Business & Economy

Touchdown: First F-35’s land in Vermont

The pilots of the first two F-35 fighter jets to arrive at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington — Lt. Col Nate Graber of Williston, left, and Lt. Col Tony Marek of Underhill — high five after landing on Thursday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The first two F-35s to be based at Burlington International Airport roared into the region Thursday afternoon.

The fighter jets touched down at 1:35 p.m, making Vermont the first National Guard wing to house the F-35. Vermont National Guard pilots Lt. Col. Anthony “Scrappy” Merek and Lt. Col Nathan “Wiz” Graber flew the F-35s three hours Thursday from Fort Worth, Texas to Burlington. 

The landing came after the planes circled the area several times around the airport. A large gaggle of local media watched the landing near a group of around 100 National Guard personnel, who cheered the landing.  

The F-35s are replacing the F-16s, which were housed at the base for 33 years. Vermont F-16 pilots were the first military flying over New York City after the 9/11 attacks and patrolled the skies over the city for 122 days afterward. 

The guard is set to host a fleet of 20 F-35s by the end of next summer, with an average of two arriving each month until then. 

The arrival of the jets was preceded by years of debate and controversy, primarily over concerns about the increased noise. The F-35s will be nearly four times as loud as the F-16s, according to the Air Force. 

Brig. Gen Greg Knight, the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, addressed a jubilant group of guard personnel shortly after landing. Knight said he spoke with Sen. Patrick Leahy and Gov. Phil Scott, who passed on congratulations to the guard. 

“We’re celebrating the culmination of years of planning, preparation and hard work,” Knight said. 

Graber said the three-hour flight went smoothly, although it was cloudy in the Dallas-Fort Worth region during takeoff. The jets did in-air refueling over Tennessee with pilots from Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana. 

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Instead of the heads-up display on the windshield like the F-16s, the F-35 projects data directly onto the pilot’s helmets, which Graber said was a very big change from the F-16s. 

While this takes some time to learn, Graber said the F-35s flies smoothly, like its predecessor.

“It flies very similarly,” Graber said. “I find it really easy to fly; it has a great autopilot, so for a mission like today when you’re just cruising along point to point, it’s perfect for that.” 

Both of the planes that landed today have had fewer than 10 hours of flight time, Graber said. The two jets that landed today will be mostly used for training for maintenance workers, he said, and are scheduled to fly again Oct. 1, Graber said. 

Nate Graber
Lt. Col. Nate Graber of Williston, the pilot of one of the first two F-35 fighter jets to arrive at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, speaks to reporters after the landing. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Graber said the jets will likely fly around one day a week the rest of the year, before picking up to four days a week in January with four jets in the morning and two in the afternoon. The guard will reach its peak next summer, with eight jets in the morning and four jets in the afternoon flying four days a week. 

The jets are used for tactical training, mostly in three locations: one in the Mount Washington region of New Hampshire, one from Lake Placid to Watertown, New York, and one past Cape Cod. 

The largest concern about the noise centers on the use of afterburners on takeoff. Graber said pilots would use military power — not afterburners — close to 100% of the time. 

“It is definitely louder, and that’s why we’re not going to take off in afterburner,” Graber said. “That footprint goes right out into Winooski, and it would go right out into South Burlington if we did take off in afterburner.” 

Marek, who said he has a “couple hundred” flight hours in the F-35, said pilots are aware of concerns about the noise. 

In the future, Marek said the landing of the jets would likely be quieter as the jets will come in higher and land after reaching the base instead of circling multiple times like they did Thursday. 

“I know we live in these towns as well, and we try to mitigate the noise,” said Marek, who lives in Underhill. “I think we do a very good job.” 

Many more households, primarily in Williston and Winooski, will have average noise levels higher than 65 decibels, according to a noise map released by the airport in May. The total number of people and households with noise levels in the federal government’s “unsuitable for residential use” classification will triple, according to the noise map.

  • Greg Knight
  • F-35s and two soldiers

The planes flew over downtown Winooski twice before landing Thursday, drawing attention from residents and the lunch crowd at downtown restaurants.  

David Minot, a former pilot who lives in Jericho Center, sat by the Winooski River to watch the planes come to town. He said he couldn’t tell whether the difference between the F-35s and the F-16 was substantial, though he said that’s probably the million-dollar question going forward.

“Decisions are never ‘let’s pick something that’s perfect,’ it’s only picking what’s preferable or relatively the best of the alternatives,” Minot said. “The idea of the guard here being without a fighter wing would really distress me a lot.”

Ali Nagle and Ryan Smith walked out into the street to watch the F-35s pass over. They said they weren’t too worried about the noise, or how it would affect the town.

“I mean we live next to an airbase, so I think you’ve just gotta get used to it,” Nagle said.

“It doesn’t sound that much louder than the F-16s,” Smith added. “But who knows, maybe the takeoff is louder.”

Listen to high-resolution audio of the F-35s performing maneuvers above the runway before landing. Guard pilots noted that future takeoffs will sound louder than these flyovers; area residents won’t hear the jets take off until pilots begin regular flights in October.

Others were more concerned about the basing. 

John Manant, who works in Winooski, said he’s OK with the jets being here — but he said it helps that everyone in town is already used to the noise of the F-16s.

“Whenever the F-16s took off, you couldn’t hear yourself think anyway, so I can’t imagine it’ll be that much worse,” Magnant said. 

David Clarke, who also works in the area, said the first flyover wasn’t nearly as bothersome as he expected. But he said when he’s in Williston, even the noise of the F-16s was sometimes intolerable.

“I have friends and neighbors who are violently against it. And I can see why,” Clarke said. “It’s quite disturbing. This whole city now is affected, there isn’t one spot that won’t have to tolerate it.”

Anti-basing activists have increased their intensity in recent weeks, with more than 100 people protesting the impending basing earlier this month and six people getting arrested at the office of Sen. Leahy, who played a key role in the basing.

Earlier Thursday, two protesters had their cases sent to the restorative justice program.

Retired Col. Roseanne Greco and retired Lt. Col. Roger Bourassa speak about the F-35 landing outside the courthouse where they were set to be arraigned Thursday. Photo by Ellie French/VTDigger

Local business leaders and politicians support the jets, with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger recently reiterating his support

Burlington city council president Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, witnessed the landing with the media as he is a radio host on WVMT. He said the arrival of the F-35s was a proud day for Vermont. 

“I did not think the noise was overwhelmingly loud, I thought it would be louder,” Wright said. “I think it’s very important for our air guard and very important for our economy.” 

Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, said the landing was a “proud and exciting moment.” 

“Bringing the F-35 to Vermont secures our futures for decades, and our country needs this airplane,” Smith said. “I’ll tell you, they picked the right National Guard unit to be the first.”

Reporter Ellie French contributed to this story.

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Isaac Parenteau

That is a really cool picture!

Scott Yaros

They buzzed right over me as I worked this afternoon. Clear skies to showcase their arrival. Freedom and safety guaranteed!

Ron Robinson

So glad you feel safe now, there is a lot of fear out there. But freedom? from what?

Gary Murdock

“Local business leaders and politicians support the jets,”
As do a MAJORITY of the residents of this state.

Jenny Kingsbury

Nice! We’ve been waiting for these jets for a long time. Well done #GreenMountainBoys!

Karen Ryder

I don’t know about the majority of the state supporting the F35 but then the majority doesn’t have to deal with the noise and pollution that would be the result of the F35 in their neighborhood. The majority of citizens of the communities most affected, Winooski, South Burlington and Burlington, do not support the witnessed by the voters and resolutions of their city councils. Many people have already suffered from having their homes razed, in the most affordable neighborhoods, and other will need noise mitigation to bear the noise which will be above healthy decibels. An elementary school also sits right under the F35 flight path. All supporters who are not subject to the F-35’s immediate negatives including harm to their health and real estate values just don’t care much about what happens to the rest of us. “The sound of freedom” is just a platitude that means nothing to those of us who care about our children and our neighbors.

Tim Vincent

Without the F-35, the VTANG does not have a mission.
What happens to all those people?
Who plows the snow and provides crash-rescue at BTV?

J.T. OBrien

So glad the F35s are here. The first paragraph of this story says it all: “The first two F-35s to be based at Burlington International Airport roared into the region Thursday afternoon.” That “roar” was the sound of freedom. Some will not understand the meaning, and unfortunately, never will.

susi taylor

Everyone is talking about the noise- some people think it’s too loud- others don’t. The most difficult reality about the F-35s coming to an airport that is in a residential area is that the Federal Government has stated that certain homes in specific areas are “unsuitable for residential use”- so if the Federal Government is telling us people should not live there- what really are the choices? Would you want to live in or buy a home for your family where the Federal Government is saying it’s not safe or healthy ? Our government leaders are saying it’s important to keep the Air Guard jobs here- what about the families that are being displaced and the changes to the community? If the government were not saying it’s unsuitable – it would be a choice- but once they say it’s not okay it’s really no longer a choice. You can’t have it both ways.

Sharron Prairie

I spent a good portion of my adult life living near Air Force bases. We always felt a thrill when hearing the jets and other aircraft fly over. We’d rush outside with the kids to watch the planes. We call it “the sound of freedom.” And it’s awesome.

pat hurley

thank you for what you do

Shane Carruth

Empty, ignorant platitudes. Freedom to protect American interests overseas. Freedom to bomb strangers. Freedom to support greedy corporations. Gee, I wonder if it’s brainwashing when children who’s brains are developing sing the jingoistic national anthem while staring at a flag. Oh no, that’s nothing like corporate advertising.

Mark Lundie

I live in South Burlington less than a mile from the airport. The jets dont bother me at all. Occasionally I hear a large commercial jet taking off but thats about it. Im proud that our airmen are the best and thats why we have the 35s first. Go VTANG!! If you dont like it move.. No One is making you live next to the airport. Its much cheaper and quieter anywhere outside of Chittenden County. By haha


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