Commercial air traffic at Burlington International Airport has taken a nosedive, but across the runway, the Vermont Air National Guard continues to send its new F-35s roaring into the skies daily.
The juxtaposition of the recent plunge in civilian air traffic with an increase in the number of F-35s operating at the base has made their presence more pronounced of late. The first two next-generation jets arrived last September, but the Guard now boasts a fleet of 15.
“People are noticing them a little bit more often because all other flights are significantly lower right now,” said Nic Longo, deputy director of aviation at the airport.
The increase in people at home when the planes streak overhead could also be contributing to the heightened awareness of the new aircraft, which are louder than the F-16s they replaced.
The number of commercial flights at the airport in March were half what they were at the same time last year, Longo said. Private aircraft flights are also down sharply as people follow the increasingly strict stay-at-home guidelines meant to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
But it’s business as usual for the F-35s operating across the tarmac. Regular morning and afternoon training flights are continuing at the base as pilots ramp up operations of the nation’s newest fighter.
In response to questions about the jets' flight patterns in recent weeks, the Guard issued a press release — but did not provide answers Friday to several follow-up questions.
Since the first two F-35 Lightning II jets arrived last year, 13 more have been added to the flight line for a total of 15 in operation. Twenty are expected to be in service by this summer, according to the Air National Guard.
The Green Mountain Boys aren't going to let a little thing like a pandemic disrupt their flight operations.
“We have a responsibility and obligation to meet our federal readiness requirement and stay on our conversion timeline,” Col. David Shevchik, commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, said in the press release Friday. “We take our state and federal missions very seriously and are taking every precaution to maintain the health of our force during this unprecedented time.”
The Guard has about 50 soldiers on active duty to help the governor respond to the coronavirus emergency, and will continue its training flights and other drills — with appropriate social distancing — to ensure that they’re prepared if more troops are needed, Brig. Gen. Greg Knight, the state’s adjutant general, said in the release.
Meanwhile, the number of passengers taking commercial flights from BTV keeps sinking. The first week of March saw passenger totals down 14 percent over the previous year. The next three weeks saw drops of 33 percent, 60 percent and 90 percent, Longo said.
“Some of our flights, this week and last week, had zero people on them,” he said.
He said the airport is expecting that the federal CARES Act stimulus bill will help support airport staffing and ensure that flights continue, regardless of passenger numbers.