F-35’s or Safe Skies: On the road to find out

Isthmus  |  Oct 18, 2019  |  Dylan Brogan

Elected officials headed to Vermont on F-35 fact-finding mission 


“State Rep. Chris Taylor and Madison Ald. Rebecca Kemble will be in Burlington, Vermont next week to see how  that community is faring with the recent arrival of F-35 Lighting II military jets. The Vermont National Guard, based at the Burlington International Airport, is the first guard unit in the country to be assigned the next-generation fighter planes. Activist Brandi Grayson and videographer Nicole Desautels will be joining the elected officials on the trip.

“We are going on a fact-finding mission,” says Taylor. “We want to know what the impact is on the community so we can have a better idea of what to expect here in Madison.”

Taylor and Kemble have been vocal opponents of the Air Force basing F-35s at Truax Field in Madison. The F-35s will replace the fleet of aging F-16 jets at the base. In September, the Madison Common Council debated a resolution opposing F-35s at Truax that divided alders.

Supporters of the jets have strong backers, too: U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. The Wisconsin National Guard estimates that basing the F-35s in Madison would mean retaining 1,200 jobs at Truax and add about three dozen more.

Since a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released in August, several public forums on the jets have brought out hundreds of concerned residents largely opposed to F-35s in Madison. The public comment period, which was extended by 30 days, ends on Nov. 1. The Air Force will release a final EIS in January and is expected to make a final decision in February on whether to base F-35s at Truax.

Some worry that the F-35s will be four times louder than F-16s and the noise will disportionately impact lower-income communities, people of color and children. There is also ongoing concern about the environmental impact of Truax Field, notably contamination of Starkweather Creek, a tributary of Lake Monona, near one of the military’s bases training sites, with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The draft EIS doesn’t estimate any additional environmental damage if the F-16s are replaced by F-35s.


Kemble says there was strong local opposition over basing the new fighter jets in Burlington. In 20

13 the Air Force nevertheless selected the Burlington Air National Guard Base — whose personnel are nicknamed “The Green Mountain Boys” and have roots extending back to the Revolutionary War — to base a squadron of 20 F-35s. The first two jets arrived in September, with the rest of the squadron being delivered before June 2020.

“We want to get real information from people who are actually experiencing F-35s in their community. A lot of what we hear in Madison is speculation — I would call it spin — from the Chamber of Commerce on how the noise really isn’t going to be that bad and that [sound] mitigation will solve any problems,” says Kemble. “In Burlington, they are finding out for themselves that this is not the case.”

“We have been told that our [environmental impact statement] overestimates the amount of noise and

the area that will be affected,” says Kemble. “What Burlington found out is that their EIS underestimated how many people would be impacted by a great magnitude.”

Kemble says she’s interested in learning about the decades-long sound mitigation process that Burlington is just starting. During the trip to Vermont, the group will attend a community meeting with officials from the airport about who will be eligible for the federal funding and how much local governments will have to pony up.

“We want to find out practical, detailed information about the sound mitigation processes,” says Kemble. “We are also meeting with other local elected officials in the region to learn how they are assisting residents and what they have learned already.”

The Madison officials also want to observe F-35s in flight.

“Darn right, we want to hear for ourselves what these jets sound like,” says Taylor. “We are pretty confident we will have that opportunity and it’s one of the reasons why we are going.”