WILSON RING, Associated Press
SOUTH BURLINGTON -- The U.S Air Force on Tuesday announced it will base 18 new F-35 fighter planes at the Burlington International Airport despite complaints that the planes would be too noisy and pose a risk to the community.
The ruling follows a lengthy and heated debate in Vermont over the plane, which is designed to replace the aging F-16.
"Today is an historic day for the U.S. Air Force, for the National Guard and certainly for the Vermont Air National Guard," Vermont Adjutant Gen. Steven Cray said Tuesday while announcing the decision to a hanger full of airmen and women. The first F-35s are due to arrive in Vermont in 2020.
Opponents worry about noise and possible accidents from the untried aircraft. They have vowed to sue to block the F-35 basing in Vermont.
"I think we have a very strong possibility of turning this back. It really depends on a large numbers of people participating," said South Burlington lawyer James Marc Leas. "When the injustice of the decision to force this onto the most densely populated residential area in Vermont is known, I think we’re going to see not just an increase in opposition in Vermont, but nationally."
The Vermont National Guard has said the planes can be flown in a way that would minimize noise. And since the first planes aren’t due to arrive for more than six years, the planes were be fully tested by the time they arrive.
Supporters, including the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Peter Shumlin, argued the planes would help ensure about 1,100 well-paying National Guard jobs.
Cray, in a separate news conference after he made the announcement, said the Air Guard would continue to work with the civilians affected by the noise of the plane.
"We have been flying in this community for 66 years," he said. "With the F-16s we have continuously improved our flying operations to be good neighbors and we will continue to do that."
Pegged at about $130 million each for the Air Force version, the F-35 is the military’s most expensive procurement program ever. The plane, also called the Joint Strike Fighter, is designed to be the nation’s supersonic and most advanced fighter through mid-century, with different models for the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
Also Tuesday, the Air Force decided to base 72 F-35s at the active duty Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah.
The Vermont Air Guard Base and Hill were the Air Force’s preferred alternatives for the roll out of the planes, which are designed to be the U.S. military’s main fighter aircraft for decades to come.
Vermont was chosen over Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina, while Hill was chosen over Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
Air Force Civilian spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Tuesday the next round of F-35 basing decisions would focus on overseas locations. There will be additional F-35 bases chosen in the continental United States, but she didn’t know when that will happen, but the bases not chosen Tuesday can be considered in the next round.
"They are all very good candidates," she said of the bases not chosen Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called the decision disappointing.
"There will be more opportunities for Shaw, McEntire, and South Carolina as the Air Force carries out its beddown process," Scott said. "Shaw AFB and McEntire JNGB are first-class bases and will continue to operate their missions with success. Though we face many challenges, I believe South Carolina’s military installations will remain a cornerstone of our national defense efforts in the future."
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., the co-chairman of the Senate National Guard caucus and a long-time proponent of the guard, said the decision shows how the National Guard is an equal partner in the nation’s defense.
"There was a time in this country when the Army Guard, the Air Guard were seen as something like a step-child of the active forces," Leahy said. "Well, recent wars have proven they are anything but. They serve with just as much skill as anybody else; they risk as much as anyone else."