by JOHN BRIGGS
Several groups opposed to basing the F-35 fighter/bomber at Burlington International Airport hosted a “citizens’ hearing” Thursday evening to lambaste the Vermont congressional delegation for their refusal to hold public hearings on the basing and to describe as they have in many meetings over the last year why, in their view, it would be a mistake to bring the plane to the airport.
More than 300 people squeezed into the Unitarian Universalist Church at the head of Church Street in Burlington for an enthusiastic anti-F-35 gathering marked by frequent cheers and loud applause for the speakers.
The meeting was part pep rally as well as another attempt to engage the congressional delegation and other proponents of the F-35. Supporters include Gov. Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and local business groups.
At the beginning of the meeting, Chris Hurd, a local Realtor and one of the organizers of the meeting, thanked the politicians for attending and asked them to stand, drawing laughs from the crowd as each name was called in vain.
Opponents of the F-35 have based their position in part on the data contained in the the Air Force’s environmental impact statement, which found the new plane would be up to four times louder on takeoff than the F-16s currently flown by the Vermont Air National Guard. The Air Force study said the number of residences included in areas designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as “unsuitable” for residences because of average sound levels above 65 decibels would sharply increase with the arrival of the F-35s.
That prediction has raised fears of lowered property values in those areas, though proponents of the F-35A have argued that residential property values would not be affected by the increased noise from the new plane. They have also warned of economic losses and a smaller Guard payroll if the new plane is not based at the airport.
Pierre Sprey, a co-designer of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes for the Pentagon, was a featured speaker Thursday. He called the threats of a diminished Guard “hogwash,” noting that F-16s are being refurbished and will fly “way past 2030” because the Air Force is well aware the F-35s won’t do the job.
He told the assembly that unlike those two older planes, which were chosen for production after head-to-head comparisons with prototypes of competing designs, the F-35 had no prototype and has moved into production while still undergoing design changes..
Sprey called the new plane a “shockingly bad” design which will, he said, “fail miserably” as an air-to-air fighter, in providing “close support” for ground troops, and as a bomber.
He said that despite Air Force claims of its stealth capability, it will be easily visible to enemy radar, is vulnerable to ground fire, lacks maneuverability because of its weight and small wings, carries only half the bombing payload of the F-16 and, again because of its small wings, must fly too fast and high to be successful in its close support role.
Sprey said the Air Force is also concealing that the heavy plane will generally require afterburners on takeoffs, meaning it will be far noisier than the projections in the Air Force’s environmental study.
Rabbi Joshua Chasan of the Ohavi Zedek synagogue in Burlington, speaking for himself and 14 other members of the local clergy, said that while local politicians and the Guard are deserving of respect, “we are deeply pained by their support (of the F-35A) because it would destroy the quality of life for our most vulnerable neighbors.”
“Common sense,” Chasan said, “would direct the placement of these airplanes to airports with far fewer people in the vicinity.”
He reminded the audience that the airport has already moved more than 100 families out of their homes because of noise, “turning sweet neighborhoods into boarded-up blocks of barren space. As kings once used their power to dispossess the vulnerable,” he said, “citizens in this democracy we call Vermont are given no choice but to move on.”
He urged steadfastness. “Let us be strong,” he said, “in the face of facile flag waving and fear-mongering.”
Carmine Sargent, who lives in South Burlington close to the airport, said she was reluctant to speak out publicly against the plane but felt compelled as she saw her neighborhood becoming a “little Detroit” as airport buyouts left house after house empty.
“Our houses are our greatest asset,” she said, “and we want a say in what happens to us.”
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben &Jerry’s Homemad Inc, one of the event’s sponsors, praised the “incredible turnout” for the meeting, and told the applauding crowd, “I really believe we can do it.”
“This plane and the Pentagon mentality this plane represents is bankrupting our country,” he said.
No one who favors the basing of the F-35A at the airport spoke at Thursday’s meeting, but Assistant Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Richard Harris said in a prepared statement that the Guard “appreciates” Sprey’s design work on the F-16 and A-10. He added that the Air Force has now “chosen the F-35 and F-22 to address future threats and meet operational strategy. The F-35 is currently undergoing operational test and evaluation flights at Eglin AFB as part of the development process,“ he continued. “It regularly takes off in non-afterburner.”
He said the plane will have more “upgrades” before being based in Burlington.
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