Commentary

Leas: F-35 to vastly increase crash risk

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer from South Burlington.

Almost hidden in the numbers given in the Air Force revised draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is the fact that the Air Force anticipates that the F-35 crash risk is much higher than the crash risk of the F-16. Much more so in the early years of F-35 operational basing. While a careful reader can find the numbers with which to do the comparison, a direct comparison of the crash risk of the two planes is omitted from the EIS.

The revised draft EIS also omits comparing with the crash rate of commercial aircraft. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report provides the missing data. Information in the NTSB report indicates that the F-16 crash rate is hundreds of times greater than the crash rate of commercial jets and that the F-35 would take Burlington way further in the wrong direction.

But none of these facts are clearly stated in the revised draft EIS. In view of the vital importance of crash risk, the Air Force should spell out the crash risk comparison in a new revised draft EIS so the public and decision-makers have a clear understanding of the far greater crash risk of the F-35.

Under the plan supported by Vermont luminaries, including Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Mayor Miro Weinberger — as well as those who stand to personally gain riches from the F-35 basing in Burlington, including Sen. Leahy’s cousin by marriage, Ernie Pomerleau — Burlington will be one of the very first places in the world where the F-35 will be based for operations.

Noteworthy is the omission of the current F-16 crash rate from the revised draft EIS. The lifetime crash rate of the F-16 is likely substantially higher than its current crash rate as the lifetime crash rate includes its much higher crash rate during its early years of operational basing. The Air Force should include the current F-16 crash rate in the EIS so a more accurate comparison can be made.

The Air Force revised draft EIS says that the Air Force anticipates that F-35 crash rate will be like that experienced by the F-22 during its first years of operational basing. During the first two years of F-22 squadron operations, a table in the EIS states that the accident rate was 869.57 major accidents per hundred thousand flight hours (page BR4-49). That crash rate declined to 59.51 during the first four years of squadron operations and to 40.66 during the first five years. The crash rate fell to 7.34 when averaged over the first 12 years ending in 2012. That lifetime crash rate for the F-22 was double the lifetime crash rate for the F-16 which the EIS gives as 3.68.

Noteworthy is the omission of the current F-16 crash rate from the revised draft EIS. The lifetime crash rate of the F-16 is likely substantially higher than its current crash rate as the lifetime crash rate includes its much higher crash rate during its early years of operational basing. The Air Force should include the current F-16 crash rate in the EIS so a more accurate comparison can be made.

Also omitted from the revised draft EIS is a description of the increased risk of crashing if the Vermont Air Guard switches from the F-16 to the F-35. True, a reader can divide the 869.57 anticipated crash rate during the first two years of operational basing by the 3.68 lifetime crash rate of the F-16 to calculate that the F-35 is expected to be 236 times more likely to crash during its first two years than is the F-16. The reader can divide the 59.51 by 3.68 to determine that the F-35 is expected to have 16 times the probability of crashing than the F-16 during its first four years of operational basing. Similarly the reader can determine that the F-35 is expected to have 11 times the probability of crashing than the F-16 during its first five years of operational basing and twice the probability of crashing than the F-16 during its first 12 years of operational basing.

With a subject as important as crash risk, the Air Force revised draft EIS should lay out clearly how much greater the F-35 crash risk is than the F-16’s and how long it is expected to take to decline toward the current F-16 crash rate rather than requiring the reader to figure it all out.

The much higher crash rate expectation for the F-35, if more clearly presented, obviously militates against a site like Burlington — with 1,400 homes in the crash zones — accepting the F-35 in the first basing round when anticipate crash risk is at its absolute highest level.

Although the revised draft EIS compares military and commercial aircraft with regard to noise, the revised draft EIS omits comparison with the crash rate of commercial aircraft. This omission also should be corrected.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal organization responsible for air safety, issued a report indicating that commercial air carriers experienced far fewer accidents than the F-16: only 0.2 accidents per hundred thousand flight hours in the period from 2004 to 2009 (see FIG. 3 on page 8 of the report “Review of U.S. Civil Aviation Accidents, 2007–2009.” And this 0.2 figure, for “overall” accident rate, includes all four categories of accidents, damage, injury, serious, and major. The report shows that only about one tenth of the commercial air carrier accidents are in the “major” category (see Table 3 on the same page). Thus, the major accident crash rate for commercial aircraft is only about 0.02. This means that the class A accident rate for the current F-16 fighter – 3.68 — is about 180 times higher than the major accident crash rate for commercial aircraft. Bringing in the F-35 will vastly increase the accident risk over that already unusually high crash rate for the F-16. And, during its first years of operational basing the F-35 crash rate is especially high.

As never before has the Air Force ever even considered operationally basing a brand new fighter jet at a commercial airport surrounded by densely populated residential neighborhoods, our political, business, and military leaders are providing airport neighbors with an entirely new, unexpected, and unacceptable experience of risk as they push for the F-35 to be based in Burlington during the first basing round.

A public hearing is needed now so Sens. Leahy and Sanders, Congressman Welch, Gov.  Shumlin and Mayor Weinberger can explain and respond to questions about why they support first-round basing of the F-35 at Burlington despite thousands of homes in the crash zones and the extraordinarily high crash rate the Air Force anticipates for the F-35 in its early years of operational basing. And the EIS should be revised to clarify Air Force crash expectation.

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  • Brian McAllister

    The F35 has been flying for 10 years, and there hasn’t been a crash yet.

  • Greg Lapworth

    Good lord, listen to that lawyer spiel. Dazzle them with babble [being polite here]. His odds and ours of being killed in a automobile accident are at least a thousand times greater.

  • James,
    The government people doing such environmental impact studies go “by the book”, unless instructed otherwise by “higher-ups”. If cooking the books is required to make things look better than reality and to advance political objectives, so be it.

    What such study people do not fully realize is that expert people, such as you, can find and interpret data on the internet and expose “omissions”.

    Similar omissions took place regarding increased noise impact of the F-35 which will, according to the Air Force EI study, render uninhabitable about 2,200 houses with 7,200 people; basically, these people have become the equivalent of roadkill.

    The noise omission was also detected by expert people who know how to find and interpret information.

    Brian,
    Google “F-35 crashes” for information.

    • Jason Farrell

      I Googled “F-35 crashes” as you suggested Brian should and I can’t find one link that demonstrates that an F-35 has crashed. Now that I’ve done what you asked “for information”, would you be willing to demonstrate which of the results from the Google search you suggested cites and verifies a crash has occurred? Thank you.

  • David Wright

    “(N)ever before has the Air Force ever even considered operationally basing a brand new fighter jet at a commercial airport surrounded by densely populated residential neighborhoods. (O)ur political, business, and military leaders are providing airport neighbors with an entirely new, unexpected, and unacceptable experience of risk as they push for the F-35 to be based in Burlington during the first basing round.”

    This should have been the first paragraph of the article.

    How can our political “leaders” support putting their constituents at such risk?

    Great investigative work Jimmy and VTDigger!

    • David,
      It is very simple: crony capitalism.

      The Air Force doing flawed EI studies to make Burlington Airport look good on paper to sway the pre-ordained basing “decision”.

      Leahy chairing the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee enables him to do “constituent service” for his cousin Earnie Pomerleau, et al, who want the F-35 in Burlington for business reasons, even though the Burlington Airport is wholly inappropriate for such deployment. Wiping out the livability of 2200 houses with 7100 people is not small potatoes.

  • George Cross

    The question is not has there been a F-35 crash. The question is what is the possibility there might be one. What Jimmy is pointing out is that the possibilities according to the Air Force are much higher for the early years of the F-35.

    One of the major points of Jimmy’s post is that BTV is the only site being considered that is located in a highly populated area. That in itself should be cause for grave (no pun intended) concern.

    It appears that our Congressional delegation is much more interested in one “guest farm worker” than 8000 Vermont citizens. That is also curious.

    • Jason Farrell

      Thank you, Mr. Cross. I think I understand “Jimmy’s” point.

      However, can you or Atty. Leas tell me, since 1980, how many military aircraft have crashed at the Burlington International Airport, including the F-4D Phantom and the F-16 Fighting Falcon?

  • Brian McAllister

    I have to wonder how the plane being operational for 10 years with ZERO crashes is being treated as irrelevant by people. This plane is one of the safest airframes in existence. It’s built on a proven foundation, and has gone through more testing than almost any other airframe out there. And not just computer model testing, but over ten years of real world flight testing. If you want to learn about this plane starting from the beginning (instead of just parroting talking points made by someone who obviously has an ax to grind and an agenda to push) start by watching the documentary “Battle of the X-planes”.

    • Annette Smith

      It’s so safe it’s been flying for ten years, but it can’t to fly into Burlington for a side by side demo with the F16?

  • George Cross

    So, Mr. Farrell you would believe that since there have been no crashes since 1980 there will be no crashes in the future. I certainly hope you are correct. However, the Air Force states in the dEIS that the probability of a crash of the F-35 is higher than the probability of other planes because of its limited flight hours to date. I guess you can believe the Air Force or not as you so desire. Those of us who are opposed to the F-35 being based at BTV believe the Air Force. Thus, we are concerned about the facts set forth in the dEIS. We do not base our opposition on wishful thinking or local opinion. We base it on the facts set forth by the Air Force.

  • Brian McAllister

    I base my support on facts, on military experience, on knowledge of the flights and telemetries from those flights, on knowledge of the Air Force training program for this plane, and (as it ties in with military experience) knowledge that the Air Force (in the dEIS) is “covering their bases”.

    One has to wonder (well, it doesn’t take that much imagination) if you would still believe the Air Force if you knew all the behind the scene facts and if they said that there was an almost zero probability of a crash. I’m thinking we would then be hearing you tell us about how we cannot trust the military.

    • Brian,
      What about the Air Force Environmental Impact report not being correct? Deliberate mistakes?
      Covering all their bases?
      Ronald Reagan: Trust, but verify.

      Google: F-35 crashes and mishaps