The Vermont Air National Guard dramatically increased the number of F-35 flights from its South Burlington base in the first week of April, despite official claims that there had been “no change” in flight operations.
The 158th Fighter Wing flew five times as many times during the week of March 29 to April 4 as it did the previous week, an increase residents of the Burlington area — many of whom were stuck working from home during the coronavirus pandemic — noted with dismay.
In the week beginning March 22, Guard pilots participated in just eight flights, aka "sorties," from the runway the Guard shares with the Burlington International Airport. In the previous two weeks, there had been six and eight flights, respectively.
But that changed noticeably the following week, when the powerful F-35s not-so-stealthily roared into the skies above Vermont a total of 42 times, according to limited flight counts the Guard provided to Seven Days.
The five-fold increase was the most significant weekly spike in fighter operations at the base since the first two F-35 Lightning II jets arrived from Texas to great fanfare in September. Since then, 13 more aircraft have been gradually added to the flight line for a total of 15 currently in operation. Twenty are expected to be in service by this summer, according to the Guard.
The period ending April 4 also represented a new record for total flights in a week; the previous record was 34 during the week of January 5 to January 11, according to the Guard data.
When asked April 3 why the number of flights were soaring, the Guard responded with evasion and denial. Capt. Mike Arcovitch, a Guard spokesperson, told Seven Days that there was “no change in daily operations.”
A press release put out at the same time contained no information about flight frequency, stating merely that the fighter wing "would continue flying operations as scheduled” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked to clarify whether there was an increase in flights, Arcovitch downplayed any change, texting: "Still morning take offs and afternoon take-offs - no increase."
After a formal request last week, however, the Guard provided Seven Days with weekly flight data that clearly showed a sharp increase in flights.
Col. Dave Shevchik explained that the increase was due largely to six planes and their crews returning to Burlington at the end of March from eight weeks of training in Florida.
“Those planes had returned, which was consequently why … that first week in April you see an increase in operations,” Shevchik said.
Asked to clarify why he said there was no increase in operations when clearly there had been, Arcovitch issued a clarification, of sorts. “What we have said is accurate - there is no change to operations,” Arcovitch wrote.
By that, Arcovitch said, he meant that there was no change in the Tuesday to Friday schedule of groups of four to eight fighters taking off in the morning and afternoon, weather and other factors permitting.
“Our operations during the week in question remained within those parameters, which is why from my perspective I said no increase,” Arcovitch wrote in a message.
The spike in flights came at an inopportune time for the Guard, firing up long-time critics and creating new ones.
“Around April 1, there was a huge increase in the noise from the F-35,” said Jimmy Leas, a persistent critic of the decision to base the plane in an urban area.
Leas created an online complaint form back in February, but the numbers filed were modest until that first week in April, when they began flooding in, he said.
Many were reporting uncomfortable noise levels inside their homes, leading Leas to predict that complaints will rise significantly as the weather warms up and the Guard reaches its full flight capacity.
Richard Olmstead said he and his wife have been laid off from their jobs and are stuck at home in Winooski trying to homeschool three young kids in what sounds like a war zone.
The thunderous F-35s are far louder than the F-16s such that the family can’t continue a call, conduct a lesson or have a conversation inside their own home.
“We live in a brick house that shakes when they go over,” Olmstead said. “I’m just infuriated by it.”
Leas was also behind a petition, now signed by about 1,800 people, urging Gov. Phil Scott to suspend flight operations during the pandemic, which the governor declined to do, highlighting all the help the Guard has provided the state in the pandemic fight. The Burlington City Council took up a similar resolution at a meeting earlier this month and passed it by an 11 to 1 vote.
Shevchik chalked the whole thing up to an innocent miscommunication over the “operational terms” used by military public affairs officials. He stressed that any such confusion should not be “construed as misleading or evasive.”
“I’m committed to transparency and open conversations within the bounds of operational security,” he said.