The nine-seat charter jet carrying Gov. Peter Shumlin and the mayors of Winooski and Burlington glides through the skies somewhere between Vermont and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. After months of debate about noise levels, Shumlin says he’s eager to listen to the F-35 fighter jet for himself.
"I’ll be there with open ears," he says, turning across the aisle to local real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau, a proud supporter of the F-35 program and the 1,100 jobs business leaders expect it will keep in Chittenden County.
Shumlin tells Pomerleau there’s only one thing that could convince him that the noise between the F-35 and the F-16, the jet currently based in Burlington, is appreciably different: "If I can’t hear you on the flight home!"
Shumlin was in Florida most of the day Wednesday to hear how F-35s compare to F-16s. Despite local public opposition, the Air Force says it still considers the Vermont National Guard base in Burlington a preferred location for new F-35s when the F-16s are phased out as early as 2020. And Shumlin doesn’t think the new jet is much louder than the one it would replace.
The Air Force is preparing to make its decision about whether to base up to 24 F-35s with the Vermont Air Guard at Burlington International Airport. So Shumlin traveled to Eglin Air Force Base where the military is testing the jets.
"It’s a pretty amazing machine," Shumlin said as he got a firsthand look at the jet inside a hangar. During a tour of the base, Shumlin learned how the Guard might mitigate noise for local communities like Winooski by climbing steeper on takeoffs.
The sound of an F-35 – without its afterburners – certainly sounds deeper and throatier compared to the rumbling, high-pitch screech of the F-16. The F-35 is louder. How much, though, Shumlin admits, is subjective.
"Volume, seems to me, is about the same. But don’t forget the F-16 is not using the afterburner. You crank that afterburner and I bet you that the F-16 is louder," Shumlin says, standing about 2,000 feet away from the runway as a F-35 leaves the ground.
The governor takes off his glasses and squints. His eyes are fixed on the jet darting across the sky. He’s surrounded by people who also want the F-35 in Burlington.
The Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation paid for this trip that critics have characterized as a junket. But after hearing the jets, Shumlin dismisses that charge.
"The noise issue should not hold us back from embracing the F-35," Shumlin says.
Colonel Andrew Toth, the commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, has flown 25 test flights of the F-35, and he says it’s difficult to compare the jet and the F-16.
"The F-35 has a different type of noise to it. It’s got a little bit bigger of a motor. So it’s slightly louder. So when you compare the two, an F-16 on takeoff, when you go into afterburner takeoff – I’m sure you’re doing that quite a bit up in Vermont," Toth says.
"I’ve only only flown one afterburner takeoff," he says. "It’s not required. There’s enough thrust coming out of the aircraft. So you can do standard no-power takeoffs."
The goal of the trip was to tone down residents’ concerns back home that the most expensive weapon system in history is too loud compared to the F-16s, which are scheduled to be phased out later this decade.
Shumlin says the greatest weakness in this ongoing debate that Vermonters have been waging for months now is the state’s inability to actually listen to the jets. In this trip, Shumlin hopes he has cleared up conflicting reports.
"Many of the things that are being said about the F-35 and the noise problem are simply not true," he says.
Critics, including city officials in South Burlington who were not invited on the trip, say the governor failed to collect objective data. And the Air Force says the F-35, which is expected to cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion, hasn’t yet been cleared to fly cross-country missions. So sound tests in South Burlington and surrounding areas are unlikely before a decision next year.