January 7, 2013

Next generation fighter: Where will F-35 touch down?

People in communities from California to Florida to Maine worry that the planes are too loud.

By WILSON RING The Associated Press

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Master Sgt. Andrew Ehlers does repairs on an F-16 fighter plane in South Burlington, Vt. To some, the next-generation F-35 is a source of jobs and millions of dollars for the local economy. To opponents, the plane is a looming nuisance much louder than the F-16.

Photos by The Associated Press

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Rosanne Greco, South Burlington, Vt., City Council president and a retired Air Force officer, said she favored bringing the F-35 to her community until she read the draft environmental impact statement.

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"I'd rather separate myself from the pack, be the leading-edge, top fighter wing that we are (and) get named (to fly) the F-35 right off the bat and secure the future," Baczewski said.

Noise concerns have followed the F-35 since it first began flying. But there is no other alternative, as the plane, nicknamed the Lightning II, is intended to replace fighter planes mostly designed in the 1970s.

Maine is home to one of the Northeast's largest aerial training areas, the 4,000-square-mile Military Operation Area Condor, which extends into northern New Hampshire. Concerns about the noise of the F-35 play into long-running mistrust among some in Maine about low-level military training flights.

Current plans call for the F-35 to be operated above 7,000 feet over Maine, but there are special low-level corridors.

Some Maine residents seem resigned to the prospect that the louder F-35s will be operating over Maine, said Tom Mauzaka, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in the western Maine town of Strong.

"This plane is loud," Mauzaka said. "It would be loud at 7,000 feet."

In California, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is due to get F-35s in several years, but environmental groups have already questioned the potential impact on endangered species. Neighbors have said they don't want the plane rattling their windows.

Noise concerns also have been raised in Arizona, where the Marines and Air Force are basing F-35s in Yuma and Phoenix, about 185 apart.

In Florida's Panhandle, an area long accustomed to the sounds of military aircraft, a lawsuit by the city of Valparaiso in part over noise concerns prompted the Air Force to change the Eglin Air Force Base runways the F-35s would use, in most instances, to avoid flying over the city.

Air Force and Marine pilots at Eglin began F-35 training missions last March. Since then, F-35 pilots have flown about 600 sorties, with about 2 percent generating noise complaints, a number the base considers small.

Some of the complaints come on days the F-35s are not flying, base spokesman Mike Spaits said. "We empathize with their plight, but the reality is there does seem to be some level of hysteria involved with the noise complaints on the F-35," he said.

Little, if any, opposition has come from the other two Air Guard bases seen as suitable for operating the F-35s, Jacksonville, Fla., Air National Guard base and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, S.C.

But in another area of South Carolina, plans to base the F-35 at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort have brought complaints about potential noise.

Back in Vermont, Winooski Mayor Michael O'Brien, whose city is about a mile from the north end of the runway, traveled to Eglin Air Force Base last month with Shumlin and other officials to listen to the F-16 and F-35 fly over, one after another.

Winooski opposes basing the F-35 at the South Burlington airport if the planes are significantly louder than the F-16s. O'Brien said he was at one end of an Eglin runway while the different planes went over in a number of different configurations.

"They are both loud, but it was hard to really get a handle on just how much louder," O'Brien said. "It didn't blow my socks off, the difference."

 

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Col. David Baczewski, commander of the Vermont Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing, said he fears for Vermont’s future as a front-line fighter base if the Air Force decides not to bring the F-35 to the state.

  


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