Vt. Air National Guard, homeowners reflect on anniversary of F-35s arrival

Published: Sep. 18, 2020 at 5:20 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Saturday marks one year since the Vermont Air National Guard welcomed the first F-35 fighter jets. It’s the first Air Guard base in the country to receive them, but they didn’t come without controversy. The sound of the jets can be potentially harmful to people who live nearby the base, and the Burlington Airport is leading the charge to get federal dollars for renovation projects to the most impacted homes in the area.

Sixteen of the 20 jets are on the ground now, with the final four set to arrive this month. One year after they arrived, people most impacted by the noise say have mixed thoughts about life with the F-35s. “They are challenging and disruptive but, you have to reflect on the larger story and the greater good,” said Jill Jemison of Winooski.

“It’s been painful, seriously painful,” said Stefani Us of South Burlington.

“I just am really excited when I see them fly over," said Susan Simmons of Winooski.

“We got used to the F-16s, and you know that’s kind of the way it’s going to be. You live by an airport, you got the Guard, and so going in you knew you had some military planes here. The F-35s just a different animal,” said Richard Schilling of South Burlington.

Schilling has lived on Queensbury Road for 20 years and doesn’t plan to be there much longer because of the jets. His home is one of 10 listed in the 2023 projected noise exposure areas where F-35 sound could reach 75 decibels or higher. The CDC says noise over 70 dBs over a prolonged period, may damage a person’s hearing.

“Whenever the F-35s fly over, you have to stop your life for a half-hour," Schilling said. “I’m retiring in two years and we’re leaving.”

More than 6,000 people in Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski, and Williston are expected to be impacted by the noise by 2023. To help block some of the noise, the Burlington International Airport has been working to secure federal money for sound mitigation efforts.

“Sound insulation, of course, has been on the minds of many people and of course many municipalities,” said Nic Longo, deputy director of aviation at the Burlington International Airport.

A pilot program is in the works for this year and will include 10 homes that will be picked based on the greatest sound impact for noise tests and to offer sound insulation. It’s all paid for by the FAA and includes installing new windows and doors, or even a new central air system to keep windows closed. After the pilot project, the airport plans to apply for grants every year to do up to 50 homes per year, and continue that cycle as needed.

The airport also recently secured a grant to help with sound mitigation at the Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington. A new central air system is set to be installed in the summer of 2021 and be ready for that fall’s school year. That will allow the school to keep windows closed to keep the jet sounds out.

More federal money was also awarded to the airport to purchase sound monitors for communities impacted by the noise. Those will track live data as any aircraft lands or departs. The information will be uploaded to a website for the public to see and track the sound. Those could be installed as early as this year and into early next year, likely in South Burlington, Winooski, and Williston.

Beyond meeting with community partners about the noise concerns, Vermont Air National Guard Col. David Shevchik says they too are making their own efforts to reduce jet sound. That includes reducing afterburner use, strict landing and takeoff times, and staying as high in the air as possible for as long as possible. But it hasn’t stopped the complaints. So far this year, the Guard has taken 618 negative calls or emails about the 158th Fighter Wing. The Guard says many were repeat callers.

“We understand that noise is a concern, so that’s one thing that we have to balance -- community considerations, with our own mission and training requirements,” Col. Shevchik said.

Pilots and crew members have been logging training hours this past year in preparation for future federal missions with the jets. That will happen in 16 more months, when the Green Mountain Boys come out of what’s called “conversion status.” As the first Air Guard unit in the country to receive the F-35s, Col. Shevchik says he and the team are honored to be a part of history and ready for whatever is to come next.

“The fact that the teams been able to come this far in a year is one thing I’m most proud of,” he said.

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