F-35s at Volk

Two F-35 fighter jets sit on display at Volk Field on Aug. 15, 2019.

Standing in the shadow of an F-35 fighter jet in a hangar at Volk Field, I told Col. Bart Van Roo I had no idea the Air National Guard did so much in Wisconsin — let alone in Madison, which houses the 115th Fighter Wing at Truax Field on the city’s north side.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Van Roo, who is the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s director of operations and an F-16 pilot.

With a group of visitors from throughout the state, I spent a mid-August day in central Wisconsin — the morning at Volk learning about the Guard’s Wisconsin presence, and the afternoon at the Hardwood air-to-ground weapons range, watching F-16s and F-35s participating in a training exercise.

From our perch atop the control tower, we watched the jets zoom past, dropping concrete blocks on targets far afield. And, yes, we heard them.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t know about the Northern Lightning training exercise, which brings aircraft and personnel from military units throughout the nation to this airspace — one of the country’s most expansive and realistic for combat preparation — multiple times a year. I also didn’t know that, in addition to its natural disaster relief efforts throughout Wisconsin, the 115th Fighter Wing had helped extinguish the blaze at Madison Gas & Electric’s downtown substation in July.

Part of Van Roo’s job, he told me, is working to ensure exercises like this one are as unobtrusive to civilians as possible.

That’s the Guard’s goal, too, in Madison — to integrate as seamlessly as possible with the community.

That goal is made more difficult by the effort — and resulting pushback — to house a squadron of F-35s at Truax. The Air Force announced in 2017 that Wisconsin and Alabama are its preferred locations for the fifth-generation jets, which are the military’s most up-to-date strike fighters. It would be the ninth Air Force mission to be based at Truax, which has had uninterrupted missions since 1948.

Residents of the city’s north side are, understandably, concerned about a draft environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Air Force last month outlining the potential effects of bringing the advanced jets to the area. The purpose of such an analysis is to predict the maximum possible impact, identifying effects to be mitigated before the jets bed down — which is expected to occur in 2023.

Put plainly, it identifies the worst-case scenarios of housing the F-35s in Madison.

For instance, it assumes the jets would remain in Madison 100% of the time (in the last three years, the 115th flew more than 20% of its sorties from other airfields), and doesn't account for deployments or training exercises away from Madison.

The good news from the draft EIS is that it identified no significant impacts on air quality, soil quality, water resources, or wildlife and vegetation.

Where the EIS did raise concerns was the potential for increased noise exposure in nearby neighborhoods — several of which are classified as low-income communities, communities of color or both, and several of which contain schools and childcare centers. The report found that about 1,300 homes — compared to about 300 currently — would fall in a zone that could be exposed to a DNL (an average amount of sound over a 24-hour period) between 65 and 75 decibels. A 65-decibel DNL is the threshold set by the Federal Aviation Administration as “significant.”

In other words — without successful mitigation efforts, the noise associated with the F-35 mission would disproportionately impact children, low-income populations and communities of color.

In a city that already struggles with significant racial disparities, that outcome is unacceptable.

But that doesn’t mean Madison can’t welcome the jets.

The city is better for having the 115th Fighter Wing in its backyard. And Madison will be better for having a Guard unit equipped with next-generation jets — as long as those improvements don’t come at the expense of residents living in some of the city’s most affordable neighborhoods.

That’s a goal that can be achieved, but it’s important to know why it’s crucial to keep the Guard here in the first place.

Truax is currently home to 1,293 locally-based employees, generating — according to a 2015 UW-Extension study — a total economic impact to the greater Madison area of $99.2 million each year.

The F-35 mission would create 64 new permanent jobs, generating about $1.8 million in income each year, according to the draft EIS. Construction to prepare for the mission would produce an estimated 315-420 temporary jobs, generating between $20 and $30 million during that period.

Those who are skeptical of — or opposed to — the mission have asked, why risk noise disruption for 1,000 homes in exchange for 64 jobs?

The big-picture footprint could be much larger.

Military officials have declined to speculate on Truax’s future if the base — which currently houses a squadron of aging F-16 jets — does not land the F-35s. But it’s worth noting that Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has warned officials in Vermont that, if a decision to house F-35s in Burlington is reversed, it is “highly likely that Vermont will no longer have a flying mission for its Guard.”

That answer is strong enough to call into question the job security of those 1,293 current employees should the F-35s not come to Madison. For context, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon pointed out, that’s about the same number of jobs lost when Oscar Mayer closed its north Madison plant, and twice the acreage of the site left vacant.

As long as military jets have flown out of Truax Field, there have been Madison residents who object to them. At a February 2018 neighborhood meeting about the F-35s, residents’ complaints ranged from windows shaking in their homes when F-16s fly overhead to moral objections about defense spending.

Some have also speculated that with the F-35s would carry nuclear weapons. To be clear, the U.S. military does not discuss where those are located. But while F-35s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the 115th Fighter Wing does not have a nuclear mission.

So how can Madison support an asset that benefits our community with its people, protection and economic impact while ensuring that no Madison resident ends up in an unlivable or unsellable home?

“We believe that this is an ‘and’ equation, not an ‘or’ equation,” Brandon told me.

There’s historical precedent to support that opinion.

Look, for example, at Dane County’s noise abatement efforts after the airport’s runway expansion in 1998. An EIS for that project, prepared in 1996, predicted that as many as 1,585 households could be harmed by the expansion. Twenty years after the expanded runway opened, according to the Air Force’s report, the number of affected households is 81 percent lower than what the first EIS projected.

Look at the ways we have found to mitigate railroad noise, highway noise and construction noise. “Hush houses,” different flight patterns, insulation, quiet zones and sound barriers are all examples of ways we have mitigated noise exposure.

The F-35 program could continue current mitigation efforts for the F-16s — like alternative flight paths — along with implementing new approaches, like federal assistance to equip homes with new windows and sound insulation.

Mitigating noise in the affected communities is not just a moral imperative — it makes economic sense.

“In a time when we are feeling upward pressure and constraint on housing stock and housing prices, doing things that reduce additional houses from the housing mix is not something that’s in the best interest of the regional economy,” Brandon said. “We believe you can protect the housing and the quality of life of those who live in the housing while also having the aircraft be based there. And we have proven time and time again that that’s how it works. Noise gets mitigated.”

That’s not to suggest anyone worried about the residential effects of the jets should be satisfied with verbal reassurances. And it doesn’t mean the burden to push for mitigation should fall solely on residents of the affected areas. Lawmakers and officials who have championed the project — including the Chamber — need to advocate for mitigation efforts and serve as resources for those living in affected areas. As hard as advocates have fought to land the jets, they must fight for the communities where they’re heard.

The effort has the support of elected officials who are rarely found to be in agreement: Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Gov. Scott Walker are on board with the F-35s along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and former Gov. Jim Doyle — not to mention state lawmakers who represent the Madison area.

As the community and the Air Force take the next steps toward a final decision, we have an opportunity to work together to propose solutions, reach compromises and forge a partnership that benefits all of Madison.

That starts with community engagement. The Air Force is currently accepting comments for consideration in its final environmental impact statement through Sept. 27. And anyone who wants to learn more, share concerns or offer suggestions should attend a public meeting from 5-8 p.m. on Sept. 12 at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall.

This is a tremendous opportunity for Madison and for Wisconsin, and it’s up to all of us to get it right.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.