F-35 noise around Madison’s Truax Field could take years to reduce

The Cap Times, Jun 8, 2023 | By Jack Kelly

The Air National Guard has not yet begun to study noise-reduction measures around Truax Field in Madison, already home to the first of 20 powerful and loud war planes that will be based there. Above, Lt. Col. Mike Koob comes in for landing as he flies the first F-35A fighter jet for the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing during an April ceremony.

Noise-reduction measures around Truax Field in Madison, already home to a handful of powerful and loud war planes, could take years to implement as state officials conduct studies on how to dampen the F-35 jets’ roars.

Even so, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs who advocated to bring the planes to Madison, as well as Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, remain adamant that noise mitigation is a priority.

Truax, which is at Dane County Regional Airport on Madison’s north side, is the home of the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. The 115th was one of two units in the United States selected to receive F-35 jets, which replaced the older F-16s that were stationed at the airfield and transitioned out in October.

In late April, the first of 20 F-35A fighter jets arrived at Truax. As of Tuesday, there were four F-35s stationed on the base, with the rest expected to arrive over the next year, according to a Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs staff member.

The F-35 acquisition was celebrated by base officials as a symbol of prestige and by Baldwin as a boost for Madison’s economy, given that 64 new jobs were created by the jets’ arrival, in addition to the 1,600 that already existed.

Local residents have raised concerns about the potential noise from the nuclear-capable fighter jets and the side effects on the community — a public health study suggested the planes’ thundering could cause maladies ranging from a lack of sleep to heart disease. Many critics are now focusing their attention on mitigation efforts.

The specific details of those mitigation measures remain unclear, but the plan could include insulating homes or replacing windows.

Baldwin was a boisterous advocate for bringing the F-35s to Madison. The secretary of the Air Force in April 2020 selected Traux to house the aircraft after a nationwide search.

The base contributes around $100 million to the region’s economy each year and supports over 1,650 in-state jobs, according to Leslie Westmont, a Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs staff member overseeing the implementation of a federal grant to study potential noise mitigation actions around the base. Westmont told the Cap Times it’s unclear what economic impact would have been felt if the 115th had not been selected to house the F-35s.

Baldwin, speaking to the Cap Times on a recent episode of the newspaper’s “Wedge Issues” podcast, also celebrated those jobs, saying she supports housing the F-35s in Madison despite pushback from residents over concerns about the noise they generate.

The senator, who is from Madison, said that when she lobbied to have the F-35s brought to Truax, she “was very mindful about the potential negative effects, especially related to sound.” She said she has worked with her colleagues in the U.S. House to secure $50 million to help pay for noise mitigation efforts around the base and is pushing the Air National Guard to change flight patterns to have the F-35s take off to the north, over more rural areas, rather than over Madison neighborhoods south of the base.

Air National Guard study has no timeline

Baldwin, Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. senator, also said she is urging the Air National Guard to speed up a study aimed at identifying ways to reduce the noise generated by the fighter jets.

“They’re not all here yet,” Baldwin said of the F-35s that will be stationed at the base. “But they’re coming and we need to get on this.”

That study, though, has yet to start, Westmont told the Cap Times in a Tuesday interview. The Department of Military Affairs is identifying the right company to perform the study, she said. She was not able to offer a specific timeline on when she expects that study to begin or be completed.

The study will be paid for by a portion of a $798,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. The grant will also fund public events where base officials can hear from community members on the noise generated by the fighter jets and get suggestions on what can be done to help address residents’ noise-related pain points, Westmont said. The grant will also help pay for awareness campaigns from the 115th Fighter Wing, explaining its mission and why housing the F-35s is important, she said.

Westmont told the Cap Times the noise mitigation study will inform the base’s application to a federal grant program being administered by the DOD. That program will dole out more than $50 million to help with noise mitigation at “hospitals, daycare facilities, schools, facilities serving senior citizens and private residences” in areas around air bases across the United States, according to the DOD.

However, the earliest that money from the program would be awarded is the end of 2024, a DOD spokesperson told the Cap Times. That means significant, federally funded noise mitigation measures likely remain years away.

Report: F-35 decibels ‘incompatible’ with housing

The potentially harmful effects of the noise has caused many Madisonians to criticize the decision to bring the F-35s to the city. A 2019 study from Public Health Madison & Dane County found replacing the F-16 fighter jets with F-35s would cause an increase in noise exposure, which can have adverse health effects, especially for children.

Some of those effects include sleep disturbance, decreased school performance, increased stress levels, annoyance, hearing impairment, hypertension and heart disease.

F-35s will increase takeoffs from Truax Field by 27% and expose more than 1,000 homes to average daily noise of 65 decibels or higher, a U.S. Air Force’s Environmental Impact Study found. The level, according to the study, has been “incompatible” with residential use but has not made neighboring homes uninhabitable.

PFAS contamination is another major concern. The toxic man-made chemicals, which are commonly found in everyday products and have trouble breaking down in nature, are found in firefighting foam and can seep into the land and can contaminate wells and local waterways.

Baldwin told the Cap Times in a recent interview that “some of the construction that needed to occur at the airport to ready the airport for the F-35s has included removal of PFAS-laden soil.”

“There has been some, I don’t know how comprehensive, but some remediation of PFAS on site. … So that’s a step forward,” she said.

Allison Garfield contributed to this story.