After much debate from opponents who fear an increase in noise pollution along with other concerns, and supporters who argued jobs were at stake, the Air Force recently announced that the Vermont Air National Guard would be awarded F-35 fighter jets in 2020.
But a mitigation and management plan for the site says the arrival of the jets will increase the area impacted by jet noise, a circumstance that had jet opponents concerned that their objections were warranted, and ignored by the Guard.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Colonel Thomas Jackman, Commander of the Vermont Guard's 158th Fighter Wing and Adam Wright, environmental manager of the 158th Fighter Wing.
Wertlieb: Let’s start out with a question that has been asked before but bears asking again, how loud will these F-35s be, and how will the noise affect houses surrounding the airport?
Jackman: Well, the way we are going to fly the F-35, we will be flying the F-35 in military power, which right now, we fly the F-16 with afterburner for the majority of our takeoffs, and if you look at the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], the footprint for an F-35 in military power is actually quieter and smaller than an F-16 in afterburner. So believe, we understand the concerns out there, but we believe we’ll be able to operationally mitigate the noise and keep the F-35 footprint actually smaller than the current footprint that we have laterally with the F-16.
Wertlieb: I want to ask about that afterburner issue because you’re right, the afterburner is what makes that F-16 sound pretty loud. Folks that live in the Winooski, South Burlington, Burlington area know what I’m talking about. There have been concerns that when the F-35 gets here that eventually, it too may have to use afterburner because it’s designed for things like bombing capability, it’s heavier, so you’re going to need the afterburner... is that a possibility?
Jackman: The Air Force is just beginning to experiment with flying the F-35 on a partial fuel load flight, which is what we would anticipate doing here, so we wouldn’t fly the aircraft with a full load of fuel because we don’t need to fly it for three and a half hours. So a partial load of fuel, the aircraft weighs less, requires less power to take off. The other thing that we do with the F-16 is we have external wing tanks. In the F-35, all of that’s loaded internally, so there won’t be any external drag on the aircraft. We don’t anticipate loading external stores on the F-35 flying out of here in Vermont. So that’s why we truly believe that we will be flying the majority of our missions in military power with the F-35.
Wertlieb: Adam Wright, perhaps 2,000 more households will be impacted by the noise, that’s 2,000 more than the ones already affected by the airport and the jets. Now how many more people could potentially be displaced when the F-35 begins flying?
Wright: Right now the airport has said they don’t anticipate needing to purchase any more properties. And I should step back and say that is all an FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] process. We’ll get to that point again where they update their noise compatibility program and discuss other options for mitigation. And there are other mitigation options available through FAA that don’t involve purchasing properties. So I think all of those will be explored this time.
Wertlieb: Would those include things like insulating homes against noise? Or doing things that could make a home less vulnerable to noise?
Wright: It’s possible. Insulation, window work, stuff like that.
Wertlieb: Much of the criticism from opponents of the F35, and specifically for this mitigation plan, is that the report says the strategy moving ahead is to essentially wait until the jets arrive, then study the noise, and then act. Isn’t that a little like trying to put out a fire after it’s already started rather than preventing one in the first place? Why wait?
Jackman: I think that sense probably came from some of my comments during press conference, and I want to make sure the community understands that we are not waiting. We are actively engaged. To actually validate the noise mitigate measures that we’re working on over the next six years won’t be able to happen until the F-35s arrive here in 2020. But in the interim, we’re actively engaged with Lockheed Martin and with the Air Force to improve the noise modeling, to understand exactly what the impact’s going to be here in Burlington, Vermont. We are also very active in sending pilots and maintainers to other F-35 bases and talking to the pilots that fly the airplane to get a better sense of the actual performance of the airplane, and how we believe we can fly the airplane here in Vermont to minimize the impact on the community and actually try to achieve what my goal is of making the F-35 quieter and more compatible with the community.
Wertlieb: Well, Colonel Jackman, what then is the purpose of the mitigation plan?
Jackman: We knew when we announced the mitigation and management plan that we’d probably get critiqued that there weren’t any details in the plan. But that’s not what that tool is used for, there weren’t supposed to be details in the plan. But that plan has identified who is responsible for continuing to monitor those action items inside the environmental impact statement. And we are mandated by federal law to follow up and we will modify that plan as we need to when new information is discovered.
Wertlieb: Would it be possible to bring one or several F-35s here and measure the noise over these communities that will be affected? See how it works in real time here where it’s going to affect people?
Jackman: I couldn’t agree with you more and I’ve actually sought after that actively. The F-35s right now are not allowed to go outside of their education and training command. So we actually asked if we could get an exemption to that, right now it doesn’t look promising to get an exemption to bring it in any time in the near future, but I do fully expect that the program will continue to mature and as soon as the program has matured to the level where they’ll allow the F-35s to fly to another base, you can believe I’ll be the first one standing at front of the line going, ‘can you send one to Vermont, please?,’ because the community wants that.
Wertlieb: You know, we’re not in the Utah desert out here, we’re talking about these jets flying over Winooski, South Burlington, Burlington, densely packed communities... are there concerns about flight risks given that this is a new plane essentially that will be flown here for the first time?
Jackman: The F-35 to date has an amazing safety record. It has 15,000 hours on it. It’s probably unprecedented for a single engine fighter. We expect to get the F-35 in 2020. It will be a mature system by then. I’m not concerned that we’re accepting any increased risk by bringing the F-35 here.
Wertlieb: One of the things that’s been very difficult in this whole process has been the idea that there are folks in these communities who were concerned about things like reduced property values, is the noise level too loud for school kids, things like that. At the same time, I think a lot of those folks respect what the Vermont Air National Guard does, they certainly don’t want the loss of jobs, but their concern still is, opponents who did not want to see these planes here, that now that it’s a done deal, now that they’re coming...that there won’t be this effort to really mitigate the noise, to really make sure that these things aren’t as loud or louder than the F-16... what’s the message you would like to send to those folks who are still dubious?
Jackman: My message is that we are committed to working with the community. The Guard is part of that same community. Our kids are the same ones in your same schools, the same ones who play at the same ball parks and we want to genuinely be the best neighbor we can. I promise we’re committed to listening, and I promise we’re committed to exploring any opportunities we can to mitigate that noise. We’ve done it with the F-16. One of the things we found when we reached out to the community was that our landing pattern was interfering with the some of the teaching plan at Winooski High. And we weren’t aware of that. We extended the pattern by probably 1,000 feet. But it had an enormous impact to compensate for the noise at Winooski High School. And we’ve done other things. We’ve changed the way we come in to land now. We used to come in at 1,500 feet which is a standard approach pattern for Air Force aircraft. We modified that so now we get ten miles out, we’re at 10,000 feet, we pull the power back when the weather permits and we come in with a reduced power setting all the way into where we pitch out to where we put the gear down.
Wertlieb: Adam, there have been concerns from people who are saying look, these planes are so loud, I’m worried about my five-year-old, can it do permanent damage to the ear somehow, elderly people. How much of a concern is there over the sound that these jets can make from an environmental standpoint? Is it unhealthy for people?
Wright: The EIS says there’s not much evidence to show the noise level under 75 dB average to have adverse health effects. Part of what the mitigation plan is designed to do, it’s necessarily somewhat vague because we don’t some of what we’re going to do here yet, but it also gives us the frame work to hold the Guard and the federal government accountable and to continue actually doing work on this. So that’s another way we promise to proceed with mitigation measures –don’t know what they all are yet – but this document as required in the record of decision, requires that we as a federal agency continue to work on it. And we specifically tie it into the FAA Part 150 Noise Compatibility Program that the airport runs. So, working together we can address those issues, and if at the end of the day there continue to be noise impacts that need to be mitigated further, that makes us address those.
This interview has been condensed and edited for broadcast.