Madison political leaders fighting plans to station a squadron of F-35s at Truax Field said a visit to one of the first communities to host the fighter jets has left them more opposed, while conflicting claims emerged about the noise caused by the jets during several unannounced flights in Madison this summer.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said Wednesday the arrival of two F-35s in Burlington, Vermont, last month have brought “uncertainty and chaos” to that community.
Taylor said residents are confused about whether their homes will be eligible for noise mitigation and how long it would take to complete, leaving some homeowners unsure whether to invest and others feeling trapped because they can’t afford to move. Renters would have no say in whether their homes receive soundproofing.
“It’s the same kind of instability I’m seeing here,” Taylor said.
With a population of just over 42,000, Burlington is the largest city in Vermont and host to the first Air National Guard unit to get the new planes, despite opposition from the city and surrounding communities. The unit has received only two jets so far but expects to have 20 by this summer.
As with Madison, residents of the most affected neighborhoods tend to be low-income and people of color.
Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, who also traveled to Burlington, said there are no good ways to eliminate the impact of noise and fears hundreds of homes might have to be abandoned.
“They are creating a sacrifice zone,” Kemble said. “We’re saying that’s unacceptable.”
With an extended deadline to comment on the Air Force’s environmental study approaching, supporters of the project have also been increasingly vocal.
On Tuesday, leaders of the state Assembly and Senate sent Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett a letter voicing support for the F-35 mission.
The GOP lawmakers included a resolution passed earlier this month saying the F-35 mission will result in dozens of new jobs and ensure the long-term viability of the 115th Fighter Wing and its $100 million annual economic impact.
The nonbinding resolution passed on a voice vote in the Senate and cleared the Assembly by 87-9 with the support of Madison-area Reps. Jimmy Anderson, Diane Hesselbein, Sheila Stubbs and Lisa Subek, all Democrats.
Mixed reviews on noise
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, the primary booster of the F-35 mission, insists the new planes will not be significantly louder than the current F-16s.
The business group points to a study by the Royal Netherlands Air Force in which residents perceived the F-16 to be louder.
While the Air Force has declined a request by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, to bring an F-35 to Madison for a live sound test, the Dane County Regional Airport documented at least half a dozen take offs and landings during military exercises this summer.
Pocan reiterated that request in a letter to the Air Force Wednesday.
“Considering that the Air Force has already brought F-35A planes to Dane County Airport, it should not be difficult to accommodate my request for a comparison test flight of the two planes,” Pocan wrote in a letter to the Air Force Wednesday.
The airport received just one complaint in response to this summer’s F-35 operations, which Chamber of Commerce spokesman Erik Greenfield said provides “further evidence that the actual noise impact of an F-35 is not much different than the existing F-16s.”
But several East Side residents on the online neighborhood forum Nextdoor said they noticed a difference.
Finn Ryan, who lives on the East Side, showed the Wisconsin State Journal a mostly unprintable text exchange he had with a neighbor at 8:28 p.m. Aug. 13, just as one of the F-35s was landing in Madison.
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“What the f*** was that?” he wrote.
“I dunno but it was super loud,” his neighbor wrote back.
A couple of days later, Ryan filed a noise complaint with the airport. It wasn’t clear if it was the same one the airport reported.
Another East Side resident, Melissa Sherman, said she remembers hearing at least one of the flights.
“It was insanely noisy but I just assumed it was planes passing through to an air show or doing some sort of special presentation and promptly forgot about it since it seemed like a fluke,” she said.
Katrina Gray said the noise was “shockingly loud.”
“I instinctively ran outside and held my breath,” she said.
While Kemble did not experience an F-35 takeoff while in Vermont, she said she was in her garden about two miles west of the airport during one of the flights. She likened the sound to an explosion.
“When the F-16s fly you can’t talk. You have to put the phone down,” Kemble said. “This was — I can’t explain. It was scary, and you could feel the sound.”
Another East Side City Council member, Ald. Syed Abbas, whose 12th District is just southwest of the airport, said he had not received any complaints about the flights.
Questions remain as deadline looms
Friday is the deadline to submit comments on the 1,099-page environmental impact statement, which found the increased noise will disproportionately affect poor and minority residents, who account for a larger share of those living near the airport.
A final decision by the secretary of the Air Force is expected in February, 30 days after the final environmental impact study is released.
Saying Burlington was provided with more information than Madison, Taylor is calling on the Air Force to update its environment impact statement with data on how loud the F-35s would be, how frequently they would take off and how long the noise would last.
Taylor wants the Air Force to provide an additional comment period on the revised environmental study.
The Air Force did not respond to a question about whether it would offer an additional comment period.
The Pentagon has identified Madison and Montgomery, Alabama, as the preferred sites for two squadrons of the new $90 million jets. If Madison is selected, Truax could begin receiving F-35s in 2023, though planning is already underway for $34 million in new construction to prepare for them.
Construction would begin next fall, but city staff have suggested the National Guard can’t “safely and legally” start construction without a complete site investigation to determine the extent and nature of contamination from chemicals known as PFAS that are associated with firefighting foam long used in training and have triggered the shutdown of a city well near the airport.
The Sustainable Madison Committee this week called on the Air Force to analyze the impact of past and future PFAS use in the final environmental impact statement.
The committee also raised concerns about increased greenhouse gas emissions and the health impacts of noise, asking the Air Force to reconsider the basing decision if it can’t find a way to reduce the environmental impacts.
The Midwest Environmental Justice Organization contends that construction to prepare the base for the F-35s will affect the already polluted Starkweather Creek, which flows around the base and into Lake Monona.
Recent tests have shown runoff from the airport contributing high levels of PFAS into the creek.
MEJO executive director Maria Powell said she believes it’s unlikely the Air National Guard will carry out a full-site investigation of PFAS contamination — which the National Guard agreed to do in 2018 — before starting construction activities next year.
The National Guard says it is still awaiting clearance and funding from the Department of Defense to initiate the study.