Final Flight: F-16s take off to make way for F-35s

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Some $160 million has been spent so far at the Vermont Air Guard to get the fighter wing ready for the F-35. Though the guard says $60 million in upgrades were needed regardless of which plane it got.

The F-35 will be the Vermont Air Guard's eighth military plane in its 72-year history, and by far, the most controversial.

It's touted as the future of combat aviation-- virtually invisible to enemy radar. It combines those stealth capabilities with supersonic speed and extreme agility. It's the most expensive weapons system in history. Each one costs more than $89 million.

It's had its share of tech problems. And it's been sharply criticized by opponents in Vermont, who say it's too dangerous and loud to fly near densely populated areas.

Still, it's coming and due to land here in September. That means the Vermont Air Guard's current fighter jets, the F-16s, which have been based here for 33 years, are getting set for their final flight. WCAX News has learned that will happen on April 6.

Retired Lt. Col. Scott Baldwin said, "In reflecting back over the years you realize how cool it was."

Cool to be the first Green Mountain Boy to fly the F-16.

In 1986, the fighter jets landed in Vermont. Scott Baldwin, nicknamed Baldy, got to be the first Vermont Guard pilot to man one.

"It was a pretty big deal," he said.

The F-16 arrived to little fanfare and even less controversy. The fighter jets replaced the aging and louder F-4s, which the Vermont Air National Guard flew for four short years. Those were double-seater air-to-ground planes. Basically, they bombed things below. And they were hand-me-downs.

The F-16 was cutting edge and allowed for air-to-air combat, too.

"Having a weapons system that could go any and all ways was exciting," Baldwin said.

And he says the fighter jets redefined the Vermont Air National Guard. It was just the second guard unit in the country to get them.

"From the time that F-16 showed up," Baldwin said, "everything changed."

He says training intensified. The guard began attracting new and younger recruits. And the organization became more professional-- experts in air combat.

"The unit evolved with the new aircraft," retired Col. Phil Murdock said.

Phil Murdock, known as Duck among his comrades, flew F-16s for 24 years.

The Green Mountain Boys were called to duty in those planes often, intercepting Russian Bear Bombers along the coast during the Cold War, stopping drug cartel planes, deploying to war zones and they were the first to scramble on Sept. 11, arriving at Ground Zero in just a couple of hours.

"You train for moments you hope you never have to do," Murdock said.

Responding pilots knew shooting down a commercial airliner was a possibility to prevent another plane from flying into a building.

"All of the maintainers, all of the pilots and support personnel on base knew exactly what to do," Murdock said. "Headquarters called to say load the aircraft and we said they're already done. They said, 'Who told you to do that?' We said, 'We knew what to do.'"

The Green Mountain Boys patrolled the skies over New York City for 122 days.

"That was obviously a defining moment," Deputy Adj. Gen. Ken Gragg said.

But Gragg says the guard's transformation into an elite fighter wing got noticed in another way, too. A readiness inspection earned the Vermont Air National Guard a distinction never granted before in the U.S.: the Air Force's Outstanding Unit Award.

"We were good at what we did and basically you had to train to the level that you were deployable in 24 to 72 hours anywhere in the world and required a certain amount of readiness. So people rose to that expectation and level of readiness," Gragg said.

"It's the same excitement now getting the premiere F-35 jet in the Air Force," Baldwin said.

Baldwin says it's that readiness and the reputation the Green Mountain Boys earned flying the F-16s that's landing the Air Guard the next generation of fighter jet.

Unlike the F-16, the F-35 arrives to ongoing controversy. Opponents claim it's not safe and it's too loud.

But Baldwin is convinced pilots will fly responsibly and put community fears to rest. He's excited about this new chapter for the Vermont Air Guard.

"Hey, everything gets older and the F-16 has gotten older," Baldwin said. "Now, we're getting the front line jet in the military. As bittersweet as it is for me personally seeing that newer plane come, it's a wonderful step forward for the Air National Guard."

With the final flight of the F-16s set for April 6 and the F-35 not due to arrive until September, the Air Guard tells WCAX News that other units in the Northeast will provide coverage in case of a national emergency.