SOUTH BURLINGTON — Vermont Air National Guard officials say opponents of the F-35 have misrepresented the safety information in the final Air Force Environmental Impact Statement, released last week, in an attempt to derail the basing of the advanced fighter jets in Burlington.
During a news conference at the Air Guard station Thursday, officials presented the safety record of the F-16s based at Burlington International Airport and addressed a variety of other safety concerns around the proposed F-35 beddown.
According to the EIS’ analysis of the F-22’s safety record, a jet that is considered to be similar in design to the F-35, the class A mishap rate over 11 years is 7.34 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. This equates to 10 class A accidents over 136,315 flight hours.
Lt. Col. Chris Caputo of the Vermont Air National Guard, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force’s Safety School, said the data in the EIS has been misrepresented as part of a scare tactic to prevent the basing of the F-35 in Vermont.
“The critics of the F-35 are using flawed assumptions to incorrectly present safety concerns to our community,” Caputo said.
These assumptions, he said, include selectively using data from the EIS and not understanding the meaning of a “class A” mishap, which does not always involve an injury.
The Final EIS defines a class A mishap, which are the most severe variety, as an accident involving property damage totaling $2 million or more or a fatality or permanent disability. However, Caputo said this is not synonymous with a “crash.”
To provide another perspective on the safety record of military aircrafts operated by the Guard, Caputo compared the safety record of the F-16s with commercial aircraft at the airport.
Using data from the U.S. Air Force, the National Transportation Safety Board, Burlington International Airport and Air National Guard safety statistics, Caputo said the airport’s commercial aircraft are 8.5 times more likely to have an accident than the planes used by the Guard, such as the F-16.
Apples and pumpkins
Rosanne Greco, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who is now a member of the South Burlington City Council, said comparing the F-16s to commercial aircrafts is like comparing apples to pumpkins.
She cited the EIS that states that the two aircrafts are vastly different.
“Fighter F-16 and F-35A aircraft conduct their operations at vastly different speeds and altitudes than commercial jets, so comparing the two would not be reasonable,” the EIS states. “It would be like comparing the mishap risk of a passenger bus with that of a race car.”
Guard officials said the F-35 will not come to South Burlington without adequate training hours. The F-35 will have flown for 14 years before arriving to Vermont in 2020. In 1986, the F-16 flew for 12 years before it came to Vermont, Caputo said.
The F-35 safety record is perfect, which is not reported in the EIS, he said. There are currently 78 F-35s flying at six locations, Caputo said. There will be 750,000 flight hours before it comes to Burlington, he said.
In December 2016, the Air Force plans to have the F-35 operational, Caputo said. Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the active-duty military base preferred beddown location, will be the first to receive the fighters, Caputo said.
“Before it comes to the Vermont Air National Guard, it’s going to go to an active duty base and then it will also probably be deployed over to the Pacific theater as well,” Caputo said.
Caputo said the Guard is equipped to respond to accidents involving composite materials used on the F-35, a material that is considered to burn longer than other material used for the production of aircraft. He said the F-16s and other commercial aircraft at the Burlington International Airport use this material, making them no different than the F-35.
Greco said the F-16 is 2 percent composite material by weight and the F-35 is 43 percent by weight.
Greco has said that the composite material used on the F-35 burns longer than materials currently used in aircrafts and releases toxic gases, sometimes for days. She said when the material burns layer by layer, it releases fibers that are considered by engineers to be similar to asbestos.
She said to fight this sort of fire requires large quantities of foam and specialized personal protection to protect against the fumes containing toxic fibers and lethal gases produced by burning composites.
F-35 standards reviewed
The Guard’s presentation on the airport’s safety record comes shortly after the F-35 program was questioned for not meeting quality production standards.
A Sept. 30 report by the Inspector General at the Department of Defense assessed the quality assurance procedures of the F-35 Lightning II Program, commonly referred to as the F-35 Program. They found that the program failed to meet basic standards of quality when inspected last year.
As a result, the report says failure to meet these standards will hurt the jets’ performance, reliability, maintainability and the cost of the F-35 program.
Specifically, the report states that Lockheed Martin, the aeronautics company contracted to lead the program, and its subcontractors did not establish an effective quality assurance organization or oversight.
The assessment of Lockheed Martin resulted in 70 findings that identified weaknesses in Lockheed Martin’s implementation of an AS9100 Quality Management System, which is a standard of quality assurance in the aerospace industry.
There were a total of 363 findings across all major contractors of the F-35 Program, the report states.
Col. David Baczewski, commander of the Vermont Guard’s 158th fighter wing and a veteran F-16 pilot, said Lockheed Martin has addressed about 200-300 of these concerns.
The evaluation was performed by a team of 14 to 18 quality assurance engineers, trained and certified in AS9100, who had an average of 15 years of quality assurance audit experience, the report says.