Jen Lazer didn’t think that motherhood in Burlington, Vermont, would include desensitizing her baby to the frequent roar of F-35 fighter jets.
“She stares at the sky and shakes and cries and grabs me. She thrusts her head into my chest,” Lazer said. “We explain that there are machines that make big noises; they’re planes. But she’s so little. The heartbreak feels immediate.”
For the past year, this has been her reality. Lazer’s daughter, who is barely a year old, has begun her life attempting to make sense of the $80 million, 115-decibel-roaring hunk of metal flying overhead. It’s an almost daily trauma that Lazer didn’t think her daughter would have to overcome.
“There’s the broader heartbreak of it, where I’m trying to teach her to feel comfortable with military jets overhead,” Lazer said. “These are really advanced military sounds that I don’t want her growing up having to learn to be comfortable with.”
The Lazers are one family among many whose lives have been disrupted by the jets that arrived at the Burlington International Airport almost exactly a year ago. Many residents in the jets’ flight path — which covers parts of Burlington, Winooski and Williston — say the jets are more than just a nuisance. They’re hurting their quality of life and degrading their health.
For years, residents warned officials about what would happen if the jets came to town. They pointed to research conducted by the Vermont Department of Health that found repeated exposure to the decibel levels achieved by the jets can cause hearing loss. In 2018, Burlington residents voted to cancel the F-35 basing. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger refused to sign a resolution supporting that vote. The jets came anyway.
Both the Winooski and South Burlington city councils voted to halt the arrival of the jets. Residents and physicians protested against the jets for days outside Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office. Multiple court challenges attempted to stop the arrival of the jets. All that failed, and the jets came anyway.
Col. David Shevchik Jr., commander of the Vermont Air National Guard Air 158th Fighter Wing, said he’s continuing to attend city council and selectboard meetings in an effort to quell concerns. But ultimately, his fleet has a job to do. Because the F-16 jets that had been stationed at the airport have been phased out, his unit needs to become a mission-ready wing of F-35 jets in the next 16 months.
“We certainly understand that there are concerns,” Shevchik said. “That’s why it’s important for us to balance our community considerations, within reason, while we’re still meeting the mission and training requirements. And that’s obviously difficult to do, but it’s important to do.”
Does he think it's still safe for residents to live within the jets’ flight path?
“Absolutely,” Shevchik said.
‘It makes my insides rattle’
The ringing in Amanda Lavertu’s ears didn’t exist until the F-35A Lightning II aircraft arrived.
“It’s been loud. Very loud,” Lavertu said, who lives near the Winooski traffic circle. When the jets fly over, they shake the walls of her shower. They petrify her older dog, who she said sinks to his belly and crawls toward cover when the jets roar over. He’ll hide under the kitchen table or in a nearby closet.
Lavertu’s Apple watch records decibel levels; when an ambulance passes by, it’ll get into the 80s. A loud truck might hit 50 or 60 decibels. But when the jets fly over, she said her watch records a 90-100 decibel level. And that’s inside her home.
“And I started wondering about that because I was getting a ringing in my ear, and I've never had ringing in my ear,” Lavertu said. “And it’s getting even more drastic. Like it’s even more of a constant than even when we first moved in. And prior to that, I didn’t have it.”
Lavertu said she moved into her apartment about a year and a half ago. She scheduled a Zoom doctor's appointment to discuss the ringing, but coincidentally, the meeting was scheduled during a training exercise when the jets were repeatedly taking off.
“I couldn’t even talk to him about it because he couldn’t hear me,” she said. She plans to revisit the issue with her doctor soon.
Megan Brazeil, who lives in Burlington’s Old North End, said being outside when the jets fly over has become unbearable for her.
“They're so loud, they trigger a physical response. Because I do have a panic disorder, and I have anxiety attacks or panic attacks. And they give me panic attacks,” Brazeil said. “The first time, I thought I was going to have a seizure. I was freaking out.”
“It makes my insides rattle,” she said. Brazeil said the other day she tried to go to North Beach to practice mediation and yoga to help ease her anxiety. But the sudden and unpredictable roar of the jets broke her peace. “They’re so loud,” she said. “And there’s no escaping.”
Brazeil said she wants to move from her current home in the North End, and the jets are a strong contributing factor. Lavertu said she also plans to move away from Winooski because of the overwhelming presence of the jets.
Afterburners aren’t the problem
Jeanne Keller, who lives on Bilodeau Parkway in Burlington with her husband, said the jets have “seriously degraded the quality of our lives."
“The first problem is the sound. When they take off and land, it is qualitatively different than the sound of the F-16. It is a much deeper, more resonant sound,” Keller said. Previously, Burlington International Airport housed a fleet of F-16 jets. Keller, who has lived in her home for over 30 years, said the sound difference between the two jets is clearly noticeable.
The unpredictability of the jets bothers her the most. There’s no set flight schedule. This is partly out of security concerns, explained Col. Nate Graber, the operations group commander, but flights can also be unpredictable because of weather or airspace restrictions. He said the Guard tries to limit takeoffs to between 9 and 10 in the morning. But certain training exercises require jets to take off at different times and in different formations — sometimes four jets at a time, sometimes eight.
This month, the jets are also conducting night training exercises. The Guard has promised to finish flights before 10 p.m.
Not knowing when or how long the jets will fly over her home has frequently disrupted Keller’s life. “They take off three or four at a time. Then there's a lull. We don't know how long the lull is going to be so we wait for the other shoe to drop and then another four take off,” she said.
“So there are days when, four times a day for 20 minutes, while they're taking off, and then 20 minutes when they come back and land, we can't talk,” Keller said. “We can't talk on the phone. We can't talk to each other. We can't hear music. And it doesn't matter whether we're inside or outside.”
She wondered if the jets are so loud because of afterburner use — auxiliary jets that increase thrust and noise on takeoff. But Shevchik said that’s not the case. In the time that the F-35s have been stationed in Burlington, an afterburner was used only once out of hundreds of flights, and that was by mistake.
Graber said it was used by a pilot who had returned from a training program where afterburners are used more frequently because it was at a high altitude, and the air is thinner than in Burlington. Because Burlington has cooler temperatures and a lower elevation, the extra thrust isn’t needed.
The current noise levels have driven a spike in complaints against the F-35 program. According to data provided by the National Guard, it received 665 negative calls or emails about the jets so far in 2020. All but 16 of those complaints were related to the jets’ noise. During the three months they landed in Burlington during 2019, the Guard received 62 noise complaints.
While the F-16 jets were stationed at the airport, the guard received 195 noise complaints in 2015, 152 in 2016, 20 in 2017 and only one in 2018.
Some residents appreciate the presence of the jets and see them as a patriotic symbol that Burlington should be proud to house.
Courtney Weisert wrote in an email that the jets are one of her favorite elements of Burlington life.
“I love hearing our very own Green Mountain Boy pilots practicing their craft,” Weisert wrote. “My newborn sleeps right through it but I hope one day when she’s older, she gets to appreciate the sound as well.” According to a LinkedIn page, Weisert is an instructor at the Vermont Army National Guard.
Burlington resident Susan Winston said she thinks the jets are “exciting.” She said she was at the airport the day they arrived last September.
“I think they bring a sense of security, having them here,” Winston said. “They bring economic growth, which you know, what city can't use that right now? I love watching them take off and land, I really do.”
Even though her windows get a good rattle when the jets fly by, she said it doesn’t bother her.
Noise mitigation approved, but will take years
If all 2,600 homes within the F-35 flight path are eligible for soundproofing, it will take the airport 15 years to complete the noise mitigation effort and cost an estimated $85 million.
That’s according to the latest projections drafted by Burlington airport officials. Nic Longo, deputy director of aviation, knows this is frustrating to homeowners who are experiencing uncomfortable levels of noise right now.
“The airport really does want to help any individual with any of their unique needs and perspectives of noise,” Longo said. “I do want to sit and meet with them. And if it comes down to all 2,600 dwelling units, I would do that in a heartbeat.”
Longo said the Federal Aviation Administration just recently approved the airport’s Noise Compatibility Program, which details the different efforts the airport plans to make to address noise mitigation and lowered home values due to the jets. Now these programs will be eligible for funding, which Longo said the state will have to apply for yearly.
This year, the airport will kick off an acoustical home-testing pilot program. Ten houses will be selected within the 65-decibel flight path map drawn up by the airport, and they’ll be tested to determine if they’re eligible for soundproofing. If the test finds that the jets cause an 45-decibel sound within the home, it’s likely they’ll be approved.
Once this testing is completed, next year the airport can apply for money to do the soundproofing. Longo said the airport is able to soundproof 50 houses a year at an estimated $50,000 each, which is why it’ll likely take more than a decade to finish.
The airport has also received approval for a home purchase assurance program and sale assistance program.
Through the purchase assurance program, homeowners within the flight path can sell their home to the airport at a fair market value after an appraisal. The airport would soundproof the home and resell it, not at a profit, Longo said. If all 2,600 homes participated in that program, it would cost an estimated $60 million.
Through the sale assistance program, homeowners can receive a fair market appraisal by the airport and then sell the home on the open market themselves. If they get an offer below the market value, the airport would pay the difference. If all 2,600 homes participated in that program, it would cost an estimated $13 million.
The most recent FAA noise mitigation grant came earlier this month. The airport secured $6.3 million to construct sound monitoring units, soundproof the Chamberlain Elementary School in South Burlington and build new terminal infrastructure.
For all grants awarded by the FAA to complete these programs, there’s an expectation that municipalities have to pick up 10% of the cost, which some officials have strongly opposed.
What the mayors say
Neither Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger nor Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott responded to direct questions about whether they believe it’s safe for residents to live within the F-35 flight path. (After Weinberger’s communication coordinator, Olivia LaVecchia, was pressed for an answer, she said the mayor has given VTDigger hours of interviews on this subject and his statement tries to address this question.)
In an emailed response to VTDigger, Weinberger said he continues to support the basing of the F-35 jets despite it being a “very challenging decision with both real benefits and clear concerns” to invite them to the city.
“I continue to believe it was the correct course for the reasons that I outlined in an op-ed published in VTDigger in April 2018,” Weinberger wrote. “The city continues to work closely with our federal delegation and other partners to mitigate the impacts of the basing where possible, including our recent work to successfully secure $3.49 million for soundproofing at Chamberlin Elementary School and additional funds for a noise monitoring program.”
“This work to secure resources is ongoing,” Weinberger wrote, “and will continue to yield new quality-of-life supports for the neighborhoods surrounding the airport.”
Lott wrote in an email to VTDigger that she has “concerns about the potential increase in health risks” associated with the F-35s, but wouldn’t say if she thinks it’s currently unsafe for residents to live in the flight path. She frequently hears from residents who both support and criticize the F-35s.
“Winooski's City Council has been passing resolutions that oppose the basing of F-35s at the Burlington International Airport since 2012 and even entered into a lawsuit a few years ago,” Lott wrote. “The lawsuit was not successful and the resolutions did not sway our state and federal leaders on their decision to bring these jets to our region.”
She said Winooski officials have now turned their attention to noise mitigation efforts, which are moving forward.