By Brian Everstine
New forces outside of Vermont are joining the fight to delay, or completely block, the basing of F-35As at the Burlington Air Guard Station.
The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based organization focusing on government misconduct, urged Air Force officials to delay the move until the F-35A’s safety record is better established, since the prospective base is in a residential area.
“Given myriad uncertainties with the Joint Strike Fighter program and other troubling concerns, and specifically future funding levels for testing and flight hours, it is clearly prudent to delay the basing decision for this unproven aircraft program,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian wrote in the Nov. 6 letter.
“It is irresponsible for you to rush to beddown this immature aircraft in a residential zone,” Brian wrote. “If you believe there is indeed some urgency, then you should not needlessly endanger the local population and should follow past precedent and place the F-35A in a less dangerous location.”
The Air Force last summer said the Burlington base is its preferred location to base a squadron of the stealth jets, replacing F-16s currently flown by the Vermont Air National Guard. The Air Force released an environmental impact statement on the base in September, concluding that the safety of the aircraft would increase over time, and that some neighborhoods in the region would see an increase in noise levels.
Burlington city officials last month purchased a new insurance policy to protect the city from lawsuits stemming from airport-related issues.
Brian, in the letter addressed to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Acting Secretary Eric Fanning, said the F-16s that fly out of the Vermont base have reached an impressive safety record, with a rate of 3.55 cumulative major accidents over 12 million fleet hours. However, this wasn’t always the case. When the F-16 had logged a cumulative 25,000 hours, it crashed 25 times as often as today, Brian said.
That means the Air Force should follow a trend of basing new aircraft in remote areas such as in desert locations or near the sea. The Air Force will soon announce its first F-35A base outside of the continental United States, expected to be remote Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Also, two squadrons will be based at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., which sits outside of Phoenix but near desert land.
In the letter, POGO writes that it has obtained Air Force documents that state the F-35A will only log about 28,000 hours of testing and more than 300,000 hours of training and operational flying by 2020, when the base is expected to become operational. Those figures do not take into account possible sequestration-related budget cuts.
“In such an uncertain budgetary environment, in which the Department’s overall spending has declined for the first time in over a decade, with what level of confidence can you estimate the number of flying hours that the F-35 will have logged seven years from now?” Brian wrote.
F-35 opponents in Burlington attempted to rally the city council to block the move; however, a proposal that sought to block it failed Oct. 30. A separate measure that would have created “health and safety standards” for all jets at the airport also failed.