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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Winooski, Vt.) - A United States Air Force proposal to locate a fleet of fighter jets in Chittenden County, Vermont's most populous county, appears to be drawing increasingly vocal opposition in Winooski and South Burlington. But Thursday, the commander of the Vt. National Guard tried to reassure the public that the military will operate the fighters in a safe, neighborly manner.
"We see the F-35 in Burlington as a pathway to the future," said Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie.
Dubie was talking in a rare public way about the F-35, the military's next generation of fighter jets. The Air Force has proposed placing 18 or 24 of the radar-evading bombers at the National Guard base in South Burlington, possibly in 2015. The F-35 is scheduled to replace the nation's tired fleet of F-16s, which already fly out of Vermont across the Northeast.
"If we were to lose our F-16s and not have a replacement airplane, we think [the Guard presence in Vermont] would be dramatically smaller in size," Dubie noted. "That's less money, less jobs, less resources."
The South Burlington City Council recently voted 4-1 to tell the Air Force it does not support the jets taking off or landing in the community.
"If we don't speak up for the residents of South Burlington, who will speak up for them?" asked council chair Rosanne Greco.
Greco told New England Cable News that community members worry about the military's own projections that the new jets will be slightly noisier than the old ones. She also said she fears property values could decline around the base and commercial airport.
Greco is a retired Air Force Colonel who initially supported the new F-35s until she read more about possible noise increases. NECN asked her if she believes the Air Force will take the council's vote seriously, or simply do what it wants to do based on logistics and costs.
"Having been in the Air Force, overwhelmingly mission takes priority over everything," Greco acknowledged. "[But they should] listen to the people who are most closely affected by the basing."
General Dubie said that strategically, Vermont is a good location for the F-35s for many reasons, including its proximity to major cities in the northeast. He promised the pilots would operate the F-35s in a respectful way to minimize anyone noticing the change. Dubie called the new jets critical to national defense.
"We just want to be good neighbors and continue to be relevant, reliable, and ready for the future," Dubie said.
Dubie claimed that while the F-35s may operate in a manner that is louder than the F-16s, having the new jets in Vermont could actually reduce flight time for training. That's because pilots could rely more on simulator flights than training time in the jets, Dubie explained. He also noted that take-offs and landings only total a few minutes of time each day.
The Winooski City Council may take a stand on the F-35s before the close of the public comment period next week. The city's school board has already voiced concern over the idea, citing the unknown impacts on children and possible disruptions to their education. The Air Force is expected to announce by November whether or not the jets will bed down in South Burlington.