Leas: Crashing the party: Not if, but where the F-35 will crash

Editor’s note: This piece is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer in South Burlington.

At least noise, loss of homes and neighborhoods, lost property values, fudged scoring, nepotism, buying an election and misleading reporting are not killing anybody. All that was described in the article, “Follow the money: The F-35 Fudge-gate scandal” on VTDigger.

Unfortunately it gets worse: safety for thousands of people is also at risk, thanks to some of our elected public officials and their commercial developer friends.

Air Force expects crash rate of F-35 to be much higher than crash rate of F-16

Noise is not the only health and safety issue with the F-35. In view of the Air Force asserting in the Air Force draft EIS (page BR4-47) that the anticipated crash rate of the F-35 during its first years of operation is expected to be much higher than the current crash rate of the F-16, safety for thousands of Vermonters living in crash zones at each end of the runway is very much at risk.

The numbers given in the Air Force draft EIS indicate that the expected crash rate of the F-35 will follow the pattern set by the F-22: very high during the first two years of operational service and gradually dropping in later years.

The expected decline in crash rate would normally dictate delay until as late a basing round as possible — if basing decisions were actually based on facts and not on influence, profits for developers, and fudging.

A table in the EIS (page BR4-47) indicates that during its first two years in operational service the crash rate of the F-35 will be an astounding 236 times the current crash rate of the F-16.

But looking over a longer time frame, things do get better: According to the numbers in the table in the EIS, during its first five years in operational service the F-35 crash rate decreases to 11 times the F-16’s current crash rate.

And during its first nine years in operational service the F-35’s crash rate will decrease to 2.3 times the F-16’s current crash rate. Still too high. But a whole lot better than during the first five years.

With the F-35 taking off with 18,000 pounds of fuel, a crash into a heavily populated community near either end of the runway could be a major disaster. From a safety point of view, at least parts of Winooski, Colchester, Williston and Burlington will all be in high-danger zones if the F-35 comes to Burlington for the first basing round.

Because the Air Force anticipates that crashes are much more likely near the ends of runways, the Air Force designates “accident potential zones” for military bases and “runway protection zones” (draft EIS page 3-27) for commercial airports. The “accident potential zones” extend about three miles out from each end of the runway and are a bit more than half a mile wide.

So from a safety point of view, waiting for a much later basing round would be eminently sensible — except to Vermont’s two senators, its congressman, its governor, and the mayor of Burlington.

Never before the F-35 basing program did anyone ever suggest putting a new military fighter jet into its first operational service anywhere but at a military base distant from residential communities.

Because the Air Force anticipates that crashes are much more likely near the ends of runways, the Air Force designates “accident potential zones” for military bases and “runway protection zones” (draft EIS page 3-27) for commercial airports. The “accident potential zones” extend about three miles out from each end of the runway and are a bit more than half a mile wide.

If, as shown in this map generated by Horace Shaw, a similar crash zone were applied to the Burlington Airport, about 1,400 residential properties and many businesses in Winooski, Colchester, Williston and Burlington would be in that crash zone. The map combines the zone dimensions given in the Air Force draft EIS with town property tax information. The actual commercial and residential buildings in these zones are illustrated as red, green and yellow dots on this map.

Oops, Burlington scoring was flawed — or was it fudged?

Remarkably, the scoring sheet the Air Force used to select Burlington Airport as a “preferred location” for F-35 basing indicates no development at all in the red “clear” zones and in the yellow “accident potential zones,” all of which are shown on the Horace Shaw map.

Certainly the 32 commercial buildings in the “clear” zones could not have been overlooked when the Vermont Air National Guard provided the information for the scoring sheets. Certainly the 1,443 residential properties in the accident potential zones could not have been overlooked either.

Similarly, the scoring sheet indicates no development at all within the 65 dB DNL noise zone — even though the Air Force draft EIS states on page BR4-30 that 2,944 houses are in that noise zone.

Burlington got the full number of points on the scoring sheet for both having no development in the clear zone and in the accident potential zones and for having no development in the noise zones — even though commercial buildings and thousands of homes are in those zones.

The houses visible in the crash zone map and in the noise contours provided in the Air Force draft EIS are consistent with the information in the Boston Globe article — they indicate that the numbers in the scoring sheets were fudged. Here is how the fudging was accomplished: The military brass merely closed its eyes to the buildings and houses in the crash and noise zones to give Burlington the edge in points it needed to land in the top position in the scoring process.

Illustrating the serious attitude the Air Force normally takes toward houses in the crash zone, the Miami Herald reported on Feb. 26, 2013, that the Air Force went to court to prevent a farmer from building houses on his land in the crash zone near Homestead Air Reserve Base.

OK. Now we have an idea how the military brass in the Pentagon fudged to get Burlington on top. And we know which moneyed interests stand to gain from the ongoing intense military jet noise. But why did the military brass go along with these interests and fudge numbers in view of the large number of commercial buildings in the clear zones and the thousands of houses in the Burlington crash and noise zones? Why did the military brass do it? And why are our Vermont political leaders not leading the fight against this egregious abuse?

Attacking the messengers

The Boston Globe article reported that “Leahy, in an e-mailed statement, reiterated his support for the planes but did not respond to allegations of political influence. The Air Force denied the fix was in for Vermont.”

In a statement released on Monday, April 15 ,and reported in the Burlington Free Press on April 15, Leahy said: “The Air Force selected the Vermont Guard as its preferred choice for the F-35s on the merits, based on the Vermont Air Guard’s unsurpassed record, its top-flight personnel and facilities, and its strategic location. Vague, anonymous, uninformed and rehashed conspiracy theories cannot change those facts.”

Frank Cioffi, president of the GBIC, was quoted in the same Free Press article calling the Globe story “a piece of blatant junk journalism … and) a hack job using fear mongering and unnamed sources.” He said the Vermont Air Guard base is “under consideration for the F-35 because they’ve earned it.”

These attacks on the messengers — the Pentagon official and the Globe reporter — cannot be considered to be fully responsive to the message that the numbers were fudged. The attacks on the messengers implicitly acknowledge that the charge of fudging leveled by a Pentagon official is both serious and damaging.

The ones who “fudge” should not be the ones to judge

With thousands of Vermont families and their homes at risk, with the integrity of the Air Force basing process undermined, with questions swirling about whether facts or political influence drives the basing decision, and with personal gain by a certain commercial developer an underlying factor, an independent and impartial investigation is needed to determine whether the numbers were fudged, and if so by whom and at whose behest. If indeed numbers were fudged, the Pentagon officials who “fudged” should not be allowed to continue to be the ones to make the final decision. But who will initiate such an investigation? Will a member of our congressional delegation? Will our Vermont attorney general? Or our Chittenden County state’s attorney? Or will that task continue to be left to conscientious reporters and members of the public?

No more tricks — the process was fixed, the F-35 should be nixed

If fudging was essential for Burlington to come out on top, that alone should be enough to stop the process. Honest Vermont public officials and the Vermont Air National Guard should now join with local residents and Burlington area clergy in asking the Air Force to skip Burlington for the first basing round so it can be reconsidered under a legitimate, impartial, transparent process for a future basing round.

But we can have no confidence in view of a money-soaked scheme by which noise zones are being put to use to drive personal gain for rich commercial developers while thousands more families in affordable homes are being put at risk.

Now is the time to build the grassroots movement demanding an immediate halt in any plan to base the F-35 in Burlington. The Vermonters living in those noise and crash zones are worth fighting for.

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  • Frank Swehosky

    I was incited by the author’s rhetoric to dig a little deeper into fact surrounding both F-16 and F-22 crashes. I don’t have access to official statistics though, so I turned to I considered it a relatively unbiased source of considerable reliability and comprehensiveness, though not authoritative.

    I hate to spoil a good detective story, so I invite those among us with inquiring mind to investigate. For F-16, look at the data starting around 1975 to present. For F-22, begin around 1990.

    Let me just say that performing an analysis by analogy can be confusing if the control population is relatively small. If think about the accident rate as a proportion of the very small fleet (F-22) then multiply that by a very large fleet size (F-35) to get an estimated number of accidents. Then compare that with the F-16 fleet actual accident rates, one can get some very specious results.

    Now test the basic assumption, that the populations of F-22, F-35, and F-16 are comparable. Do the distributions of crashes for each of the populations match well? That is, has the F-35 already crashed at a rate similar to F-16 and F-22?

    Hmm. Again, check the data for F-35 crashes. The only crash for the program (and not really a crash) was when the Boeing X-32 was attempting to do a press-up (vertical take-off) to prove their propulsion concept, when it ingested hot gasses into the air in-take, and settled very hard back to the tarmac. Other than that the F-35 development and test program has been blessed without this kind of a blemish to date.

    Lastly, carry out the analysis by analogy further, how many and how often have F-16 crashes occurred in VT?

    Ok, you reader with an inquiring mind; what is the conclusion of your analysis?

  • James Leas

    The Air Force explains how to do the crash analysis for a new plane like the F-35 in its authoritative draft Environmental Impact Statement. The Air Force says on page BR4-46 that the F-35 crash rate “may be comparable to the historical rates of the F-22.” Then the Air Force gives a table with the actual crash information year by year for the F-22. The Air Force also gives the crash rate over its lifetime for the F-16 for comparison.

    Here is what the Air Force says regarding the F-16 crash rate:
    “Aircraft mishaps are classified as A, B, C, or D, with class A mishaps being the most severe, with total property damage of $2 million or more, total aircraft loss, and a fatality and/or permanent total disability (DoD 2011). . . F-16 aircraft have flown more than 9,217,670 hours since the aircraft entered the Air Force inventory during FY 1985. Over that period, 339 Class A mishaps have occurred and 309 aircraft have been destroyed. This results in a Class A mishap rate of 3.68 per 100,000 flight-hours, and an aircraft destroyed rate of 3.35” (Air Force Safety Center [AFSC] 2009a). (draft EIS, page BR4-44).

    The draft EIS describes two Class A mishaps related to Vermont or the Vermont Air National Guard:
    “The last Class A mishap of a 158 FW aircraft at the Burlington airfield was in 1965 when an F-89 aircraft had an emergency and attempted to land in a cornfield in the vicinity of Taft’s Corner (approximately 1 to 2 miles south of the airfield). The aircraft landed mostly intact but the pilot and radar navigator were unable to exit the wreckage and were killed in the post-crash fire. The only Vermont ANG F-16 Class A mishap was the attempted flameout landing at Cape May airport in New Jersey in August 1993. The pilot ejected safely but was unable to stop the aircraft on the runway and it was destroyed after departing the prepared surface (personal communication, Moultroup 2010).” (draft EIS page BR4-45)

    Here is how the Air Force explains why it is basing its crash estimates for the F-35 on experience with the F-22:
    “The F-35A is a new aircraft and historical trends show that mishaps of all types decrease the longer an aircraft is operational as flight crews and maintenance personnel learn more about the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations. As the F-35A becomes more operationally mature, the aircraft mishap rate is expected to become comparable with a similarly sized aircraft with a similar mission. F-35A improved electronics and maintenance are expected to result in long-term Class A accident rate comparable to that of the similarly sized F-16 aircraft (3.68 lifetime) (AFSC 2009a).

    “In order to provide a broader perspective on the potential mishap rate for a new technology like the F-35A, the following discussion refers to the mishap rates for the introduction of the F-22A (Raptor), the latest jet fighter in the DoD inventory. The F-22A was introduced in 2002, and provided the Air Force with the most current engine and stealth capabilities. This new technology is akin to the F-35A in that it is a new airframe with similar flight capabilities. With that in mind, it is possible that projected mishap rates for the F-35A may be comparable to the historical rates of the F-22A. The Class A mishap rates for the F-22A from squadron operational status to 30 September 2009 are provided in Table BR3.4-1.” (draft EIS page BR4-46).