The Vermont National Guard announced Tuesday that the controversial F-35 fighter jet will be based at Burlington International Airport.
Eighteen of the jets will be based in Vermont by the year 2020, according to Vt. Adjutant Gen. Steve Cray.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sen. Patrick Leahy celebrated the decision at a news conference at the Vermont National Guard base as members of the guard looked on and cheered loudly.
"The Air Force has made clear that this aircraft, which will anchor our national air defenses, is the Air Force’s future," Vermont's congressional delegation said in a statement. "Now the men and women of Vermont’s Air National Guard have been chosen for a vital role in that future. The decision ensures the Vermont Air Guard’s continuing mission and protects hundreds of jobs and educational opportunities for Vermonters while securing its significant contribution to the local economy."
Leahy said he got the news Tuesday morning in a phone call at his home from the Secretary of the Air Force.
"There was cheering in a farmhouse in Middlesex this morning," said Leahy.
The Air Force decision comes after years of intense debate between two sides of the debate. Proponents say the jet will keep the Vermont Air National Guard going, providing jobs and security to Vermont. Opponents argue that the jet's noise poses a risk to public health as the Air Force says it is louder than the F-16s currently based in Burlington. Opponents also say the jet's relatively short lifespan hasn't allowed it to develop a solid safety record.
Despite those concerns, Gov. Peter Shumlin said the decision was a win for Vermont.
"It's a great moment for us," Shumlin said at the news conference. "But we'll have the [time] in the months and years ahead to get this one right."
Part of that transition is a multi-million dollar refitting of base equipment to accommodate the new jets.
Air Guard Col. David Baczewski says the Guard will form a transition plan that sets the course for the basing that will include training for both pilots and maintenance crews.
"Any aspect of our current job that we do that changes, there will be retraining that's accomplished," Baczewski said. "Most likely, our pilots will go down to Eglin Air Force Base [in Florida] and learn how to fly the F-35."
Officials said the base will need $3 to $4 million in improvements to accommodate the new jets.
In the years until the 2020 target for basing, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says he plans to work with residents near the airport to address their concerns, which include noise and safety problems in that area.
"In some very real way, regardless of what the decision was today ... we have to do work to ensure that the airport is as good a neighbor as it can be, that that neighborhood that surrounds the airport -- really on the other side of the airstrip -- is healthy and thriving," Weinberger said.
Opponents of the jet have pledged to continue their fight with a lawsuit in federal court.