The Burlington City Council on Monday will consider a resolution asking the governor to suspend the Vermont National Guard's F-35 training flights and reassign Guard members to coronavirus response efforts.
Introduced by Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), the resolution calls on Gov. Phil Scott to direct "all 4,000 members" of the Guard to ferry medical supplies to hospitals; to deliver food to vulnerable Vermonters; and to "build decent safe housing for the homeless" near the airport.
"We are long-time opponents of basing F-35 jets at Burlington’s Airport. But, like many Vermonters, we are strong supporters of the men and women in the Guard in their proper role of protecting the people of Vermont," the resolution reads. "If you focus on actions consistent with your stated goals and mobilize the full Guard in the fight, you might be able to halt the spread of the virus, flattening the exponentially growing curve, avoid overflowing hospitals, and save many lives.”
Freeman did not immediately respond to an interview request Friday, but City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) confirmed that the resolution is a carbon copy of a letter that a group of F-35 opponents submitted to the governor in late March. One of the activists, James Marc Leas, asked Burlington Progressives to put the topic on a city council agenda, and Freeman took up the cause, Tracy said.
"We think the Guard should be doing jobs that they signed up to do to protect the people of Vermont," Leas said. "At this time it seems that [the Guard] is a real resource for the people of the whole state that can be mobilized."
Col. David Shevchik, the 158th Fighter Wing Commander, said that flying the jets — even during a pandemic — is essential "to fulfill both our state and federal mission.
"We have the capacity and the capability to do both," he said.
Scott appears to agree. He wrote back to Leas and the opponents on April 3, saying that the F-35's federal mission is vital and that "their continued training does not hinder the National Guard’s ability to respond to COVID-19 nor fulfill their obligations to our state mission."
More than 200 of the approximately 3,500 Vermont National Guard members are on active duty supporting the state response, according to Shevchik. They've already built a 400-bed medical surge site at the Essex fairgrounds, which will be staffed by military personnel.
Shevchik also disputed a section of the resolution, which states that "more than a quarter" of Air Guard members are assigned to F-35 maintenance and practice flights. Rather, Shevchik said, the base is operating with only "mission critical" staffing to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
The base has continued to receive more of the jets every month, Shevchik said. The Guard now operates 15 F-35s, with five more expected by September. Anywhere between four and eight jets take off twice a day, Tuesday through Friday, according to Shevchik.
Winooski resident Suzanne Blain said she didn't oppose the F-35 basing but recently developed concerns over the jet noise because the pandemic has forced her to work from home.
Using an app on her smartphone, Blain documented the jet noise at 75 decibels from inside her home and 105 decibels outside. She suggested that the Guard compromise with residents who are stuck at home by announcing the takeoff times to prepare people for the noise.
"It’s so loud that you definitely have a stress response to it," Blain said. "I wasn’t quite aware of how loud they are and how often they’d be going."
Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) isn't surprised that the jet noise is getting more attention since people are at home. Colburn, who opposed the jets' basing in Burlington, said she's heard numerous complaints about F-35 noise from constituents in recent days. One resident told Colburn that the jets are reminiscent of bombings in their home country and that they hide in the basement every time the jets fly over.
"It’s so disruptive, and it’s so stressful," Colburn said, particularly when "we are in the most dire situation that many of have seen in our lifetime."
Colburn said she plans to call both the governor and adjutant general's offices to request that the F-35 practice flights cease. Colburn is unsure whether Scott, the top state official, can curtail the Guard's federal mission but said that won't keep her from pressing the issue.
But does she think the powers that be will listen?
“I hope so," Colburn said. "The jurisdictional issues are real, but whatever the outcome, I think Vermonters really need their leaders to speak out on this issue right now.”