Will the F-35A Fighter Bomber Be Based in Burlington, Vermont, in 2020?

A F-35A Lightning II 002 jet plane. (Photo: Airman Magazine; edited: LW / TO)A F-35A Lightning II 002 jet plane. (Photo: Airman Magazine; edited: LW / TO)

A plan to base F-35 fighter bombers in Burlington, Vermont, has been sent into a tailspin, due to contradicting government information about their safety.

Charts released by the Department of Defense Joint Strike Fighter Program Office (JSF) contradict information given by the Vermont Air National Guard, throwing the plan by Vermont political and military leaders (1) to base F-35 fighter bombers in Burlington into a tailspin. The charts (2) show that the cumulative hours the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office anticipates will be flown by F-35A jets before the jets arrive for basing in Burlington is a fraction of the number the Vermont Air National Guard says will be flown to assure safety.

In response to concerns about the high accident rate typical for all new jet fighters, Lt. Col. Chris Caputo, an F-16 pilot, squadron commander, and now head of the Vermont Air National Guard’s F-35 Integration Office, held a news conference in October 2013 about F-35A basing, where he announced, “There will be 750,000 flight hours before it comes to Burlington.”

The Air Force Record of Decision states that 18 F-35A aircraft are “anticipated to start arriving [at Burlington Air Guard Station] in 2020.” Making the date more specific, on May 2, 2014, Col. TJ Jackman, Commander of the Vermont Air National Guard 158th Fighter Wing told WPTZ TV that “eighteen F-35s will arrive in Burlington in June 2020.”

According to the authoritative Joint Strike Fighter Program Office charts, the F-35A will only have a fraction of the flight hours specified by Lt. Col. Caputo by the end of FY2020.

The charts were released by the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The charts show that the JSF anticipates that:

• The Air Force version of the F-35 that will be based in Burlington, called the “F-35A,” will have only 248,250 cumulative aircraft flying hours by the end of fiscal year 2020 (page 1), one-third of the number of hours stated by the Vermont Air National Guard.

• All three versions of the F-35 together – the F-35A plus the very different Marine F-35B and the Navy F-35C – will have only 437,386 fleet flight hours by the end of FY 2020 (page 6), only 58 percent of the number of hours stated by the Vermont Air National Guard.

Information provided by the Air Force in its final environmental impact statement (EIS) comparing F-15, F-16 and F-22 fighter jets shows that in their first few hundred thousand hours of flying, all these jet fighters have an extremely high accident rate. But by 1 to 2 million cumulative flight hours, enough learning and fixes were implemented so the accident rate of the F-15 and F-16 declined substantially.

An article in the Burlington Free Press by Sam Hemingway, “Final F-35 environmental impact statement released, Statement contains information on crash risks, noise levels” September 26, 2013, brings more vividly to life the information on page 3-28 of the Final EIS:

According to a chart added to the final report, four F-16s crashed in fiscal 2012 during a 207,158 flight hours, compared to 17 crashes in calendar year 1982 during 107,343 flight hours.

F-16 jets had flown fewer than 100,000 flight hours when 1982 began. They had accumulated over 9 million fleet flight hours before 2012 began. The crash rate in 1982 was 11.5 times greater than the crash rate in 2012.

By contrast, the F-22 has so far accumulated fewer than 200,000 flight hours, and its FY2012 accident rate was 8.2 times the FY2012 accident rate of the F-16. This is why responsible military officials will normally require at least 1 million fleet flight hours to assure that a new jet fighter is safe to base in a densely populated area, such as Burlington Vermont. Interestingly, the Air Force EIS says that the F-35 accident rate is expected to be like that of the F-22.

To its credit, the Air Force did not base F-16 jets at the Burlington airport until 1986, during which year the chart in the EIS shows that the F-16 reached its first million flight hours. Enough learning and fixes had been implemented so the F-16 accident rate was reduced nearly 4 fold from the rate in 1982. Even so, the accident rate was still well above the current F-16 accident rate, with its 9 million accumulated fleet flight hours.

The airport in Burlington, where Senator Leahy is leading the drive to base the new F-35A jets, is completely surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Unlike military air bases that are adjacent very large open areas, the Burlington International Airport, a commercial airport shared with the Vermont National Guard, has no open area in any direction near the airport. Some 124,000 people live in the seven towns on all sides and within eight miles of the airport in the most densely populated part of Vermont.

The runway at ” >Burlington airport aims directly at the center of one of these towns, Winooski, with over 7,000 people only one mile from the end of the runway.

In the opposite direction, ” >the runway aims directly at the largest shopping area in Vermont, with two dozen big-box stores one mile away in Williston. Long ago, a military jet crashed in the very area of those stores, killing the two Vermont Air National Guard pilots. But back then, the entire area was an open field.

Six weeks after the news conference at which Lt. Col. Caputo announced that the F-35A jets would have 750,000 flight hours before arriving in Burlington, the Air Force officially announced its decision to select Burlington to be the first Air National Guard station that would receive F-35 jets.

However, because that 750,000 hours number appeared improbably high to achieve by 2020, given the slow rate at which F-35A jets are being produced, a concerned citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Defense Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program Office at the Pentagon asking for charts showing the year-by-year anticipated fleet flight hours.

Not until 2027 does the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office chart say that the F-35A will accumulate one million actual flying hours.

“These numbers are of critical importance to the safety of Burlington area citizens for two reasons,” said Pierre Sprey, a codesigner of the F-16 and A-10 jets. “First, 50 years of accident records show that all new fighter planes are many times more dangerous at 100,000 fleet hours than at 1,000,000 hours. Second, to judge the crash rate of a new fighter with even minimal statistical confidence requires at least a million hours of accident data.”

But it gets worse: Reality has not been kind even to the just-released JSF projections: according to figures announced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, as of early December 2014, all three versions of the F-35 had together logged only about 23,000 flying hours, barely half of the 45,756 flying hours through the end of September 2014 that the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office projected in its chart for all three versions FY2014 (see page 6 of the charts). This, despite Lockheed including hours for both operational planes and test airplanes while the JSF Program Office projected only operational plane hours.

The reason so few hours are actually being flown is simple: All three versions of the F-35 planes are experiencing consistently higher failure rates and more repair downtime than projected (and allowed under Lockheed’s contract). The significantly higher-than-anticipated failure rate and maintenance downtime of the F-35A is officially reported in the Department of Defense Director, Operational Test and Evaluation annual report, 2014, pp 39-69. “The high failure rates and high F-35 flammability described in that report do not augur well for the safety of the F-35,” said Sprey.

As a result, Pierre Sprey calculated that the F-35A is likely to reach only about 100,000 flight hours by 2020. Nor are the three versions together likely to reach anywhere near the 437,386 combined flight hour projection by 2020.

Regardless of whether Lt. Col. Caputo intended his projected 750,000 flight hours to be exclusively for the F-35A that will be based in Burlington or for the total of the F-35A hours, plus the not-relevant hours of the quite different F-35B and F-35C models, reaching 750,000 hours is totally incompatible with F-35A arrival in Burlington in 2020.

In view of the F-35 planes actually flying only about half of the inadequate JSF-projected flying hours, the plan to base F-35 jets at Burlington airport in 2020 has itself crashed and burned. If Senator Leahy and other Vermont political leaders persist in pushing the plan for basing in 2020, thousands of Vermonters will be at severe risk.

“248,000 cumulative flying hours is grossly inadequate for judging the safety of the F-35A,” said Sprey. “It would be both ‘dangerous’ and ‘irresponsible’ for the Air Force to base these new and sophisticated jets in a highly populated area, such as South Burlington, before they’ve logged enough flight time to work out all the bugs,” Sprey told Seven Days newspaper in an interview in 2013.

In view of the year-by-year anticipated fleet flight hours projected by the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office for 2020 being less than a quarter of what is needed for adequate safety, the idea of basing F-35A jets in Burlington in 2020 should now be rejected by each and every one of Vermont’s political and military leaders. In view of the report by Lockheed Martin that the planes have actually been flying barely half of the JSF projection through 2014, “going ahead with basing in the most densely populated part of Vermont in 2020 would show arrogant contempt for the safety of our citizens,” said Sprey.

If Vermont’s political and military leaders refuse to pay attention to the information provided by the Department of Defense Joint Strike Fighter Program Office and by Lockheed Martin, the task remains to ordinary citizens to continue to organize and mobilize against the basing of F-35 jets at Burlington airport.

During the past four years, citizens participating in the “Stop the F-35 Coalition” have organized numerous protest actions. They initiated a lawsuit that is now underway in federal court. They initiated another lawsuit now awaiting decision in the Vermont Supreme Court. And a ballot item asking whether citizens wish Winooski to join the federal lawsuit is up for a vote in Winooski on March 3.

Notes:

1. Vermont political leaders supporting F-35 basing in 2020 include Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger.

2. The acronym “PAA” in the charts stands for Primary Aircraft Authorized, that is, the number of aircraft authorized to be flown by operational squadrons, not to include flight test aircraft.