The skies were gray early Saturday afternoon but thousands of eyes lit up as they watched the distinct shape of four F-16 fighter jets cut through the somber clouds – first, one at a time, then circling together in perfect formation.
It was the end of an era at Burlington International Airport as the last F-16 Fighting Falcons bid Vermont farewell after 33 years of service.
The first jet took off at 1:58 p.m. during a final departure ceremony in honor of the 158th Fighter Wing that nurtured the fleet since the spring of 1986. The F-16s will be divested into other air national guard units. The guard is in conversion, and the F-35 Lightening II jets are scheduled to arrive on Vermont soil this fall.
The Guard hosted the event, dubbed “Viper Out,” for past and present general officers, commanders, current and former members of the Vermont Air National Guard community and their families. Prior to takeoff, they all gathered together to hear from Adj. Gen. Greg Knight, leader of the Air National Guard, and Col. David Smith, commander of the 158th Fighter Wing.
“Today, as we send them off together, I will get that same feeling that I’ve had for many years; that’s that feeling of confidence and mission accomplishment each and every time,” Knight said. “Without fail, you all never cease to amaze me.”
He shared that the F-16s had a mission to protect air sovereignty in the United States and protect men and women on the ground combat zones. They experienced tactical air support during many deployments and saved the lives of U.S. and coalition forces. The execution of missions contributed to the Air Guard’s next chapter: the arrival of the F-35 fighter jet, which has been a source of controversy in neighboring communities since the U.S. Air Force made the decision in December 2013 to have Vermont be the first air guard unit to field the F-35s. The decision was made based on operations, economic and environmental factors.
“There can only be one first to do something,” he said. “You earned it...You are the reason these F-16s are able to keep flying for as long as they have, and I know this is only the beginning. You are ushering in a new era of technology and skills and providing capability and relevance for our organization for decades to come.”
Smith highlighted the F-16s’ transitions throughout history as well as the continuous care that went into ensuring peak performance day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
“We’ve packed up and deployed countless times,” he said. “We’ve launched, flown, recovered and fixed aircraft at 30 below zero and 120 degrees above. All weather – rain, shine, snow, dust, and day and night. All of you have been enablers of our mission.”
The Green Mountain Boys received the F-16s during the Cold War, and some intercepted Soviet Bear Bombers off the North American coast, he explained, noting that some in the room were likely part of those missions. Another monumental moment, Sept. 11, 2001, “forever changed the operational tempo of this wing.” After 9/11, the guard supported the nation with 122 consecutive days of air combat patrols over New York City.
“We flew nearly 85,000 sorties, accumulating almost 140,000 flight hours – nearly 10,000 of these during combat,” he said, adding that the guard’s safety rate was four times better than the Air Force’s F-16 safety rate over the same period of time.
Hundreds of phase inspections, tens of thousands of maintenance actions, thousands of weapons loaded and delivered, roughly 11,000 fuel truck deliveries, and thousands of fire department responses across the community were some of the other statistics generated over the course of the F-16s lifetime with the Guard.
“Upwards of 5,000 people who have dedicated their life and a significant amount of efforts to maintaining this platform,” the guard confirmed in a recent press release.
“Every single one of you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished,” Col. Smith said. “You’ve run this race. You’re approaching the start of the next one.”
The speech concluded with a video commemorating the F-16s’ lifespan with the 158th Fighter Wing before escorting the crowd to the flight line where they watched a piece of Vermont’s heritage grow smaller and smaller into the gray sky.
As the roar of the F-16s died down one last time, countless stories filled the void.
Retired Brig. Gen. Greg Fick, who was a colonel when he was with the 158th Fighter Wing, was the Wing Commander during 9/11.
“It was a surreal day,” he recalled. He gazed upward toward the clouds. “It was not a normal day when we were going to have more than 200 people here. So, we ended up mobilizing a large percentage of this wing and defended the skies of the United States of America for 122 straight days... It was a very emotional day and it changed the course of this wing’s trajectory almost instantaneously. It put us in a wartime footing.”
“I spent my entire career here,” said Maj. Ryan Kelley. He stood with his father, Richard Kelley Sr. of Newport, who worked in logistics and served for nearly 30 years. “It’s a sad day, but it will be good to see the next generation come up.”
Gov. Phil Scott was also among the masses.
“It’s a bittersweet day for many,” he told The Other Paper. “I’m very proud of everything they’ve done. Watching and seeing the support the Vermont National Guard has – and deserves – has been great today. As we turn the page, we look forward to the F-35s coming in the fall.”
Earlier that week, a few of the faces behind the jets – whether in the air, maintaining the aircraft, or clearing the way for safe travels – shared some parting words.
Senior Master Sgt. Tina Deep started in active duty before beginning her journey with the Vermont Air Guard in 1990. She has been a maintainer for 32 years and has worked on the F-16s for almost 30 years.
We’ve been many places and have done many things, all of us maintainers. It’s sentimental,” she said. “I am a parent, and I will be an empty nester this fall, so as I say goodbye to the F-16s, it’s like saying goodbye to my kids, you know what I mean?”
Wings plans officer and instructor pilot Lt. Col. Dan Finnegan first encountered the F-16 as a maintainer before going to pilot training in 1995. He has been flying in Vermont since 1998 and recalled what it felt like being at the helm of the outgoing fighter jet.
“There’s a lot going on; you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and enjoy it as much as you might think,” he said. “It’s a very engaging and sometimes task-saturated type-of-job, but there is an opportunity every once in a while where the sun is shining on Mount Mansfield or Camel’s Hump, and we just really enjoy that we’re flying over Vermont.”
“At the state level, this platform has brought 1,000 people to the Vermont Air National Guard who are available to the governor,” Finnegan added. “So, when the ice storm hits, when Irene hits, those are the people who are ready to respond. At the federal level, we’ve deployed at least eight times outside the continental U.S. The unit has deployed over 10 and at least five have been combat deployments. The contributions across the spectrum have been large from the Vermont Air Guard’s perspective.”
A change is going to come
The time for change has come, but what type of change that should be may differ, depending on who you ask.
“The F-35 represents the future of Vermont,” Finnegan said. “It solidifies jobs for those thousand people for another 50 years,”
For members of Save Our Skies, a group of individual citizens and higher profile faces and organizations who have been vocally in opposition for years leading up to and after the Air Force decision, the F-35 means something else.
Over 6,000 people living around the airport could experience the repercussions of what has been reported to be a louder aircraft, such as negative health impacts (children and adults), “cognitive impairment in children, reduction of property values, classification of thousands of affordable homes as being unsuitable for residential use, disproportional negative impacts to minorities and people with low incomes, and risk of loss of life from crashes,” according to the SaveOurSkiesVT.org site.
The most recent concern has been that the F-35 could carry the B61-12 nuclear weapon. Vermont National Guard spokesman Capt. Mike Arcovitch said earlier this year that the Guard could not discuss if there were plans for nuclear weapons.
City councils in South Burlington, Burlington, and Winooski have had resolutions opposing the basing of the new aircraft, as well.
At the Burlington International Airport, the airport is working with a consultant and the FAA on updating new Noise Exposure Maps – computer-modulated maps that display average levels of sound defined by contours. The maps would include 2018 data and a 2023 forecast year map with F-35A fighter jet data.
Depending on how the contours shift, municipalities will adjust in how they assist their affected residents. Properties that fall within a 65-decibel day/night average sound level contour of the airport’s operations are considered eligible to participate in the Noise Compatibility Program, which is a plan of approved land use measures from which homeowners can choose.
A date to share the maps with the public has not yet been announced.
Viper Out has concluded, and Vermonters shift their gaze from the skies the future of the Vermont Air National Guard and the F-35.