith said he can’t predict the future but could not foresee a nuclear mission; the wing is not training for a nuclear mission.
“When we go overseas, we execute the mission that we train for,” he said. “We train to the mission sets that are given to us by design … the nuclear mission is not one of them.”
As for afterburner use – a power setting which increases thrust, and, consequently, noise levels – Smith said counting the four F-35s that took off from the airport in May, there have been about a dozen F-35 take-offs out of Burlington, and none of those have used afterburner.
“We do not plan to use afterburner at all in Burlington,” Smith said, adding that the Environmental Impact Statement said they’d use military power for 95 percent of takeoffs and afterburner only 5 percent of the time. “The five percent is just practically a catch all, there may be an odd occasion where we would have to use afterburner, but we don’t plan on it.”
He said the configurations they plan to fly do not require afterburner use.
“If your takeoff distance without afterburner is more than half of the runway length, then you are required to use afterburner. If it doesn’t, you don’t have to,” he said. “Ours does not, so we don’t plan to and there’s no configurations that we project, in the majority of our flying that will require it.”
Conditions that could require afterburner use are shorter runways, higher density altitudes, or other factors, Smith said.
“There’s so many factors, but I can assure you that there is no training requirement for using an afterburner takeoff versus a military power take off,” he said. “You use whatever is required by regulation.”
Councilor Tim Barritt asked if there was a way to tell if a jet takes off using afterburner. Smith replied if it’s nighttime you can see the afterburner plume, and during the day it’s a little harder to see but at either time it is louder than a takeoff in military power.
Councilor Thomas Chittenden asked about mitigating ground noise and whether Smith would recommend sound walls or berms.
“As far as sound walls, there’s not a lot of information from an Air Force perspective on the effectiveness of a sound wall,” he said. “One of the challenges from a base perspective is where you could put them.”
He said there are larger aircraft that come on base and a sound wall could be in the way of those planes.
“It’s tricky how effective something like that would be,” Smith said. “I know they [sound walls] can be effective, I’m not sure how effective they would be in our circumstances.”
One attendee said the warmup time for the F-35s is about 20 to 30 minutes, and asked if not a sound wall, what he would suggest for mitigating ground noise. Smith confirmed that the warm-up time is about that long and said the guard minimizes its ground time as much as possible.
He said a difference between F-16 procedure and F-35 procedure may help.
With the F-16s, there was an end-of-runway check, called E-O-R, during which the planes would run for about 10 minutes for a final pre-flight check before takeoff. With the F-35, operations and pre-flight inspections will be done primarily from their parking spaces at the 158th Fighter Wing, Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Chelsea Clark told The Other Paper. This could contain ground noise closer to the base, Smith said.
“I don’t have a great solution on ground noise,” he said. “The airport has the same thing. I’ve got to believe it’s probably louder in the South Burlington community on the airport side with the airline traffic.”
Currently, there are 12 different construction projects in various stages of completion at the Vermont Air National Guard Base. Totaling about $100 million, the projects are funded by the U.S. Airforce using about a 50/50 split of F-16 mission dollars and F-35 mission dollars. Four of the projects are finished, and the guard anticipates the rest will be completed by about November 2020. Most of the construction has been completed by local contractors, Smith said.
“I think sometimes people think the base was going to be totally complete by the time the airplanes get here, that’s never been the plan,” he said. “Facilities come online sort of parallel to when the airplanes come online.”
Riehle then thanked Smith for the information he shared with the public and the council.
“I want to thank you very much, Colonel Smith, for your time and your willingness to take our questions,” Riehle said. “I know this can always seem a little uncomfortable but I think people are interested and want information. I appreciate your willingness to share what you have.”