If you live in the F-35 flight zone, get ready for a ‘violent sensory assault’

Capital Times, April 28, 2023 By Steve Elbow, Opinion Editor

It was nice while it lasted.

On Oct. 5 last year, the F-16s at Truax Field made their last flight. Since then, we’ve heard the rumble of commercial jets, which you have to expect when you live within a few miles of an airport. But every day I remind myself that I won’t have to endure the skull-piercing sound of the F-16s.

Now their successor, the F-35, is in town. And they’re going to be louder. And they’re going to fly more often. So far, the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing has three of them. Soon it will have 20.

And soon I’ll buy myself some noise-canceling headphones, because we open the windows in the summer and I just can’t take the noise.

I know. I’m a whiner, just like nearly all of my neighbors who dislike the mad rush of adrenaline that comes with the sudden explosion of sound from above. Studies have shown that exposure to aircraft noise can cause heart and other health problems, damage developing ear canals and lead to developmental issues.

You know who cares? Those of us who live on this side of town. You know who doesn’t? Everyone else.

I get that the military has to do its thing. And I get that this is an issue infused with patriotic sentiment.

I also get that U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin isn’t going to go to bat for us. She’s carefully cultivated a reputation of support for the armed services, which as a liberal in a purple state, she might think is necessary to stave off a win by whatever sociopath Republicans pit against her in 2024.

But my position on the F-35s is pretty straightforward: I hate them, viscerally.

A lot of people think my neighbors and I are overreacting. But the Air Force itself has done us the courtesy of letting us know exactly what’s in store.

An environmental impact statement released by the Air Force over three years ago acknowledges that surrounding neighborhoods will be subjected to increased noise and a 47% increase in the number of flights, and that the impact will fall mostly on some of Madison’s most diverse, low-income neighborhoods.

It warned that people within the flight patterns will be exposed to average noise levels of at least 65 decibels and as high as 108 decibels — about as loud as a chainsaw. It estimated that 1,318 households and 2,766 people would be impacted. The area includes several schools and more than a dozen daycare operations. The F-35s will render 199 acres “potentially incompatible” with residential use.

But to F-35 cheerleaders, we’re just a bunch of hippy-dippy east-siders with an antimilitary agenda.

“If you look at the arguments, it started with the military-industrial complex, it morphed into sound, it morphed into equity, it morphed into the environment,” Madison Area Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon told our editorial board in 2021. “Why has it been consistently morphing? It’s because there’s an opposition that maybe at their core isn’t opposed to the noise. It’s not their No.1 issue.”

In Burlington, Vermont, the only other U.S. city to host a squdron of F-35s, a documentary crew set up a hotline for people to call with their views. Let’s hear what this guy had to say after three F-35s flew over while he was taking a walk:

“It was deafening. The impact of this noise, it affects not just your hearing but your whole body, the vibrations. I covered my ears. It did almost no good. To say that this is disturbing is a complete understatement. It’s a violent sensory assault.”

And there’s this young boy who was stuck on a park playground when the jets roared overhead.

“I pooped,” he told a reporter through tears.

Brandon is right about one thing: Some of the opposition stems from concerns about the environment, the military-industrial complex and equity. The aircraft is, after all, a boondoggle. It’s an fighter jet plagued with glitches, delays and cost overruns. The military’s transition to F-35s has cost $1.5 trillion, or almost the entire cost of the Iraq War.

But the unifying force that has given rise to fierce opposition from east and north-side neighborhoods in Madison is the noise.

Brandon said he’s heard the F-16s and the F-35s in comparison flights, and he heard little difference. He said people didn’t complain about the F-16s — they did, despite the fact that the Guard made complaining difficult and confusing — so why are they complaining now?

He points to the $100 million a year economic impact, the jobs, the new construction.

“At the end of the day the question is, ‘Is there a disproportionate amount of noise between the F-35 and the F-16 that outweighs what will be a $3.5 billion economic impact over the life of the jet,'” he said. “We don’t think that it does.”

From where I sit, economic impact is nice, but not when somebody’s holding a chainsaw over your head.