MONTPELIER, VERMONT - The Vermont Air National Guard is due to take delivery of the first two of what will become 20 F-35 fighter aircrafts, the first guard unit to receive the next-generation fighter.
The aircraft will be based at the Burlington International Airport and are being flown to Vermont on Thursday from the factory in Fort Worth, Texas.
The delivery follows years of hard work, planning and missions in the guard's previous aircraft, F-16s that flew continuously for weeks over New York after the 9/11 attacks and in multiple combat tours in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East.
"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," Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing that is the new home to the F-35s, said before they arrived.
But for some members of the community, the arrival of noisier aircraft marks the failure of years-long efforts to keep the Air Force from delivering the planes to an airport located among residential neighborhoods and industrial complexes in the middle of Vermont's most populous county.
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.
Smith 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.
"It's really important to us too to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the community," he said.
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.
Assigning F-35s, which are designed to replace a number of aging fighter models, to Vermont shows the days are long gone when Air National Guard units received hand-me-down aircraft while new planes went exclusively to active duty Air Force units, said Ian Bryan, a retired Tennessee Air National Guard pilot who worked in Washington as a legislative liaison with the National Guard Bureau.
He said Vermont, and the guard, are at the forefront of learning how to make the best use of the new airplanes.
"Ten years from now, we need to have figured out how to use this F-35 thing and it's going to be the lead as the wings fall off some of these old airplanes," Bryan said.