The Vermont National Guard said it’s ready for the first F-35 jets to touch down. The fighter jets are slated to land in Burlington sometime next week.
“Now that it’s here and it’s upon us, there’s a lot of energy and our airmen are really excited for this,” said Col. David Smith, 158th Fighter Wing Commander.
A total of 20 jets will land at the base by June of 2020.
“There’s a lot of work to do to train our airmen for this mission,” Col. Smith said. “We’ll get the airplanes here, we’ll celebrate, and then we’ll get to work.”
Col. Smith said 5 pilots are fully qualified to fly the planes and another 5 are currently in training. On Tuesday, two pilots will head to Fort Worth, Texas with plans to land the first two jets in Burlington by Friday.
“I compare it to probably my first flight in combat,” said Lt. Col. Nate Graber. “There’s a little bit of anxiety, there there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us, but I’m also honored and privileged to have this opportunity to fly one of the first planes back.”
Lt. Col. Graber said the technology and capabilities of the F-35 will be crucial in national defense missions.
“It allows us to employ the airplane tactically in a way that we just couldn’t with the f-16,” said Lt. Graber.
The arrival of the F-35 comes after some community push back about noise levels, environmental impact, and safety. Lt. Graber said he feels secure flying the aircraft.
“The accident rate has been extremely low especially for a system that is really so new out there in the fleet,” he said.
Col. Smith said Vermont’s ready to be an example for other guards.
“Show with this mission the same thing we showed with the F-16 for 33 years,” Col. Smith said. “We’re really good at what we do here, we’re proud of it and we’re proud of our heritage. We’re going to show the same thing with the F-35.”
Meanwhile, protestors have gathered outside Senator Patrick Leahy’s office in Burlington all week, some even being arrested. They’re still pushing for a delay in the arrival of the jets until a list of their demands are met.