On May 24, Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington, Vermont, released a letter he received from US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. In the letter, Secretary Wilson expressly acknowledges that the 2013 decision to base F-35 bombers at the city-owned airport could still “be reversed” though she makes no firm commitment either way.
Burlington’s voters had stunned the mayor and the entire Vermont political and commercial establishment by adopting a resolution on March 6 requesting “cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35” and replacement with “low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area.”
The Air Force secretary’s letter was in response to an April 9 letter from Weinberger in which the mayor shared his view of F-35 basing, which was directly contrary to the will of the voters. The mayor identified himself as “the only official elected by all City voters, and … the elected official most directly responsible for the management of the Burlington International Airport.” In bold type he then further wrote, “After carefully reviewing and considering the Council’s action, the advisory public vote, and current public concerns, I remain a strong supporter of basing F-35s at Burlington International Airport.”
Wilson’s letter is the most recent turn in the ongoing, citizen-led battle against the basing of 18 F-35 fighter-bombers in Vermont, whose ear-shattering takeoffs would impair area children’s learning and cognitive development, as the Air Force itself described in the 2013 US Air Force Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The secretary’s letter focuses entirely on the likely consequences of reversal of the F-35 basing decision for the Vermont Air National Guard. Glaringly omitted is any mention of health consequences for the nearly 3,000 area families in the most densely populated part of Vermont — where the airport is located — that the EIS says would be harmed by the F-35.
The secretary’s letter does not provide what the mayor wanted: a blanket rejection of the request by Burlington’s voters for cancellation of the F-35 and replacement with low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record. The secretary’s letter, instead, expressly mentions reversal of the decision and leaves open the possibilities of a different flying mission and of a non-flying mission for the Vermont Air Guard if the decision to base the F-35 in Burlington is reversed. Wilson’s letter states that “if the [F-35 basing] decision were to be reversed, the Vermont Air Guard would likely lose their flying mission upon the retirement of the F-16s.” The letter then recognizes the fact that Air Guard units continue to exist in “some states [that] no longer have flying missions for their National Guard.”
However, Mayor Weinberger issued a statement on May 24 in which he interprets the secretary’s letter somewhat differently:
I welcome Secretary Wilson’s response to Burlington, which provides clarity in two important respects. First, it signals the United States Air Force’s continued commitment to its 2013 decision to base F-35s at the Burlington International Airport. Second, it provides a strong confirmation of what many of us have long thought: reversing the F-35 basing decision at this late date would likely lead to the end of the VTANG flying mission, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs and threatening the strength of our region’s economy. This clear, decisive communication should bring some measure of resolution of this issue to the community.
Nevertheless, the acknowledgment by the Air Force secretary that F-35 basing can “be reversed” marks a critical juncture in the ongoing struggle against the fighter jets’ basing. This part of her statement appears to recognize the power of citizens who voted to reverse the 2013 Air Force decision.
However, although the letter details Secretary Wilson’s recent meetings with Vermont “Governor Scott and members of the Vermont’s Congressional delegation,” it fails to mention whether she met with any of the families the US Air Force EIS says would be harmed by F-35 basing.
The EIS described the severe harm children in the noise danger zone in Winooski, South Burlington and Burlington will face from chronic exposure to F-35 noise: “tasks involving central processing and language comprehension (such as reading, attention, problem solving, and memory) appear to be the most affected by noise.” Furthermore, chronic exposure of first- and second-grade children to aircraft noise can result in reading deficits and impaired speech perception.
The Air Force EIS also notes that a person standing on the ground below the fighter-jet would be hit with 115 decibels when the F-35 is at 1,000 feet elevation with its afterburner off. This decibel level is above the threshold of pain. The EIS further indicates that residents of neighboring Winooski and Williston would be hit by a sound level four times louder than the extreme noise they experience from the currently based F-16.
Maps in the Air Force EIS show that the F-35, with its afterburner off, is slightly quieter in the Chamberlin School neighborhood of South Burlington than the F-16 taking off with its afterburner blasting. But the EIS says the F-35 will itself be taking off with its own afterburner blasting 5 percent of the time, brutally hammering children among the 961 families in the immediate airport neighborhood.
Moreover, the EIS acknowledges a “disproportionate impact” of F-35 noise on low-income and minority populations.
While the EIS omits mention of the flammable military carbon composite body of the F-35, this information is provided in a Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division report [PDF download] that describes the toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals, particulates and fibers emitted when the 12,000 pounds of military carbon composites in the body of the F-35 burn in the fuel fire after a crash. Toxins emitted by combustion of the stealth coating add to the public health danger.
The EIS also details a much higher expected crash rate for the F-35 than for the F-16, and notes that the Air Force version of the jet planned for Burlington, the F-35A, has fewer than 5 percent of the fleet flight hours that the F-16 had when it arrived in Burlington in 1986. Charts the Air Force provided in the EIS show that fighter jets, including the F-15, the F-16 and the F-22, had very high crash rates when first introduced. (They gradually declined as fleet flight hours and learning accumulated.) The F-35A is currently at that early stage and has so few flight hours that its crash rate cannot be reliably determined.
In light of the dangers posed by basing F-35s in the densely populated area around Burlington International Airport, Vermont Guard commanders, politicians and real estate developers who continue to pressure the Air Force to overrule the voters and force F-35 blasting noise on three unwilling cities must be held accountable.
Activists in a local group who petitioned to get the item on the ballot for a vote say they will continue to fight F-35 basing to protect the citizens of Vermont, regardless of what the Air Force Secretary ultimately decides.