Thursday saw the start of a new chapter in military history, high above the Champlain Valley.
After years of both eager anticipation and protests, the Vermont Air Guard base and the 158th Fighter Wing saw the arrival of the next generation of fighter jets. They will replace a fleet of F-16s that had been based there previously.
The first two of what will be 20 F-35 Lightning IIs arrived Thursday, but not before some showboating maneuvers for folks on the ground.
The fighters took off a few hours earlier from Fort Worth, Texas, shown in video provided to Vermont media outlets from Lockheed Martin.
The Vermont pilots who made the trip called it an honor.
“It definitely had the new car smell,” Lt. Col. Anthony Marek said of the jet he flew, smiling. “It flew very well!”
“Hardly a cloud in the sky the entire way,” added Lt. Col. Nate Graber. “Got to see just about everything up and down the mid-Atlantic states. It was beautiful.”
Graber, who had significant training on the F-35 and other flight time before Thursday’s trip from Texas, noted that he enjoyed the experience of bringing the fighter to Vermont. He called the F-35 a “dream” to fly and land, due to various onboard features.
The Vermont Air Guard was the country’s first Air Guard unit selected to house the F-35s.
Cost criticisms have long plagued the single-engine jets. Taxpayers will spend roughly a trillion and a half dollars on the nation’s F-35 program over a half century or so, according to the Associated Press.
So what does that get you?
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin says the jets have agility, supersonic speeds, stealth technology, a futuristic in-flight information system, and a wide-ranging weapons array.
The military insists the jets are critical to defense preparedness.
“Our country needs this airplane,” said Col. David Smith of the Vermont Air National Guard. “And I’ll tell you, they picked the right Air National Guard unit to be the first.”
For years now, Jimmy Leas of South Burlington has been a harsh critic of the basing plan.
Leas and other opponents have warned increased noise at takeoff could harm public health and children’s learning, insisting fighter jets should operate out of remote areas instead of in the heart of Vermont’s most populous county.
“This is really a very dark day in military history,” Leas told necn and NBC 10 Boston. “I think there’s going to be a growth in opposition to the basing in a city. Keep it far from civilians.”
The Air Guard has repeatedly said it will operate the jets in a manner that is respectful to their neighbors, with Col. Smith thanking communities for their support Thursday, and urging continued support.
Among those applauding the arrival Thursday was Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.
“The Air Guard and the F-35 are an essential part of enhancing the quality of life, vibrancy and vitality of the region and state,” Scott said in a statement Thursday. “We can be proud Vermont will continue to play such a significant role in the defense of our nation.”
The 1,000 or more jobs to support the fighters, along with other businesses boosted by those workers, have been described by the region’s political leaders over the years as critical to the Burlington area.
Smith told a large crowd of gathered airmen Thursday the assignment ensures the continued mission of the Vermont Air Guard for many years to come.
The Green Mountain Boys will get their remaining 18 F-35s in twos and threes over the next nine months or so, a Guard spokesperson said, with all of them here by next summer.
NBC 5 News, the affiliate partner of necn and NBC 10 Boston, reported that the first two F-35s will take off for a training flight from South Burlington in October. Before that, the Air Guard’s maintenance crews will have an opportunity to work on the aircraft and learn more about their operations.