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Madison City Council asks Air Force to re-evaluate decision to bring F-35 jets to Madison

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Resident Antonio Testolin urges the Madison City Council to oppose stationing F-35 fighter jets Tuesday night. City Council members were still deciding between two resolutions to address the issue.

After a more than eight-hour meeting Tuesday, the Madison City Council passed a resolution early Wednesday morning asking the Air Force to reconsider potential plans to base a squadron of F-35 jets at Truax Field.

Although the Air Force makes the final decision on whether to place the base in Madison or at four other locations, many residents said they wanted the council to take a stand opposing locating the jets at Truax.

The resolution, which was approved on a 16-3 vote with one abstention, stopped short of completely opposing the F-35s being based in Madison. But it asks the Air Force to pick another location for the jets unless the many adverse impacts that have been predicted for homes near the field are found to be exaggerated or misrepresented.

According to the Air Force’s environmental impact study draft, more than 1,000 homes near the Dane County Regional Airport, where Truax Field is located, would be subjected to higher daily noise averages. The impacted homes are located in communities with a disproportionate number of residents who are low income and people of color.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said if the final draft of the environmental report does not address concerns raised in both the initial draft and the city's own report that found further concerns, the Air Force should reconsider Truax as a preferred site.

The resolution that was approved Wednesday combined wording from two competing resolutions regarding the F-35s that were largely the same, but one with stronger language opposing the base than the other. 

Ald. Grant Foster, who introduced the first version that had the stronger language, said refusing to explicitly oppose the F-35 placement at Truax "essentially took the teeth out of" his resolution. 

"All but one of those who spoke tonight, and spoke incredibly passionately, unwavering, said, 'I don’t support this, I don’t want this, this is gong to hurt my community, my family, my neighbors,'" Foster said. "If we fail to listen to them I have no idea what we’re doing here."

Almost all speak against

More than 40 residents — many neighbors who live close to the field — spoke in opposition to the F-35s at Tuesday’s meeting. They cited the negative effects the noise would have on children, people with disabilities, people of color and those who live in low-income housing.

Only one person spoke in support of the F-35s being placed at Truax, with a few stating that they were neutral.

“You have a responsibility to the low income, disabled people,” said Elaine Pridgen, whose home would be impacted by the noise of the jets.

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Deborah Lofgren, from left, Bob Schaefer and Gail Hirn sign up to comment at Tuesday's Madison City Council meeting on the Air Force's plans to bring F-35 fighter jets to Truax Field. Lofgren, who lives in an area that would be most affected by the additional noise, opposes the jets.

Kathlean Wolf, a veteran who lives near the airport, said the noise from the current F-16 jets triggers her post traumatic stress disorder. She said she and others cannot afford to move to a different area of the city.

Those in opposition were joined by State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who urged council members to “listen to the voices of the people” and oppose F-35 jets coming to Madison.

“The people of my community are asking you — begging you — to take a strong stand against this proposal,” Taylor said.

But Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, which represents nearly 1,300 Madison-area businesses, said in a statement that the chamber supports the F-35 jets and was pleased that the council opposed Foster's measure. Brandon did not speak during public comment at Tuesday's meeting. 

Jennie Capellaro, who lives near the airport, said even if homes receive soundproofing, that won’t help in residents’ backyards or on school playgrounds. Capellaro said she knew the council did not have the power to prevent the F-35s from coming to Madison, but she urged council members to try.

“Please try to stop this from happening,” Capellaro said.

Pocan calls for noise testing

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan on Tuesday asked for further testing on the noise impact on nearby neighborhoods.

In a letter, Pocan, D-Madison, asked the U.S. Air Force to coordinate with the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, which is stationed at Truax, to conduct live flight tests in Madison so residents can hear the difference between the new class of fighter jets and the F-16s they would replace.

“As I hear from more members of the community, it has been brought to my attention that the noise impact is difficult to assess due to the Air Force’s use of the Day, Night, Average Sound Level (DNL) metric,” Pocan wrote to Acting Air Force Sec. Matthew Donovan, referring to a commonly used method of measuring noise over time.

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Lt. Col. Charlie Merkel of the 115 Fighter Wing addresses the Madison City Council meeting Tuesday. 

“It’s just hard to read a report and understand sound,” Pocan said in an interview. “I think people have experienced F-16s for a number of years. Having both as a side-by-side comparison, so to speak, would be I think very helpful.”

Pocan asked for the test to be completed before the Sept. 27 deadline for public comments on the Air Force’s environmental impact study.

Rhodes-Conway said Tuesday she supports such a test, noting apparent contradictions in the environmental study.

“I am very disappointed in the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard’s failure to provide adequate information about this project and its potential impacts on our community, and their failure to address misconceptions on the record,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “The public deserves better information.”

The Wisconsin Air National Guard has said it does not have the authority to request such a test as the military’s few F-35s are needed for national security missions.

Noise levels debated

Truax Field is one of five locations — and among the Air Force's two preferred bases — under consideration to host two squadrons of the new jets, replacing the 32-year-old F-16s now flown by the 115th.

The new mission would result in up to $120 million in construction, dozens of new jobs and assure the long-term viability of the base, but also increased noise levels for nearby residences, especially in areas with low-income housing units.

According to the environmental study, take-offs and landings at the airport would initially surge by 47 percent as the existing F-16s are phased out. The new jets would ultimately fly about 6,222 operations a year, 27 percent more than the current flight volume.

The environmental study says adding the jets would subject more than 1,000 additional households around the airport to an average daily noise level above 65 decibels, or about as loud as a nearby vacuum cleaner. That number represents a daily average noise level in that area from all airplanes — the F-35s along with more than 81,000 annual civilian operations.

But for a few seconds during takeoff the noise from an F-35 can reach 110 decibels or more. That's about 16 times louder than a vacuum cleaner, or the equivalent of being at a loud rock concert or standing next to a car horn.

That difference between a hypothetical noise level averaged over 24 hours and the actual noise the jets create is the problem Pocan said he wants to address with a direct comparison between the current jets and the new ones.

Citing the Air Force's "sound exposure level" chart in the environmental study (below), Lt. Col. Charles Merkel, a pilot with the 115th fighter wing, said the noise from the F-35s is "very similar" to the current F-16s. 

Air Force chart

Chart showing 24-hour Day, Night, Average Sound Level (DNL) at several locations around Truax Field and the Sound Exposure Level (SEL), which represents both the intensity of a sound and its duration, at the same sites currently and with F-35s. 

As city planner Dan McAuliffe explained, the sound exposure level, or SEL, represents the noise a jet makes from the time someone starts to hear it to when that person stops hearing it and is a "better measure of what people will actually hear."

But even the SEL is a composite metric, since it compresses that duration of noise to a single second. The decibels represented are thus higher than the noise an aircraft actually makes at any point, known as the "maximum sound level," which typically occurs for a fraction of a second. The environmental study does not specify what the maximum sound level of the F-35s might be.

Merkel said when looking at the sound exposure levels for the F-16s compared to the F-35s, the decibels are either the same or less than four decibels higher for F-35s.  

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway holds up petitions from residents seeking to address the City Council over plans to bring F-35 fighter jets to Truax Field.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, former governors Scott Walker and Jim Doyle and state lawmakers have supported the F-35s. They say it would ward off the possibility of eventually losing the base, although an Air Force spokeswoman said it would be “speculative” to assume the mission would be in jeopardy without the new jets.

Taylor, who represents Madison residents in the state Assembly, has vehemently opposed the new jets and has said supporters such as the Badger Air Community Council don’t represent the people who would be most affected.

Brandon, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president and an ardent supporter of the project, believes the environmental study overstates the noise problem. He argues the benefits of supporting the base, with its $100 million annual economic impact, outweigh any concerns.

Acting Air Force Secretary Donovan is expected to issue a final decision in February. If approved, the first F-35 jets could arrive as soon as 2023.


State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this report.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.