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National Guard F-35s

The first two of 20 F-35 fighter jets that will be stationed at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington arrived there Thursday after being flown in from a factory in Fort Worth, Texas. Madison's Truax Air National Guard base could also get 20 of the jets.

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — The first two of an eventual 20 F-35 fighter jets similar to those proposed for Madison’s Truax Field arrived Thursday at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, the first Guard unit to receive the next-generation fighter.

Guard members and friends clapped as the planes passed over the airport for the first time Thursday afternoon, doing several flyovers after the three-hour flight from the factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

The delivery follows years of work and planning, as well as missions in the Guard’s previous aircraft, F-16s that flew continuously for weeks over New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in combat tours in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“Bringing the F-35 to Vermont secures our future for decades, and our country needs this airplane,” Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, the new home to the F-35s, said after the planes arrived.

But for some members of the community, the arrival of noisier aircraft marks the failure of a yearslong effort to keep the Air Force from delivering the planes to an airport that sits amid residential neighborhoods and industrial complexes in the middle of Vermont’s most populous county.

Rosanne Greco, the former chairwoman of the South Burlington City Council and a retired Air Force colonel, said she supported basing the plane in her home city until she learned by reading the Air Force’s environmental impact study about how noisy the F-35 is and what she feels are the dangers of having a new, unproven weapon system at a suburban airport.

“All I had to do was read what the Air Force said about the impact it would have,” Greco said. “The evidence was overwhelming it would have a very negative effect on close to 7,000 people” who live near the airport.

Madison action

A draft environmental study of the impacts of the F-35s in Madison found more than 1,000 homes near the Dane County Regional Airport, where Truax Field is located, could be subjected to higher daily noise averages. The area contains a disproportionate number of residents who are low income and people of color.

Early Wednesday, the Madison City Council adopted a resolution that says that if the noise and other impacts highlighted in the environmental study are confirmed, it wants the Air Force to reconsider its decision to designate Truax Field one of the two preferred next sites to host the new jets.

Speed and agility

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Smith, of the Vermont Air National Guard, said prior to Thursday’s arrival that the Guard understands the concerns and has modified traffic patterns the planes will use and checked the takeoff times to minimize noise disruptions.

As for safety, he said, more than 400 F-35s have been delivered so far, and the planes have accumulated more than 200,000 flying hours.

“It’s really important to us to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the community,” he said.

The Air Force describes the F-35 as its fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth technology with speed and agility. Different models are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines and are being sold to U.S. allies across the world.

It is also the U.S. military’s most expensive weapons system of all time, with an estimated total cost of $1.5 trillion over the expected half-century life of the program. The model of plane that will be based in Burlington costs about $94 million.

New approach

Assigning F-35s — which are designed to replace a number of aging fighter models — to Vermont shows the days are long gone when Air National Guard units received hand-me-down aircraft while new planes went exclusively to active-duty Air Force units, said Ian Bryan, a retired Tennessee Air National Guard pilot who worked in Washington as a legislative liaison with the National Guard Bureau.

Vermont and the Guard are at the forefront of learning how to make the best use of the new airplanes, he said.

“Ten years from now, we need to have figured out how to use this F-35 thing, and it’s going to be the lead as the wings fall off some of these old airplanes,” Bryan said.

Vermont Air Guard Lt. Col. Tony “Scrappy” Marek, one of the pilots who flew to Burlington on Thursday, said the F-35 is similar to the F-16 he used to fly.

“It’s been over a decade in the making,” Marek said. “It’s a remarkable airplane. ... It does truly amazing things, and I’m really excited to be able to fly it.”

The Air Force describes the F-35 as its fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth technology with speed and agility. Different models are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines and are being sold to U.S. allies across the world.

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