People & Places

Short film highlights disruption brought by F-35 fighter jets

Documentary filmmakers Patrick McCormack and Duane Peterson III seen in Burlington with Winooski in the background on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the past few months, flyers around Burlington have invited people to chime in on an issue they can’t avoid: the noise made by the National Guard’s F-35 fighter jets.

“Seeking F-35 comments,” the flyers and posters read. “All anonymous. Leave a voicemail.” 

They included a phone number that led to a hotline established by local filmmakers Duane Peterson III and Patrick McCormack. The response was strong — more than 100 messages from people who wanted to talk about what it's been like to spend a year and a half inside the flight patterns of Burlington’s F-35 jets.

The community’s messages have been incorporated into a short film called “Jet Line: Voicemails From the Flight Path,” which will premiere at an online event April 15. Peterson and McCormack say the project shows the jets have drastically changed the lives for some residents in the flightpath, which ranges through parts of Burlington, Winooski and Williston. 

“We saw a really clear story not being told,” McCormack said. “We knew that Burlington had voted to reject the jets, and we knew that there was a lot of public opposition and, like, very credible health hazards to be considered. And so Duane and I felt like the people's voice wasn’t being heard.” 

The jets have been widely scrutinized for their ear-shattering disruptions in Chittenden County since they arrived at Burlington International Airport in October 2019. They’re replacing the National Guard’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets, which have been stationed in Burlington since the 1980s. Before the F-35s arrived, there was local pushback over how noisy the new jets would be. They can reach up to 115 decibels — considerably louder than chainsaws, leaf blowers and snowmobiles.

Peterson and McCormack said VTDigger’s reporting on the one-year anniversary of the jets was one of the first chronicles of residents' personal experiences with the F-35s, and they wanted to build on that. 

“A lot of the reporting around these F-35s, especially before they were based here, was concerned about numbers and facts and figures, projections, and estimates of what they may or may not sound like,” Peterson said. 

“I think there was a lot of confusion or uncertainty about what the real impact will be on the communities,” he said. “So now, a year later, I think it’s abundantly clear what the impact has been.”

Peterson is a local freelance video editor, and McCormack is a photographer and video editor who specializes in landscape portraits. They’re also co-curators of the Climate Action Film Festival, a Vermont-based event hosted by the Suncommon solar installation company. The project is being financially supported by an anti-F-35 organization, Save Our Skies, and a social justice organization, the Peace and Justice Center. 

The 12-minute film isn’t narrated by any omniscient voice. Peterson said the film begins with some title cards to give context about when the jets arrived. Beyond that, the experiences of local residents guide the storytelling.

In a one-minute video clip previewing the film, anonymous voices describe what it’s like living among the F-35s, accompanied by somber music and juxtaposed with images of Vermont’s communities and picturesque landscapes. 

“The entire inside of your body is shaking. It’s like an internal combustion of your body,” one voice said. 

“In one week, my wife and I are going to be leaving Vermont. The daily assault of the F-35s over our home is just more than we want to live with,” another said.

The voicemail-collecting methodology not only spoke to Peterson’s and McCormack’s mission to let Vermonters share their experiences for themselves, but it also allowed the filmmakers to connect with sources at a distance — a necessary element of pandemic storytelling. 

McCormack said the film doesn’t intend to push an agenda. He said he hopes people walk away from it empathizing with those who have been greatly affected by the presence of the jets, even if others have not. 

“We’ve heard this sort of, like, clip that the jets are the sound of freedom. … To some people, that’s one definition,” he said. “But for a lot of people … the sound of freedom may be total silence. And that freedom is robbed from us.” 

In a statement provided to VTDigger, Vermont National Guard Public Affairs Officer Scott Detweiler said the Guard is aware of the documentary and is partnering in federal noise studies and local noise mitigation efforts. 

“As neighbors and even residents of these communities, we care deeply about balancing our federal mission requirements with the impact of our operations and have taken many steps to mitigate sound, lessen impact and be transparent with the public,” Detweiler said. “All of this is to balance our commitment to Vermont and our need to train locally for our global F-35 mission when called to serve, while supporting the whole-of-state Covid-19 pandemic response here at home. We appreciate the ongoing outpouring of support from Vermonters.”

The film premieres at 7 p.m. April 15 on a free livestream for which people can register online at Eventbrite. People who register will be able to participate in a Q&A with Peterson and McCormack after the film. 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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