Leas: Air Force official admits Burlington got top score for F-35 based on flawed data

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James Marc Leas, an attorney in Burlington.

A Pentagon-based Air Force official made admissions that negate high level efforts to bring the F-35 to Burlington. In an interview published in the Burlington Free Press on July 13, 2012, Colonel Frank Freeman, a Pentagon-based director of plans and programs in the Air Force, admitted that Burlington got top points in the scoring based on information about housing in the crash and noise zones that differs from the facts.

The statements by Air Force Colonel Freeman are entirely consistent with the information provided by Air Force Colonel Rosanne Greco (ret.) and a “‘highly placed source’ in the Air Force,” as reported in an article in the Free Press on June 26. The Free Press now reports that indeed scoring sheets were used “to rate more than 200 Air Force and Air Guard installations on their suitability as a basing station.” The latest article states that the scoring sheets “gave Burlington top points on the environmental section, indicating that no buildings were present in the [crash zone] area at the end of the runways or within the 65 decibel area close to the airport.”

The latest article confirms what Col. Greco was quoted saying in the earlier article, “‘mistakes were made, grave mistakes’ in the Air Force’s scoring that led to the designation of the Vermont Air National Guard base at Burlington International Airport as a ‘preferred alternative’ for hosting new fighter jets, the F-35A.”

According to the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), 2944 homes, 6675 people, 5 schools, 6 churches, and many businesses–including every inch of downtown Winooski–are in the crash zone area at the end of runways or within the F-35’s “65 decibel DNL” noise contour.

According to the EIS, Day-Night Average Sound Level, or “DNL,” is an average of the noise over 24 hours computed over a year. The Air Force EIS says, “areas exposed to DNL above 65 dB are generally not considered suitable for residential use.” In view of no military aircraft flying at night and during most of the day, to produce such an unacceptable average noise level, a reader will appreciate that the maximum sound level of F-16 and F-35 aircraft flying over a home for just a few minutes each day must be much, much louder than 65 decibels.

The Air Force EIS says that the maximum sound level of the F16 flying at 1000 feet is 94 decibels and for the F-35 the maximum sound level is 115 decibels. Since the EIS states that each ten decibels is heard as a doubling of the loudness, the 21 decibel difference is more than two doublings of the loudness, and, therefore, the F-35 is more than four times louder than the F-16.

The Air Force EIS reports that “the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics, and Biomechanics identified 75 dB as the minimum level at which hearing loss may occur.” The Air Force draft EIS also indicates that with its 115 decibel sound level, the F-35 at 1000 feet is 32 times louder than a vacuum cleaner at 10 feet and that the F-35 is in the noise range between an oxygen torch and a night club. According to the Air Force EIS, “at approximately 120 dB, sound can be intense enough to induce pain, while at 130 dB, immediate and permanent hearing damage can result.”

The Air Force EIS also reports that “for the purposes of determining eligibility for noise insulation funding, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines state that the design objective for a classroom environment is 45 dB Leq resulting from aircraft operations during normal school hours (FAA 1985)” (p. C-21) This section of the EIS also reports a study “based on students with normal hearing and no special needs.” The report found “that if an aircraft noise event’s indoor Lmax (maximum sound level) reached the speech level of 50 dB, 90 percent of the words would be understood by students seated throughout the classroom.” The authors “adopted an indoor Lmax of 50 dB as the maximum single event level permissible in classrooms.”

The Air Force EIS revealed–for the first time–that even with just the current F-16 fighter, 1578 households and 3812 people were already within the average 65 decibel DNL zone.

The Air Force EIS also revealed for the first time that with the current F-16 fighter, two schools and two places of worship were already within the average 65 decibel DNL zone. It reports that with 24 F-35 bombers based in Burlington, five schools and six places of worship will be within that average 65 decibel DNL zone.

According to the latest Free Press article, Col. Frank Freeman, the Pentagon-based director of plans and programs in the Air Force, said the National Guard was the source of the information about the Burlington International Airport used in the score sheet: “Freeman said the Air Force’s Air Combat Command office ‘worked with installations to gather data’ for the score sheets. In Burlington’s case, he said, data came from the National Guard headquarters in Washington.”

The National Guard is the organization that has F-16s flying directly over those houses, schools, churches, and businesses and could not have missed seeing them. The National Guard is the organization Vermont needs to be able to trust to defend Vermont and our citizens, families, schools, children, homes, places of worship, businesses, communities, and towns. The National Guard is the organization Vermont expects will sacrifice for Vermonters and not vice versa.

The high score given to Burlington was followed by a visit to Burlington by a site survey team. But the site visit did not result in a correction: Colonel “Freeman described the score sheets as part of the initial ‘screening’ of the 200 bases. Burlington was chosen as a top candidate for the F-35A basing, he said, following the second phase of examination, when site survey teams visited and ‘had boots on the ground.’”

The Air Force and National Guard had other evidence, too. According to the Free Press article, Burlington was selected as a top candidate despite the fact that the Airport had “a map showing approximately 60 residences the Federal Aviation Administration has determined eligible for a federal buyout program due to the noise level.”

If a program was in place to buy houses, how could the Air Force and National Guard not know houses were already in the noise zone for the F-16? Especially since they knew that the F-35 was much louder.

If the Air Force had information from the National Guard, had boots on the ground, had aircraft flying directly over, and if the airport had a program to buy houses in the noise zone, how did the Air Force miss seeing the thousands of houses, schools, churches, and businesses it identified in its own EIS? How did they miss seeing all of downtown Winooski in the crash and noise zones and so much of South Burlington, Burlington, Williston, and Colchester?

In an article published in VTDigger on July 11, Air Force Colonel Rosanne Greco (ret.) presented a series of flaws in the Air Force process, among them this gem:

However, the questions asked in the environmental category were not related to the F-35A. They were related to the existing F-16. The questions were not whether there would be homes and other structures in the accident and noise areas for the F-35A; but whether there are existing homes and structures in the accident and noise areas for the F-16. Of course, the answer to that question is ‘YES’ . . . The process the AF followed in this scoring is mind-boggling. For two categories (mission and capacity), they evaluated the base’s suitability for the future aircraft–the F-35A; but for one category (environment) they evaluated the base’s suitability for the existing aircraft—the F-16.

On the scoring sheet for Burlington, the actual answers given by the National Guard as to whether there are existing homes and structures in the accident and noise areas for the F-16 was “NO”–even though thousands of homes are there within the F-16’s incompatible noise contour.

The Vermont Air National Guard and Vermont Senators, Congressman, and Governor all have a chance to fix the problem unless they continue to:

fail to see thousands of homes in the crash and high noise zones
fail to ask the Air Force to base all criteria on actual F-35 data
allow faulty answers even regarding the F-16 to continue in the scoring
fail to seek correction
fail to recognize that no Air Force official ever said that without the F-35 the base would close or that no other mission for the Vermont Air National Guard is available
fail to see the F-35 program as one to enrich senior executives at Lockheed-Martin at the expense of salaries, benefits, and jobs of members of the military
agree to sacrifice homes, schools, churches, businesses, communities, and towns here in Vermont

In view of the fact that thousands of homes are in the 65 dB DNL zone and the crash zone, will the Vermont National Guard and our Vermont political leaders now act vigorously to protect those thousands of homes, families, schools, churches, businesses, and communities?

Especially when the best argument raised for basing the F-35 in Burlington is economic but even the economic argument is flawed by the facts that it (a) assumes the worst case, that the base will close, even though no Air Force official ever said so; (b) ignores the fact that property valued at over $700 million in just one of the towns, Winooski, is at risk; and (c) ignores the fact that spending $1.4 trillion on the F-35 takes money from soldier’s salaries, benefits, and jobs as well as taking money from education, health care, infrastructure, and many other needs.

The Free Press article also reported Col. Freeman saying, “as we go through each stage, new information is presented and scores from Stage One are no longer applicable.” However, if the process was flawed and Burlington should have been screened out at Stage One, why is it being retained in the process now? Why is the Air Force settling for basing its F-35’s at a location that should have been screened out if not for a fundamentally flawed Stage One screening process?

Should the Air Force, the Vermont Air National Guard, the Senators, the Congressman, and the Governor now be asking the Air Force to start over and do its screening based on actual F-35 data and narrow the field to those bases that actually meet its sensible criteria of having no houses in the crash and noise zones?

Should our political leaders now be asked by all citizens of Vermont to stop cheerleading for the F-35 and tell the Air Force not to base the bomber in Burlington?

James Marc Leas is a patent lawyer in South Burlington

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