Rep. Taylor takes Madison team to Vermont to learn about F-35s

Residents compare notes on planes’ impact on communities

Chris Taylor and Ret. Col Greco at the Burlington air field
Chris Taylor at the Burlington airfield (photo by Nicole Desautels)

A group of community leaders led by Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) flew to Burlington, Vermont, last week to see firsthand how a community that has recently begun hosting F-35 fighter jets is responding to the jets’ arrival. Madison Ald. Rebecca Kemble and community activist Brandi Grayson also joined the tour.

The Air Force has chosen Madison’s Truax Field as a potential site for F-35s, and Taylor and others are concerned about adverse effects mentioned in the Air Force’s  draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that suggest the noise from the jets might render neighborhoods around the airport unfit for residential land use and interfere with learning at local schools. 

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.” (Prolonged exposure to 85-decibel-level noise is associated with hearing loss.)

“We don’t have complete information and the information we do have is super scary,” said Taylor.

“We wanted to go now, while the public comment period is still open,” she added. (The Air Force is accepting public questions and comments on its draft environmental impact statement until Nov. 1.)

Both Taylor and Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth), whose district includes Madison, have asked for a test run of the F-35 at Truax, so area residents could compare the noise to the F-16s that currently take off and land there. But the Air Force has turned down those requests.

The Madison delegation hoped to hear the F-35s take off and land in Burlington, but the Air Force informed them that they would not be flying during the delegation’s visit.  

“They really do not want us to hear these planes,” said Taylor.

“They’re bringing the planes in two at a time and they’ve only flown a handful of times here,” said retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Greco, who has led community opposition to the F-35 in Burlington. 

Chris Taylor meets with Burlington residents, including Helen Riehle, chair of the South Burlington city council (second from left)
Chris Taylor meets with Burlington residents, including Helen Riehle, chair of the South Burlington city council (second from left). (Photo by Nicole Desautels)

Greco took the Madison delegation to a neighborhood where 200 homes were razed because they were within a high-decibel area after the F-16 fighter jets began using afterburners, which make takeoffs louder. The homes were removed under a Federal Aviation Administration grant program.

“We’ve already lost 200 homes that were taken down because of the noise of the F-16,” Greco said. “So we know how bad it can be.”

“It’s very clear in our environmental impact statement, based on the noise modeling that the Air Force has done, that the F-35 is going to be four times louder than the F-16,” Greco added.

The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) shows an increase in maximum takeoff sound during a “military power takeoff” from 94 to 115 decibels, and explains that each additional 10 decibels represents a doubling of sound.

A typical outdoor rock concert reaches about 100 decibels. 

Greco was the chair of the South Burlington city council when the F-35 environmental impact statement came out, and community members began raising concerns about the planes. 

“I came to the same conclusion that other people did, that this was a bad place for it and so, probably, is Madison,” Greco said. “You don’t put a fighter bomber like this in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”

While the Madison delegation was in Vermont, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce released a statement disputing F-35 opponents’ claims about excessive noise from the planes. The Chamber noted that there were four unscheduled F-35 arrivals and departures from the Dane County Regional Airport over the summer, which it labeled “further evidence that the actual noise impact of an F-35 is not much different than the existing F-16s.”

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 Chamber has pushed to locate the planes in Madison, citing the Truax base’s $100 million in annual economic impact, the emergency response services it provides for Dane County Regional Airport, and the tuition assistance paid to our colleges and universities for area students who serve in the National Guard.

The Chamber press release included a link to video footage of F-35s and F-16s taking off in Boise, Idaho, and suggested there is little difference between the noise from the two planes.

The Chamber has also put out a fact sheet disputing the idea that the F-35 will be four times louder than the F-16, pointing out that the Air Force data that is the basis for that claim is only applicable to Burlington, and other sites have measured negligible difference in sound between the two planes.

Because of community opposition and the proximity of dense, residential areas to the airport, Burlington was not a preferred site for the F-35, Greco said. But pressure from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) helped bring the planes to the area anyway.

Greco, who was recently arrested during a sit-in in Leahy’s office, does not believe the F-35 is compatible with the defensive mission of the Air National Guard.

“The F-35 is not a defensive weapons system,” she said, pointing out that the plane is built to carry nuclear bombs. When it comes to defending the United States, she added, “the real threats are cyber attacks and terrorism, not incoming bombers.”

At a series of meetings, Madison and Burlington activists compared notes. The Madison delegation met with the mayor of Winooski, Vermont, a town of 5,000 people that passed a resolution opposing the F-35s. About 40% of the homes in Winooski will be affected by the F-35s, and local officials are concerned about FAA policy that may make them responsible for a 10% match on federal funds used for noise remediation.

“It’s actually the densest city in Vermont, and a diverse community. So the negative impact is falling on low-income people and people of color,” Taylor noted.

The local NBC affiliate broadcast video of the F-35s arriving in Burlington and interviewed residents to get their reaction, including Jonathan Wilfong, of Winooski, who said he’s accustomed to the F-16 sound but now plans to move to a new community because of the noise. 

“The noticeable difference is that the F-35 actually reverberated my internal organs,” Wilfong told NBC Channel 5. “I could feel my body reverberating and it felt painful to listen to,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”

Taylor said the F-35s are better suited to a more sparsely populated area. “We are not a good site for these planes,” she said. “If you care about communities. Burlington was not a good site either.”

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.