Countdown begins for arrival of Vermont's F-35s

Published: Aug. 1, 2019 at 5:09 PM EDT
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The countdown is on for the arrival next month of the Vermont Air National Guard's new F-35 fighter jets.

"It's extremely exciting. Everything is a fever pitch here," said Vermont Air National Guard Lt. Colonel Nate Graber

The rush is on to get ready for the F-35 fighter jet. Construction continues at the Vermont Air National Guard, with just over a month to go before the first two jets land here.

"It's really a dream to fly," said Lt. Graber, who will fly one of the 20 Vermont jets -- 18 fully-ready to fly anytime and two extras, if there are maintenance issues.

He went through extensive training in F35 simulators and he's flown 30 times in an F-35 already in action. But this is the first time we're seeing one of the Vermont planes in its initial test flight this week in Texas.

Lockheed Martin performs three safety check flights after the planes come off the assembly line. Then a military pilot tests them three times too. "Then the Vermont Air Guard will go down and fly them back to Burlington," Graber said.

The fighter wing construction price tag is around $160 million, though the Guard says $60 million in upgrades were needed anyway. The work will continue for another year, but the officials say they it will be mission ready before the F-35 touches down.

The F-35 is touted as the future of combat aviation -- virtually invisible to enemy radar. "It can maneuver in ways the F-16 can't" Graber said. "In combat, that's the key to winning -- to be able see someone else first -- and in many cases in the F-35, they are never able to see you."

It combines those stealth capabilities with supersonic speed. It's the most expensive weapons program in history. Each jet costs more than $89 million.

It's also, by far, the most controversial program. The highly regarded Vermont Guard came under fire over noise and safety fears surrounding the fighter jets.

Reporter Darren Perron: Is there any concern that once these planes arrive, that the reputation of the Guard could be in jeopardy if they are, in fact, louder and if the government doesn't step in soon enough to do any of this noise remediation fast?

Lt. Colonel Nate Graber: I can't speak to the noise remediation taken by the FAA or other side of the airport, but what I can say is that I think there is a lot of anxiety that has been built up in the community, I wouldn't say is completely unwarranted, but what I would ask is that when the planes arrive is that you listen with your own ears and use your own judgement as to whether you think this plane is that much louder than what it's been touted by some in the community.

"We worry about what our neighbors think of us," Lt. Graber said. "We will do everything we can as pilots and via our operating procedures to alleviate the noise issue."

Artwork on the new planes is limited, so as not to interfere with its stealth technology. It has the fighter wing patch and a Yellow Scorpions stamp honoring the World War Two pilots who led to the formation of the Vermont National Guard. "It is our tribute to the pilots and to the men and women of the greatest generation," Graber said.

The jets won't arrive all at once. Right now, the plan is for two to arrive each month for the next ten months.