The Sound of Freedom: Vermont town gets noise break as F-35s come to Northwest Florida

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

In Northwest Florida, the roar of military aircraft zooming overhead is widely greeted as "the sound of freedom."

Through Thursday, that sound will be augmented by the rumbling of F-35 Lightning II fighter jets from the Vermont Air National Guard — giving the residents of Burlington, Vermont, some apparently welcome freedom from that sound.

"Quiet week ahead as F-35s head to Florida for training," was the headline chosen for an online story on the temporary absence of the Air National Guard fighter jets from Burlington on WCAX-TV, the city's CBS affiliate.

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Airmen, aircraft and support equipment from the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Fighter Wing left the Burlington Air National Guard Base at Burlington International Airport on Jan. 14 for a two-week exercise at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City.

The exercise is being conducted by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, part of the Eglin Air Force Base-headquartered 53rd Wing. The wing is responsible for operational testing and evaluation of new equipment and systems for Air Force combat air forces.

The exercise, WSEP (Weapons System Evaluation Program) East, is among numerous such exercises held by the wing each year, according to Lt. Savannah Bray, the wing's public information officer.

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WSEP East marks the first time that F-35s assigned to National Guard units have participated in the exercises. While WSEP exercises are "very routine" for the 53rd Wing, WSEP East will be anything but routine for some of the participating airmen, according to Bray.

"We'll have a lot of first-time shooters," said Bray, who added that WSEP East will be the first experience in firing missiles for some of the participating aircrews. 

An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, departs from the Vermont Air National Guard base bound for Tyndall Air Force Base. More than 150 airmen will participate in a two-week training exercise.

According to the Vermont Air National Guard, during WSEP East the 158th Fighter Wing will integrate with other Air National Guard units from across the country "to validate and verify weapon system performance, determine reliability, evaluate capability and limitations, identify deficiencies and recommend corrective action."

“Everyone is excited for the opportunity to take the Vermont Air National Guard on the road,” Lt. Col. Brian D. Sherry, the 158th Fighter Wing plans officer, said in the Guard news release. “This is all part of the evolution to achieve F-35 combat readiness status. We’ll all be tested across a wide spectrum of tactics in preparation for real world deployments.”

Back in Burlington, no F-35 air operations were scheduled from Jan. 20 through Jan. 28.

And in fairness, F-35 noise concerns are not something that is entirely unfamiliar locally. In 2009, as Eglin was getting ready to host the F-35s that remain a major part of its operations today, the then-mayor of Valparaiso sued the Department of Defense to seek an improved fix for noise issues associated with the aircraft.

A maintainer assigned to the 158th Maintenance Group, Vermont Air National Guard, marshals an F-35A Lightning II for departure from the Vermont Air National Guard base to Tyndall Air Force Base to participate in a weapon system validation exercise.

Okaloosa County officials countersued, and two years later the first F-35s arrived at Eglin. Even today, Eglin has mechanisms in place to address noise concerns from the public, which could become important in the spring as aircraft assigned to a second F-35 squadron are scheduled to begin arriving at the base.

The situation has been somewhat rockier in Burlington, where the first F-35s assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard began arriving in September 2019 as it began transitioning from the F-16 fighter jet.

By October of last year, the 158th Fighter Wing had its full complement of 20 F-35s in place, but by that time the year-long arrival of the new aircraft had prompted complaints that the F-35s were far louder than the F-16s.

In April of last year, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution asking Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the state's congressional delegation — which includes Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders — to halt the Guard's F-35 flights during the coronavirus pandemic.

The resolution, approved in an 11-1 council vote, asked the governor and the congressional delegation to "do everything within their power to halt the F-35 aircrafts’ training flights ... ." The resolution further sought the mobilization of the Vermont Air National Guard to help the state "mitigate the impact of COVID-19."

According to the resolution, which went largely unheeded, "residents have cited increased anxiety regarding the intense noise associated with the F-35 aircraft’s flights during the state-wide social distancing and stay-at-home orders" to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

At the April meeting, Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman said the F-35s "are incredibly loud — just for a few minutes, even — outside my house. It's excruciating."

Freeman rejected arguments that the training flights are absolutely necessary for U.S. military readiness.

"I don't think this (the request to halt F-35 flights during the coronavirus pandemic) changes our capacity to defend ourselves," she said. "We are heavily invested in military apparatus right now as a country."

In a Friday email responding to Daily News questions about noise issues associated with the Vermont Air National Guard's F-35s, Col. Nathan Garber, commander of the 158th Fighter Wing Operations Group, said, “The 158th Fighter Wing is sensitive our communities’ noise concerns and we adhere to all existing FAA and local avoidance procedures, flight restrictions, scheduling adjustments and other practices designed to reduce aircraft noise and overflights.”

Pilots assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, walk toward F-35A Lightning II aircraft before flying to Tyndall Air Force Base for a weapon system validation exercise. More than 150 airmen will participate in the two-week training event to validate and verify weapon system performance.

According to Garber, the wing "launches, flies, maintains and recovers aircraft during standard flying operations that take place Tuesday (through) Friday" with takeoffs in the morning and afternoon, typically involving four to eight aircraft. During drill weekends, typically the first weekend of each month, takeoffs are conducted primarily on Saturday mornings and afternoons, according to Garber. The Guard also is required to fly once each quarter on a Sunday, but doesn't do so before noon, he explained.

The Guard employs noise mitigation measures for landings by using minimum thrust on arrival through the implementation of descending arrival patterns and by avoiding direct overflight of schools and hospitals, Garber said.

And like Eglin, the Vermont Air National Guard issues press releases notifying the public of any changes to those operations, such as night flights, Garber noted.