The first F-35A Lightning II fighter jets arrived at Burlington International Airport on Thursday, more than five years after the U.S. Air Force announced that the Vermont National Guard would be the first guard unit in the country to base the combat aircraft.
The fighters arrived in Burlington airspace at about 1:20 p.m., and after circling for about 15 minutes, their engines roaring, they touched down before a gathering of guard members, media and other onlookers.
The jets — the first of 20 that will eventually be based at the 158th Fighter Wing — were piloted by VNG airmen, who took off late Thursday morning from Ft. Worth, Texas, home of the F-35’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
The jets’ arrival follows a sometimes contentious process. Almost from the moment the deployment was announced, in February 2014, opponents pressed local and state leaders to use their influence to cancel the basing. In recent days, they gathered in protest outside U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office in Burlington.
Last year, the Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski city councils all passed resolutions calling for the F-35 basing to be canceled. Those resolutions were mainly centered around noise concerns, although opponents were also skeptical of claims that the jets will not to be used to carry and deliver nuclear weapons.
Rosanne Greco, the former chair of the South Burlington City Council and a retired Air Force colonel, said she supported basing the plane in her home city until she learned by reading the Air Force’s environmental impact statement about how noisy the F-35 is and what she feels are the dangers of having a new, unproven weapon system at a suburban airport.
“All I had to do was read what the Air Force said about the impact it would have,” Greco said. “The evidence was overwhelming it would have a very negative effect on close to 7,000 people” who live near the airport.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Greg Knight addressed some of those concerns. He said the jets will not have nuclear capabilities and there are “currently no future plans” for the Vermont National Guard to have a nuclear mission.
Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, said the Air National Guard understands the concerns of the community. The guard has modified the traffic patterns the planes will use and checked the take-off times to minimize noise disruptions. As to safety, he said that so far more than 400 F-35s have been delivered and the planes have accumulated more than 200,000 flying hours.
“The F-35 coming into Burlington really secures our mission and our future for, you are talking the next three or four decades, and that allows us to serve our nation, but also to be ready to serve our state as well,” Smith said.
“It’s really important to us too to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the community.”
The Air Force describes the F-35 as its fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth technology with speed and agility. Different models are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and are being sold to American allies across the world.
It is also the U.S. military’s most expensive weapons system of all time, with an estimated total cost of $1.5 trillion over the expected half-century life of the program. The model of the planes that will be based in Burlington cost about $94 million each.
This story included reporting by the Associated Press.