F-35 stirs strong reaction in Madison

Citizens jam public hearings on the issue

F_35 fighter jet
Image provided by the Ministry of Defence of a Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning. (Photo by Ministry of Defence via Getty Images)

The Air National Guard held a public forum on the plan to bring F-35 fighter jets to Madison’s Truax Field on Thursday night at the Exhibition Hall of the Alliant Energy Center.

Public comments on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared by the Air Force are open until Sept. 27.

Worried residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the airport came out in force to the forum, the second in two days. On Wednesday, hundreds of neighbors packed a community meeting at Sherman Middle School on Madison’s north side. Many expressed concerns about the “significant disproportionate impacts to low-income and minority populations, as well as children” flagged in the draft environmental impact statement on the F-35. 

The draft EIS states that an additional 1,019 households near the airport will be exposed to a 65-decibel noise level, and 132 houses where 292 people live will be exposed to even greater noise levels “incompatible with residential land use.”  

State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison)

“That’s a lot of noise — 65 decibles,” said says Rep. Chris Taylor, (D-Madison), who attended the forum in the middle-school gym. “If you’re standing two or three feet from me, you can’t hear me if I’m shouting.”

More than 300 residents spoke at the meeting at Sherman Middle School, mostly in opposition to the proposal. 

There were more F-35 supporters visible at the Alliant Center event, gathered in the parking lot handing out blue baseball caps and pro-F-35 stickers during the Air Force “open house” on the issue. A much larger group of citizens, who came out to oppose the F-35, gathered nearby holding signs and listening to speakers. Inside, members of the public were invited to fill out comment cards. 

‘Not negotiable’

Kenzie Carroll standing outside the Alliant Center
Kenzie Carroll supports the F-35 (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Kenzie Carroll, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison engaged in a civil exchange of views with a group of protesters who wanted her to know about the waste and dysfunctional history of the Pentagon’s expensive F-35 program. 

Carroll listened politely, but didn’t change her mind. “I’ve always felt safer with the 115th fighter squadron here,” she said of the local Air Force National Guard base at Truax. “I think the F-35s would be a good update. The F-16s need to be updated.”

Carroll’s dad is a fighter pilot and flew F-16s, she explained.

Asked if she could understand local residents’ objection to the noise issue, Carroll, who grew up across town from the airport and now lives on campus, said she could. “I think if housing is affected, government compensation is beneficial to everyone,” she said. “But in my opinion, the F-35s are not negotiable. It’s something we need.”

Tracy Peterson with a No F-35s sign (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Tracy Peterson (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Tracy Peterson, a nurse who came to the Alliant Center with her two children, ages 4 and 7, lives in the Eken Park neighborhood, just outside the zone the Air Force has declared will be affected by the F-35s. “We wouldn’t qualify for any remediation,” she said. “But we’re already affected by the F-16s.” 

On occasion, when military jets fly low over her house, she said, “the whole house would shake. My concern about the report is that they are talking about average noise levels. But at the higher range, I’ve experienced the physical trauma — the kids immediately start crying.”

Peterson said she doesn’t want to leave the house she and her husband bought four years ago. They can’t afford to buy a house elsewhere in the city, and she likes living close enough to work to ride her bike. “It’s good for Madison to support those types of neighborhoods where lower income people can buy a house,” she added.

‘Where are we going to go?’

Sarah White with a No F-35s sign (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Sarah White (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Sarah White, a writer who works at home on Fair Oaks Avenue, also worries about the noise. “When I’m out walking my dog, sometimes I have to put my hands over my ears,” she says. White bought her home 25 years ago. “There’s no way I could afford to buy even the smallest fixer-upper,” she said. “There are many people like me — aging in place. I see a lot of my neighbors out here,” she said, looking around the Alliant parking lot. “Where are we going to go?”

Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce, came out to support the F-35s. From the local business community’s standpoint, the base at Truax is an economic boon. “It generates $100 million a year and 1,200 jobs,” He said. Bringing the F-35 here will guarantee another 30 years of economic stimulus to the area, he added.

A group called the Badger Air Community Council, whose board is comprised of local business leaders and includes former University of Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter, also is pushing for the F-35. The group’s website extols the 115th Fighter Wing’s contributions to the region. 

Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce
Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Brandon also suggested that the environmental impact statement is overly pessimistic. He points to a 1996 airport expansion that turned out to be far less damaging than projected.

“These are written from a pessimistic point of view to show maximum potential impact,” he said.

Quality of life issues for area residents also have to be balanced against the people employed at Truax: “if those people lose their jobs or are transferred, that affects their quality of life, too.”

The threat that Truax might close if the F-35s do not come to Madison is a contentious point.

Will Truax air base shut down?

“The myth is if we don’t take these F-35s right now, at this time, the Truax base is going to close and that’s just not true,” says Taylor. In her conversations with the Air National Guard, she says, “No one has heard any talk about closing down Truax.” She points to other cities, including Jacksonville, Florida, that continue to be on the list of possible sites for F-35 bases, despite not receiving them in past years. 

“We should not be in a rush to embrace this program dropped right in the middle of an urban area,” says Taylor. “We should do our own analysis. This is going to be disruptive. It’s going to affect learning. For a few dozen jobs do we really want to disrupt our neighborhoods on the north and east side?”

Lt. Col. Dan Statz at the Alliant Center talking about the F-35
Lt. Col. Dan Statz (photo by Ruth Conniff)

“We can’t say what will happen if we don’t get the F-35s,” said Lt. Col. Dan Statz, deputy mission support group commander of the 115th Fighter Wing. “What we do know is that getting the F-35 secures a flying mission in Madison.” 

As for the threat that the base might shut down, Statz said there is no information from the Air Force that Truax is threatened. He points to the draft environmental impact statement itself, which states that the “alternative action” to the F-35 program is to “maintain current aircraft.” 

The Air Force will be selecting bases for the F-35 program through 2035, Statz said. The decision about where those bases go is up to the Secretary of the Air Force, and the process should be complete by January and announced in February or March. 

“They are interested in the impact on the community,” Statz said. 

“The EIS is certainly a strong part,” he added. “But there are other factors — national defense needs, threats.”

Vet for Peace Brad Geyer, who opposes the F-35
Brad Geyer (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Brad Geyer, a member of Veterans for Peace, who attended the forum, questioned the entire rationale for the F-35 program. “This is not defense. This is profit domination,” he said. “We spend as much on the military as the next seven big nations combined. It’s not for defense. It’s so Lockheed Martin and its shareholders can make lots of money.”

Taylor makes a similar point. On the local level she objects to what she calls “a lot of more privileged, corporate interests pushing this program on communities they don’t live in.”

But it’s not just business leaders who favor the F-35.

Baldwin is supportive

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who has been a leading supporter of the F-35 coming to Truax, sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Matthew Donovan reiterating her position that Truax is “highly suitable” for the F-35. But, she added, “I also share the concern of some in our community about the potential noise impacts.” 

Baldwin asked the Air Force to “publicly outline steps it will take to mitigate impacts to the community.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Making the same point as Chamber of Commerce’s Brandon, Baldwin went on to suggest that the draft environmental impact statement may have overestimated the negative impacts of the F-35, pointing out that it “does not take into consideration that, according to historical data, not all air operations take place at Truax.” She asked for an assessment taking into account the possibility that 20% of operations might take place elsewhere. She also asked for more information on the impact on children and schools as well as options for mitigating noise.

Congressman Mark Pocan
Rep. Mark Pocan

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) also sent a letter to the Air Force’s acting secretary conveying his constituents’ concerns about the noise and asking what recourse is available for families and what strategies the Air Force can offer, including use of flight simulators “to affirmatively mitigate the noise or reduce the number of training flights that will affect our community.”

But local  officials, including Taylor, are not satisfied that remediation will be sufficient. 

“Some people say, well, remediate — that’s a long process,” says Taylor. “You have to do a separate noise study, then you apply to the FAA — that takes a while. Then you have people who can’t open their windows in the summertime?”

City council resolution: no F-35s

On Tuesday, the Madison Common Council will take up a resolution opposing the F-35s at Truax.

Ald. Rebecca Kemble speaks against the F-35 (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Ald. Rebecca Kemble speaks against the F-35 (photo by Ruth Conniff)

“While the City of Madison is not the decision-making body for this action, I believe it is our responsibility to stand up and represent the interests of our city, and, in particular, to advocate for the most vulnerable residents impacted by this decision,” said northside Alderwoman Rebecca Kemble, who took part in the community meeting at Sherman Middle School. 

Kemble was among the sponsors of the resolution opposing the F-35s.

The resolution cites studies showing adverse effects on learning from excessive airplane noise, and notes that, “according to Lt. Col. Statz of the Air National Guard, properties in the affected area will only be eligible for abatement and mitigation after the full transition from F-16s to F-35s is complete, a minimum of two years after the introduction of F-35s.”

A divide between pro-F-35 and anti-F-35 groups has also erupted in Burlington, Vermont, where the first F-35 is scheduled to arrive this month. Burlington was selected to get the airplanes with strong support from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

Two retired Air Force officers were recently arrested in Leahy’s office, protesting the arrival of F-35s at the Burlington International Airport.

Retired Col. Rosanne Greco and retired Lt. Col. Roger Bourassa and members of the SaveOurSkies coalition in Burlington cite recent noise studies that suggest the planes will be much louder than the Air Force originally projected. 

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.

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