VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Is The F-35 Based In Vermont?

A photo of a person in a cockpit of a fighter plane on a runway with warning signs.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR File
On Sept. 19, 2019, Vermont's first two F-35s landed at Burlington Airport. Eighteen more would follow, to be based at the Vermont Air National Guard. Brave Little State investigates why they're here.

Brave Little State takes on a question about the complex, controversial decision to base the F-35 fighter jet in Vermont’s most populous county.

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you can! But we also provide a written version of the episode below.

Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, and never miss an episode:

Loading...

Bobby Arnell lives in Winooski with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. Recently, he recorded some audio on his smartphone while an F-35 fighter jet flew over his neighborhood.

In the recording, it’s difficult to understand him.

“This is Bobby Arnell, and I am recording what it sounds like to have an F-35 flying over our house!” he shouts as a kind of piercing rumble fills and distorts the recording. “This is actually being recorded inside my house! I do have the window open, but [unintelligible]!”

The F-35 is a super fancy military jet. It’s actually known as a “stealth fighter jet.” And there are 20 of them based at the Burlington International Airport. That’s where the Vermont Air National Guard takes off and lands for their training flights, roughly twice a day.

“It's not like a commercial aircraft that flies over — and we have plenty of those that fly over Winooski as well,” Bobby said during a quieter moment. “This is ... extremely loud, almost like a roar.”

“Almost like a rocket taking off,” says Joe Charboneau, also of Winooski. “Especially when it comes over the building and does its turns. Sometimes you can feel it.”

“They sound like they could be splitting the sky open,” Burlington resident Kayli O’Donnell says. “It's a really deep rumble … like, you can feel it in your heart.”

Watch the video below to hear local residents describe the F-35 sound as it flies overhead.

What Does it Sound Like?

Bruce Wilson, who splits time between Winooski and Milton, puts it this way:

“I'm telling you, the sound is excruciating. It’s so loud. Oh my God, you can't hear nothing … And for me, I appreciate those F-35s. Personally, I love to see when they do their little techniques, or whatever, because I love to know that ... the Green Mountain Boys have these jets at the airport. If something happened to us in Vermont, they can scramble and protect us. That's why I like that part of it, you know. But the sound is so loud. My God, you can't hear yourself talk or think really, it's just like, too loud. You know?”

As for Bobby Arnell, his feelings about the F-35 have evolved. He grew up in a military family, in the Northeast Kingdom. He says his own brother works for the Air National Guard.

“So, it wasn't anything that I was initially opposed to,” he says. “However, I think a confluence of factors — you know, me having a daughter that is being exposed to these loud decibel levels, and then really experiencing firsthand how intrusive, disruptive, and extremely loud the fighter jets are — really forced me to take an opinion.

“And unfortunately, I feel like my opinion and those opinions that are in the community that feel the same way ... [we] aren't being heard by those that are in power. And so that can be a frustrating aspect of all of this as well.”

So Bobby came to us, with a question about the F-35. And we put it up for a public vote — because we want to be sure we’re covering the stories our listeners are most interested in — and you all picked it. No contest.

And Bobby’s question was basically: Why are these things here?

“What events led to the decision to base the F-35 in Vermont, and why are they located in the most densely populated region of the state?”

To answer Bobby’s question, we dive deep into the VPR archives, and he helps us interview a senior member of the Vermont Air National Guard.

A picture showing two adults a child and a dog stand outside of a white house with trees in the background.
Elodie Reed
Bobby and Diana Arnell, their daughter Ruth and dog Archer, stand for a portrait in front of their Winooski home. This summer, they're relocating, primarily because of the F-35 noise.

A disclosure at the outset: There is basically nothing straightforward about this story. Not even the Vermont address of the F-35. It’s based at BTV, the Burlington International Airport. That airport? Is technically in South Burlington. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

“The F-35 is a stealth fighter jet that is the largest single weapon system ever procured by the Pentagon. And by largest I mean, the costliest,” says Bryan Bender, a senior national correspondent for POLITICO who covers military affairs, the defense industry, and space.

Each F-35 costs about $100 million.

“This was conceived more than a generation ago,” Bender says of the program. “And the idea was, rather than have the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and Marine Corps all buy their own new fighter jet — because that was often the approach — let's buy one, and everybody can sort of pony up for it.”

Pony up to pay Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the jets. Bender says it’s been a very international project; U.S. allies also put in orders for the F-35, and even agreed to manufacture some of the parts.

“And we're now at the point where the program is mature enough where it's starting to be fielded in large numbers,” he says. “Vermont is one place where the aircraft showed up first, in the Air National Guard.”

So why Vermont? We’re going to answer Bobby’s question in three different ways. Number one: The bureaucratic answer.

The bureaucratic answer

The bureaucratic answer is that the Air Force chose us.

Our question-asker Bobby joined BLS to interview Brig. Gen. Hank Harder — not of the Air Force, of the Vermont Air National Guard. Harder is the Air Guard’s assistant adjutant general.

Bobby put his question directly to him, and here’s what Harder said:

“The short version of that answer is, in the 1990s, the Air Force delineated the F-35 program to ultimately be the cornerstone of the multi-role fighter program for the United States Air Force, in addition to the Marine Corps and the Navy,” he began.

It was a long and complicated process. Back in 2009, the Air Force began to assess which Air Force and Air Guard bases should get the first F-35s. (The Air National Guard is a reserve component of the Air Force.)

“And it was an Air Force process, not an Air National Guard process,” Harder says.

_

So the Air Force narrowed it down to some finalists, and produced a hefty Environmental Impact Statement. “Our goal is to give you a reader-friendly document,” they said on page 2 — of more than 1,000. They took some very passionate public comment, they revised their study, and in December 2013, they announced their choice:

“The Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force have selected Burlington as the first Air National Guard Base for the F-35. Congratulations!” then-Vermont Adjutant Gen. Steve Cray said at a news conference at the Burlington Air Guard Station, to applause from hundreds of Air National Guard members.

“Oh, so we were actually the first base that was chosen across the country to host the F-35?” Bobby asks.

“For the Air National Guard, yes, Bobby. The active duty Air Force has the F-35s out in Salt Lake City, Utah,” Harder replies.

After the Vermont decision, years passed. The Vermont Air National Guard prepared for the jet. Some people and even communities tried to reverse the decision — in vain. Lawsuits and non-binding Town Meeting votes ran their course before the first jets actually arrived at BTV. That happened in September of 2019. Right before the pandemic.

And now here we are. The F-35 is top of mind once again, or maybe for the first time ever, for Chittenden County residents like our question-asker Bobby. People who are living with the sound overhead.

“It didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense given how noisy and disruptive they can be. And so I thought there must be some reason that they decided to place these loud fighter jets in Vermont,” Bobby mused.

You can’t blame Bobby for being confused. Because as much as this was an Air Force decision, there were some other prominent characters in the story.

Take the Vermont Air National Guard. They were very vocal in their support of the F-35. They said they needed the mission, because their current jet, the F-16, was aging into obsolescence.

Military members clap.
Elodie Reed
Members of the Vermont National Guard clap after the arrival of Vermont's first F-35s.

“Our aircraft are going away within the next six to eight years. And the F-35 is the replacement for the F-16,” then-Vermont National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Chris Caputo said on VPR’s show Vermont Edition in 2013. “We have no follow-on mission right now … We can't just go to Burger King and order a follow-on mission off the menu. That's not how it works.”

“It's an investment in the airport. It's an investment to the local economy. And it's an investment into the 1,100 men and women that that work and serve our National Guard,” Cray said the same year.

There was also, of course, the national security argument. This was a post-9/11 world. The Vermont Air Guard had actually been activated after that attack.

“There is a need militarily for national defense,” then-Vermont National Guard Assistant Adjutant General Richard Harris told VPR. “The structure itself brings benefits to the state in the community in terms of fire protection, civil engineering, security, 1,100 bodies that are available to respond as we did in Irene with the Army National Guard.”

Then there was our congressional delegation. Particularly our two senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.

“You also support the F-35, which many of your supporters find a little incongruous,” our colleague Jane Lindholm said in an interview with Sanders in 2013.

“That's true,” Sanders replied. “But I would on that one ... my own guess is that probably more people support the F-35 than are opposed to it. But you're right, there are many people who are opposed to it. But sometimes you have to vote what you think is the right thing to do, even if not everybody supports you.”

Sen. Leahy, in 2018: “Senator Sanders, Congressman Welch and I have supported the F-35 coming to the Vermont National Guard because there will be no mission for the Vermont Air National Guard if it's not the F-35.”

Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, pictured on far right at a 2013 press conference announcing the F-35 basing in Burlington, is adjutant general of the state of Vermont. Cray spoke to "Vermont Edition" about recently announced policies affecting the U.S. military.
Angela Evancie
In this file photo from December 2013, Vermont Adjutant General Steve Cray takes questions from reporters at a press conference announcing the basing of the F-35 in Burlington. Sen. Patrick Leahy stands in the background.

All of the archival tape in this story is thanks to the work of our VPR news colleagues over the years. As for the people we were covering? They’ve all said: We supported this decision, but we didn’t make it. It was the Secretary of the Air Force. And they point back to that complicated selection process:

“There are five factors that we've been talking about,” the Guard's Harris said in 2013. “Overall, the cost of basing the airplane here. The capacity …. Mission, which is a heavier weighted part of it ... training airspace, our ability to meet training requirements for the F-35 and the mission. And then environment, and then there's a military judgment factor.”

“We asked the Air Force to have six public forums, to have a public comment period,” Leahy has said. “And not only that, they then had the Environmental Impact Study, they made that very public.”

But here’s the thing about that process. It wasn’t perfect. This brings us to a second kind of answer to Bobby’s question: the uncomfortable answer.

The uncomfortable answer

“There was the contention early on, when the basing decision in Vermont was made, that, for lack of a better term, that the books were cooked a little bit,” says Bryan Bender, the POLITICO reporter.

“In other words, they made Vermont look more attractive, the base look more attractive, downplayed some of the environmental concerns about having the planes there, the noise level, the public safety,” Bender says. “And there were certainly people in Vermont that didn't want the planes who sort of seized that.”

This is where we meet someone who has been opposed to the F-35 from the beginning. Well, almost the beginning.

“I was originally for the F-35 coming. Until I learned the facts,” says Rosanne Greco. She joined the Air Force when she was 25.

“Only intended to serve four years until I got my master's and get out,” she says. “And 29 years, four months and four days later, I retired as a full colonel.”

In her retirement, Greco moved to Vermont and ended up winning a seat on the South Burlington City Council in 2011. That’s when she first heard Vermont might get the F-35.

“And I do say this upfront. The noise does not bother me — I sort of enjoy it,” Greco says. “I have since learned that it doesn't really matter what I feel about the noise.”

Greco says that as soon as she read the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the EIS, it seemed clear to her that Burlington was not the best option for the F-35. There were other potential Air Guard bases, in McEntire, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, where far fewer people would be impacted by the noise. In the other two locations, the Air Force estimated the number of people in the loudest “sound contours” would be in the hundreds. In Burlington, it would be thousands.

“The numbers just popped out to you that, whoa,” Greco reflects.

Below is a map provided in 2019 by the Burlington International Airport showing potential noise impacts from the F-35s.

Greco read other things in the EIS that troubled her. About studies that had shown noise exposure can harm children, and adults. This reporter’s assessment is that the EIS sent mixed messages about how dangerous the noise would be. But Greco says she basically saw red flags everywhere.

“There was enough in the Environmental Impact Statement that I think would cause any rational and caring human being to say, ‘This is not appropriate to put in a residential neighborhood,’” Greco says.

Part of Greco’s concern had to do with the fact that the F-35s were said to be louder than the F-16s. And the noise of the F-16s had already had a major impact in her community, South Burlington, where homes near the airport were purchased and eventually demolished as part of a Federal Aviation Administration buyout program. She spoke with VPR about it in 2013.

Slide the images below to see where houses used to be — and are no longer — along South Burlington's Airport Parkway and on Kirby Road.

Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, went on to become one of the loudest and most persistent opponents of the F-35. And a thorn in the side of the Vermont National Guard and our congressional delegation. She even helped take the Air Force to court. But you can hear how her fight went by listening back through the archives.

2012: “All I’m asking now is for our Congressional delegates to please look into it.”

2013: “The risks are far too great for the reward of being the first in the country to get it.”

Jumping forward now to 2018: “I hope I'm not naive … that the F-35 will be replaced by a plane that's compatible with our neighborhood.”

And 2019: “We have information from places around the country, four or five different places, that have reversed military basing decisions. And so if other states can do it, we can too.”

There was one sort of victory. As part of a failed lawsuit, Greco got her hands on a huge tranche of Air Force administrative records.

“As I recall, that was a little bit over 68,000 documents. And I always throw this in when I talk about this. In the military, there were two ways to not provide information to the public. First is: Don't give them anything. Second is: Give them everything,” she says with a little laugh. “So we didn't get everything, but we got a lot.”

Greco says she and a group of women sifted through the documents. And they say the records show that this decision was forced. One of the things they found was a memo, from March 2013. This was about nine months before Burlington was announced as the chosen base location. The memo indicated that there was “overwhelming evidence” from the EIS that the McEntire base, in South Carolina, should be the “environmentally preferred alternative.” Not Burlington. As for the operational analysis, the memo said this.

“[Air Combat Command] leadership indicated that there is no operational benefit of Burlington Air National Guard base over McEntire Air National Guard Base, and that Burlington scored higher than McEntire overall due to incorrect scoring.”

“They said, the best place is South Carolina. McIntyre,” Rosanne argues.

We asked the Air Force what changed that resulted in the final selection of Burlington later that year. They provided a one-sentence response: “The decision factors were outlined in the Final Record of Decision, signed in December 2013.”

We also asked if the Air Force acknowledges that Burlington was scored incorrectly in its analysis. They didn’t respond to that question.

But this is where things get confusing. Even though this memo seems to indicate there’s no “operational benefit” to Vermont over South Carolina, at one point a spokeswoman for the Air Force did tout Burlington as the ideal base from an operational standpoint:

“For the mission, we think this is going to be the best place,” Ann Stefanik said on VPR in 2012.

"Mission" was one of five factors the Air Force said went into their basing decision. The four others were capacity, cost, military judgment and environmental impact. Advocates for the F-35s often focus on mission; opponents often focus on “environmental impact.”

Here’s a back-and-forth that illustrates this tension. It’s from Vermont Edition in 2013:

VPR's Jane Lindholm: And my understanding is that mission component, Vermont ranks first. In the environmental component, Vermont is not first, but overall we are still the preferred base.

Then-Assistant Adjutant General for the Vermont Air National Guard Richard Harris: This whole process is to allow the Secretary of the Air Force to make an informed decision. So we're going through a basing slash environmental process. So that decision can be made. And that's correct. You take the whole picture into account and making that decision.

And later in the conversation...

Lindholm: Has the Air Force ever said how they rank those? Is it 90% mission and 10% other factors?

Harris: I just I don't have the actual weights. But the weight for mission is the stronger weighted, because it's more about mission and meeting the Air Force needs to meet its strategy.

Lindholm: So for the Air Force, mission is the key component here. Colonel Greco, for you, is it noise? Is it the environmental impact, is that the key factor here and whether or not you think the F-35 should be here?

Rosanne Greco: The key factor, I think, are the people, without a doubt.

Lindholm: But the people as they're affected by the noise?

Greco: Primarily the noise, yes, primarily the noise.

When you listen to that exchange, you can hear a crux of the whole debate. The impact these planes have on Vermonters’ lives — the noise — falls into the “environmental impact” bucket. But for the Air Force, while that bucket is a consideration, it’s only a minor one.

And yet that’s the bucket that nearly all the public debate and sentiment was focused on: the noise. And that too was complicated. Opponents read the EIS and concluded that the F-35 would be four times louder than the F-16. The Vermont Air National Guard disagreed.

“We've said all along and recognize the fact that the F-35 is slightly louder than the F-16. It is not four times louder," then-Vermont National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Chris Caputo said in 2013.

Here’s an anecdote that illustrates the ambiguity. While the Air Force was making their decision, supporters of the F-35 in Vermont circulated these postcards. They said, among other things, “I concur with the Air Force’s assessment that Vermont is the preferred location for the F-35. From the Draft EIS, I understand the F-35 will create sound similar to the F-16 … and there will be no adverse health effects on citizens.”

A black and white photo of three fighter jets with text below and a space to collect signatures at the bottom.
Courtesy
Supporters of the F-35 in Vermont circulated postcards with statements that the Air Force later corrected.

The campaign worked. Thousands of people sent these postcards to the Air Force, dwarfing the number of anti-F-35 comments they received. But the Air Force said publicly that the postcard wasn’t accurate. The statements people had agreed with were misleading and downplayed the noise level and potential impact on residents. Here’s what they said in the final Environmental Impact Statement:

“In all instances, the F-35 generates noise levels greater than the F-16s. Second, the postcard states that there would be 2,613 fewer operations per year; however, this is only the case under ANG Scenario 1. Under ANG Scenario 2, there would be 803 fewer operations. Third, while it is not anticipated there would be adverse health effects, the noise evaluation does indicate that when compared to baseline conditions both basing scenarios would affect more acres, people, and housing units that are exposed to noise levels exceeding 65 dB DNL and greater. There would also be continued disproportionate impacts to low-income and minority populations exposed to noise levels exceeding 65 dB DNL.”

(A noise level of 65 decibels is the Federal Aviation Administration's "limit for residential land use compatibility.")

But it was too late. And after the decision was made for Burlington, the pro-F-35 postcards became a talking point.

Jane Lindholm, 2018: So we know the delegation has supported it and political influence is a large factor. We know the Air Force supported it. But if the people don't, are you as a representative of the people in some way required to take another look?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: Well, I could tell the 28,000 people who sent in postcards and signed a petition for it, let me think this over again. I mean, there's two sides on this issue.

It is here that we arrive at the third version of this answer, as to why the jets are based in Vermont. The political answer.

The political answer

We asked POLITICO’s Bryan Bender how he would answer Bobby Arnell’s question: How did the F-35 end up being based in Vermont?

“One of the things that we at POLITICO cover very closely is what we call ‘the politics of defense,’” Bender said. “So, the Pentagon budget is enormous. And the F-35, like any other major program, has political spoils. And a number of years ago, Senators Leahy and Bernie Sanders — who are both senior members of the Senate, politically powerful, sitting on key committees — they went to bat with the Pentagon and the Air Force to try and get Vermont to the top of the list when it comes to actually getting some of these new planes. Because, you know, you get new planes, but you also get the economic benefits that come with.”

vpr-535-leahy.jpg
Angela Evancie
Sen. Patrick Leahy at a 2013 press conference, celebrating the decision that came after years of intense debate.

Rosanne Greco says she saw “the politics of defense” play out in her own career in the Air Force.

“Our military is run by civilian leadership. They hold the purse strings, they have the power,” she says. “After spending 30 years in the Air Force, you know [that] whatever a U.S. senator wants from the military in their state, they get.”

Rosanne Greco says you can infer Leahy’s influence from the administrative records, which reference extensive communication between the Air Force and Leahy’s office. Bryan Bender is a bit more demure in his assessment — but just a bit.

“I think there was a sense that the political influence of Senator Leahy made a difference in the end,” Bender says. “He was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee at the time, [a committee that] oversees the Pentagon budget. He's a Democrat. He's from a fairly liberal state, not always someone that the defense hawks could count on for support. And so I think this was widely seen as sort of a way to kind of get into the good graces of Pat Leahy — and obviously, Pat Leahy wanted the planes there.

“And so, again, even though the process for deciding these things is a pretty bureaucratic one, where they do all kinds of different assessments, I've been around long enough and covered some of these debates long enough to know that, while you might not be able to find the direct link between senator so-and-so making the call and the decision being made, there's no doubt that these decisions can be influenced.”

And what about Sen. Bernie Sanders?

“My sense was that Sanders certainly didn't stand in the way of this,” Bender goes on. “But I think optics for him were a little bit different because Bernie Sanders rails against the defense budget. But certainly, he didn't stop it.

“And I think in the end, the Air Force maintains that, even if there was a political push to get these planes, in the end, when they did all of their analysis ... They decided that Vermont was at the top, and so that's why they decided to do it.”

Responses

When we asked the Air Force how they made their decision, they said this:

“The Air Force uses its strategic basing process when making basing decisions. Decisions are based on a comprehensive assessment of all viable basing locations. The strategic basing process uses criteria-based analysis and the application of military judgment.”

When we asked about the nature of the Air Force’s communication with our delegation, and how many times they were contacted by our senators, they said this:

“During the F-35 basing action referenced, the Air Force regularly briefed the defense committees and the affected state delegations on the basing status. The Air Force does not maintain records of delegation contacts.”

Gen. Hank Harder, with the Vermont Air National Guard, dismissed Rosanne Greco’s assertion that the Guard had unduly influenced or manipulated the process in any way:

“I can tell you that as long as I've been in the Guard and the people that I serve with, we keep our oath very prominent, that we're going to serve to the best of our ability and serve the Constitution. And we're very proud of the job we do. And so were we proud to be considered for the first new fighter for the Air Force in a very long time? Sure we were, and we were providing information, accurate information about our operations. So that's my point of view.”

_

Bernie Sanders’ office didn’t respond to a list of detailed questions about his support of the jets.

As for Patrick Leahy, he’s always downplayed his own political influence.

“I wish I had the power to tell our Army or Air Force or Navy what they must or must not do. But I can't think of any senator of either party who has ever had that kind of power,” Leahy has said.

Our question-asker Bobby says he’s written to our delegation to share his concerns about the F-35, but he’s only gotten form letter replies.

We asked Bobby: If you could speak to any member of the delegation for this story, who would it be?

“That's a really good question. I actually think it would be Senator Leahy,” Bobby said. “I'd really I'd really like to know what that [basing decision] process looked like and what led to that decision, and if he was aware of how greatly this would affect members of the Winooski community, or how loud they would be — and if he would still make that decision now, knowing how loud they are, and all the feedback that he's gotten from members of Winooski, and also Burlington as well.”

A spokesperson for the senator declined our interview request. So we played Bobby’s comment for Leahy when he came on Vermont Edition recently. Here’s some of what Leahy said:

"As you know, Sen. Sanders, Congressman Welch, myself, and Gov. [Phil] Scott all supported the F-35. In fact, the decision was made, the final decision, during the Trump administration, and I think the fact that everybody here supported it, and of course the final decision was done at the Air Force — that’s how it was made ... Now I’ve been there, and I’ve heard them, they’re louder than the F-16s, it’s a different frequency, just like the planes that carry UPS and all those other type of planes, cargo planes are much noisier than some of our passenger planes ... But because I have heard this as being noisier, I’ve been working to get money, FAA funding, to help with mitigation. For example, we secured funding for the Chamberlain School in South Burlington, we’re getting funding for communities to help.

"This noise, I think people do have legitimate concerns about noise. I know Senator Sanders, Congressman Welch, I and the governor are doing everything possible, working with the Guard to do that. But we do have an Air National Guard. And I remember when Senator Sanders asked the Secretary of the Air Force, 'If we don’t have the F-35, do you have any other plane we can have?' She said, emphatically, ‘No.’ And he said what we all agree to: We should have them, the F-35. We should be very very proud of the Air and Army National Guard that we have in Vermont. I’m extremely proud of them ... And the sound is a reality, but the mitigations can be improved, there are things that can be done, and we’ll do it."

(You can hear the full exchange here.)

You might remember, at the beginning of the story, that Bobby Arnell said it was frustrating to feel like he and others weren’t being heard by the people in power. He didn’t get to speak with Leahy for this episode, but he did get to pepper General Hank Harder, of the Vermont Air National Guard, with questions for almost an hour.

A photo of three people on a video screen. One man is in uniform and one woman is holding a microphone.
Angela Evancie
Question-asker Bobby Arnell interviewing Brig. Gen. Hank Harder, the assistant adjutant general of the Vermont Air National Guard, with VPR's Angela Evancie.

They talked about the decision itself, and what Bobby thinks of the jets now: “I think one of the frustrating things for me is not ever really knowing when they're going to be taking off or landing.”

And Harder explained some of the ways the Vermont Air National Guard is mitigating the noise of the jets: “Some people call it, in aviation, ‘noise abatement.’ So one of the things we did with the F-35 is actually raised the traffic pattern by 500 feet.”

And there was very much a vibe of, this is the way things are now. Regardless of how exactly the decision was made.

“We're here for the foreseeable future,” Harder said. “It is our federally-resourced and mandated mission that we have — to train and be ready for the nation's call, just like we were after 9/11. So we're here. We're part of the community, we're interested in what folks have to say, and we're going to balance our activities as much as we can and continue to engage with the community. And we're appreciative of that opportunity.”

What now?

The story isn’t totally over.

“What happens now,” Harder explains, “is the Air Force and the Air National Guard will do another noise modeling study, to see if what was predicted [in the EIS], is that, kind of, the reality of how we are doing our operations?”

Another noise study. It’s set to begin before the end of this year, and be complete in 2023.

“And what if the outcome is different than what was expected?” Bobby asks. “Do you have any idea as to what that means for future missions for the Guard?”

“I don't want to necessarily speculate on that,” Harder replied. “Let's take a look at what the noise modeling comes out with and see if it's close to what the EIS, the environmental impact study, outlined when it was published.”

_

We asked the Air Force if there were any outcome that would change the Vermont Air National Guard’s mission. Their response: “There are no plans to change locations.”

Meanwhile, the F-35 has a somewhat tarnished public image beyond Vermont.

“It's over cost, much delayed, and in the opinion of a lot of critics not nearly living up to all of the billing,” POLITICO’s Bryan Bender says. “But I think most people agree, the program has invested so much money, that we're so far down the road, that there's no turning back. The question is whether, as some members of Congress will assert, is it time to cut our losses, buy as many as we think we really need, but then move on to something else?”

But would that matter for Vermont? And is the Air Force’s decision one that could ever be reversed?

“I mean, never say never … especially these days, anything is possible,” Bender says. “But it's hard to conceive. The National Guard is very powerful politically, and the Air National Guard, by extension — they have a huge voice in Washington. So I don't think it's impossible … but I think there would really have to be much more of a groundswell, to the point where this becomes an issue that could make or break individuals running for elected office in Vermont.

“If you are running for governor, or you're running for Congress in Vermont or Senate, or maybe even the state legislature, and you have to weigh in on this — because if you don't, it could spell whether you get elected — I think that's where you could see there being a real chance that this could be reversed. But it would also be costly, probably, to reverse it.”

At the end of our interview with the Vermont Air National Guard’s assistant adjutant general, Hank Harder, Bobby thanked the general.

“I do want to thank General Harder again for coming to speak with us. I think that's part of my frustration and others within the community, is sometimes our concerns that are [shared] with the decision-making authorities — our federal representation, local representation — they aren't always willing to engage in this kind of debate.”

And Bobby added that his questioning of the F-35 isn’t rooted in criticism of the Air National Guard itself.

“And sometimes I feel like it's taken that way,” he said. “I think the Air Guard, I think the National Guard in Vermont does a lot of great things for the community. However, when it comes to the F-35, I feel like in a lot of ways it's more detrimental to the community than beneficial.”

“I really appreciate your questions and your comments,” Harder replied, “and you're right. I think sometimes comments or questions can be misconstrued as challenges. And that's not what we're looking for. We want to work with the community as best we can.”

But Bobby Arnell isn’t staying in the Winooski community. He sold his house. In August, he and his family are moving to Burlington’s Old North End, to get away from the noise.

Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, and never miss an episode:

Loading...

Credits

Thanks to Bobby Arnell for the great question.

Angela Evancie reported and produced this episode, with help: Myra Flynn interviewed Winooski residents, and Josh Crane surfaced all the old audio from the VPR archive. Those two also helped edit the episode, with additional editing from Liam Elder-Connors. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane; digital production by Myra Flynn and Elodie Reed; video by VPR’s news fellow Marlon Hyde. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions and Myra Flynn.

Special thanks to Bob Kinzel, Julie Macuga, Kirk Carapezza, Sarah Harris and Taylor Dobbs — and to VPR’s program Vermont Edition, for doing so many shows on the F-35 over the years.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio.

Stay Connected
Angela Evancie is VPR's Director of Engagement Journalism and the Executive Producer of Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.