Leas: Vermont Air Guard acknowledges that delayed basing reduces F-35 crash risk

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

To their credit, at the recent news conference put on by the Vermont Air National Guard, Guard officials acknowledged that extended time before basing in Burlington is key to safety. As reported by John Herrick, “Air Guard offers safety data to counter F-35 opponents,” on Oct. 4, 2013, in VTDigger:

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, [Lt. Col. Chris] 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.

Consistent with these remarks, by the time the F-16 arrived in Burlington, the Air Force Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows that it had accumulated about one million operational flight hours (page 3-28).

The time of arrival projections made by Guard officials — 14 years flying, arrival in 2020, and 750,000 flight hours – means that the Vermont Air National Guard and F-35 opponents agree on one thing: extended time before F-35 basing reduces crash risk and improves safety for citizens.

In making this acknowledgment Vermont Air National Guard officials conceded nothing more than what the Air Force clearly shows in its Final Environmental Impact statement.

The Air Force states that the F-22A “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 historic rates of the F-22A.”Air Force Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has a table giving the year by year class A mishap rates of the F-22A (page BR4-51). I plotted the average F-22A Class A mishap rates in the below graph. As seen in the graph, the F-22A had a very high Class A mishap rate during its first years of operational basing but that rate gradually declined during its 11 years of operational basing as its cumulative flight hours increased.

 

F-22 crash history-1 Leas

The Air Force Final EIS also provides a table with similar data for the F-16 (page 3-28). As seen in that graph, the F-16 also had a very high average Class A mishap rate during its first years of operational basing that gradually declined during its dozen years of operational basing before it came to Vermont.

The graphs clearly illustrate the point made by the Guard officials that extended time before basing in Burlington is essential to reduce crash risk.

There is one problem though. A big one. Unfortunately, Vermont Air Guard officials fudged. The date they mention for F-35 arrival in Burlington, 2020, significantly differs from a statement in the Air Force Final Environmental Impact Statement that was officially released last week: “at this time, the Air Force anticipates that F-35s would start arriving at the basing locations in 2015” (page E1233).

2015 is way too soon for safe operational basing in Burlington. Even 2020 is likely to be too soon given the report issued by the Air Force Inspector General, “Quality Assurance Assessment of the F-35 Lightning II Program,” that harshly criticized F-35 program quality assurance, especially for its lack of an aviation critical safety item (CSI) program.

However, now that even the Vermont Air National Guard has acknowledged that extended time increases safety, at a minimum, the City of Burlington must act to prevent first round basing.

The City of Burlington cannot ignore the 2015 anticipated date of arrival given by the Air Force in its Final EIS for this initial basing round. If Burlington accepts F-35s during the initial basing round, they could very well arrive in Burlington at a time that the Air Force anticipates a very high Class A mishap rate.

However, now that even the Vermont Air National Guard has acknowledged that extended time increases safety, at a minimum, the City of Burlington must act to prevent first round basing.

The city must ensure that no F-35 arrives in Burlington before the F-35 program has accumulated close to a million flight hours and has demonstrated an actual accident rate no higher than the current F-16’s.

The Air Force anticipates at least 30 F-35 basing rounds, including seven basing rounds at National Guard bases. The Air Force is also upgrading the entire fleet of F-16s. So there is no urgency for Burlington to be in the first basing round. There is no need for thousands of families to be put at elevated risk when even the Vermont Air National Guard acknowledges that a later time of arrival means greater safety.

The Burlington City Council should act to protect Burlington and neighboring towns by passing one of the two resolutions now before the council. Both resolutions affirm that, as owner of the airport, the city has authority to tell its tenant not to base F-35 warplanes at its airport. Both resolve that the city will use that authority to prevent F-35 basing. One of the resolutions before the council permanently bars F-35 basing. The other narrows the restriction on F-35 basing to just the current basing round, leaving open the possibility for F-35 basing during one of the many future basing rounds anticipated for the F-35 after 2020.

Because the city owns the airport its voice is authoritative. Passage of either resolution would ensure that thousands of families around the Burlington airport avoid being subjected to the high crash rate in the early years of operational basing anticipated by the Air Force and acknowledged by the Vermont Air National Guard. Passage would give the Air Force time to demonstrate that the F-35 crash risk is no higher than the current F-16 crash risk before Burlington permits operational basing at its airport.

Passage would also give the Air Force time to address all the other concerns described in the Air Force Final Environmental Impact Statement – if indeed the Air Force can satisfactorily address them at an airport adjacent five cities with thousands of families. Those concerns include hearing loss, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment of children, and loss of home value from the extreme noise zones produced by the F-35. The carcinogenic fumes and toxic fibers emitted by the plastic composite material of a crashed and burning F-35 in a residential neighborhood must also be addressed.

Whatever the Vermont Air National Guard and F-35 opponents may think of each other’s assumptions, motivations, and calculations, amazingly they agree on the most important conclusion about military jet accident risk: extended time before basing increases safety.

As landowner, the City of Burlington has the authority to prevent the basing of F-35 warplanes at its airport until evidence is available showing that people and property are fully protected from crash and noise hazards and home value diminution. As prudent representative of the people, the City Council has a responsibility to use that authority by passing one of the resolutions.

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