Leas: Air Force report both provides and obscures F-35 noise

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

Opponents of basing the F-35 have largely rested their case on information provided by the Air Force in its draft Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). Notwithstanding all the valuable information it contains, the revised Air Force report obscures how loud the plane is and seriously understates the public health risks of basing the F-35 in South Burlington.

Vermont elected leaders have sustained their support for basing the F-35 in South Burlington on these information gaps in the Air Force report. Sure, for example, careful readers were able to put information from one part of the EIS together with information from another part to determine how much louder the F-35 will sound than the F-16. But Vermont political and military leaders — and a certain self-seeking commercial real estate developer — have demonstrated tireless ability to avoid such understanding.

Sound levels are given but loudness is obscured

To its credit, the revised draft EIS gives the peak sound level heard by a person on the ground below when the F-16 and the F-35 each take off from the Burlington Airport and reach 1,000 feet (page BR4-21):

F-16 ……… 94 dB
F-35 ……… 115 dB

Also, to its credit — but unfortunately in a separate section — the revised draft EIS says, “On average, a person perceives a doubling (or halving) of the sound’s loudness when there is a 10-dB change in sound level.” (Page 3-7).

The Air Force report fails to expressly state that the 21 dB difference means that the F-35 is more than four times louder than the F-16. The revised draft EIS obscures this fact by requiring the reader to put information from the two sections together and do some calculating. So far, none of Vermont’s elected statewide leaders and none of its military leaders have done so. The obscure presentation allows those leaders to be in denial.

Fifty-five homes near the airport entrance have been demolished because of F-16 afterburner noise. One hundred more are now vacant in South Burlington and await demolition. Commercial developers are hungrily seeking to grab millions of dollars for themselves from the land confiscation.

Taking advantage of the obscure loudness comparison, a commercial developer named Ernie Pomerleau hosted a private jet flight for Gov. Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Weinberger, Winooski Mayor O’Brien, and now-Adjutant General Steven Cray to visit Eglin Air Force Base on Dec. 12, 2012.

Pomerleau and other commercial developers stand to make millions of dollars for themselves from buying up the vacant land and putting up commercial buildings after Burlington demolishes the tiny affordable homes of hundreds of families near the airport entrance. Those families were displaced under a $40 million FAA buyout program after the Vermont Air National Guard chose a fuel tank configuration that required increased use of the extremely noisy afterburner on takeoff. That afterburner noise triggered the FAA buyout, literally clearing the way for the commercial developers.

A report in the Burlington Free Press, “Supporters Hope Governor’s F-35 Visit Will Boost their Cause” on Dec. 16, 2012, said:

Within minutes of watching and listening to the F-35 and the F-16 take off and fly by, Shumlin declared the F-35 quiet. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said it was not appreciably louder than the F-16.

‘I’m shocked how quiet the F-35 is,’ Shumlin said at the time. It would have had to be considerably louder to change his support, he said.

At no time did Mayor Miro Weinberger or Gov. Peter Shumlin ever mention that the Air Force report shows the F-35 to be more than four times louder than the F-16.

Further illustrating how obscurely the information was presented, a spokesman for the Vermont Air National Guard actually said the opposite. As reported in “Vermont Air Guard offers its side of the F-35 basing story,” on June 6, 2013:

Speaking at an invitation-only roundtable discussion with the media at Vermont National Guard headquarters at Camp Johnson, Lt. Col. Luke “Torch” Ahmann, 158 Fighter Wing Plans and F-35 Program Integration Officer for the Air Guard, said … the [F-35] jet will be quieter than the F-16 after it takes off.

Thus, Lt. Col. Ahmann did not mention, clarify, or explain the 21dB difference the Air Force reported.

Fifty-five homes near the airport entrance have been demolished because of F-16 afterburner noise. One hundred more are now vacant in South Burlington and await demolition. Commercial developers are hungrily seeking to grab millions of dollars for themselves from the land confiscation.

Thousands more affordable homes in Winooski, Williston, Burlington and South Burlington are at risk if the F-35 is based in Vermont. The situation stinks of corruption.

The Air Force report should be revised to expressly state how much louder the F-35 is than the F-16 on takeoff at 1,000 feet, the elevation and relative loudness of the two planes as they fly over streets in Winooski, Burlington and Williston, and how the relative loudness as the two planes taxi and take off in South Burlington with and without afterburner. The obscuring and the omissions are one piece of evidence for the conclusion that the F-35 basing process is not legitimate.

The fresh air of facts is needed — facts not yet clearly provided in a draft EIS, as required by federal law. A further revised draft EIS is needed before any final decision is made. It should leave no work for the reader. And it should leave no chance for obfuscation and denial by politicians, Air National Guard leaders, and commercial real estate developers.

Take action

Readers are encouraged to email comments saying that the F-35 should not be based in Vermont and indicating your concerns about the plane and/or deficiencies in the revised draft EIS to Air Force Civilian Project Manager Nickolas Germanos before the July 15 deadline:
[email protected]

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  • Mel Allen

    The sound measurements at Tucson were a bit higher for both the F-35 and F-16. I wonder if they were both using afterburner as the F-35 was an average of 26.4 dB louder than the F-16. Initially the F-35 was 131 dB and the F-16 at 104 dB. If these recordings are accurate – wouldn’t that make the F-35 more like 4-6 times louder?