- Kelley Sims
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy stood with the top brass but sounded a populist note at a press conference last week celebrating the U.S. Air Force’s announcement that 18 F-35 fighter planes would fly out of Burlington International Airport.
“I’ve never seen such a grassroots effort in this state,” Leahy remarked to 200 members of the Vermont Air National Guard.
But for some people who make their homes near the airport, Leahy’s statement didn’t convey the whole picture.
“Yeah, there’s broad grassroots support. But there’s also broad grassroots opposition,” said Julian Portilla, a Winooski resident and associate professor at Champlain College who counts himself among the opponents.
This past weekend, a Seven Days reporter visited roughly 20 households in the flight path in Winooski and South Burlington. Residents were divided evenly between those who welcome the jets and those who do not.
A former Air Force pilot who still flies privately, Tyler Hart lives on Kirby Street in South Burlington. In fact, he and his wife, Kathy, moved there seven years ago in order to better access BTV. Hart says he and his wife don’t mind the noise from the F-16s currently based there, and the couple doesn’t worry about the F-35s on the horizon.
If anything, he and his wife have felt like minorities in their support for the F-35, he said. The months of debate leading up to last week’s decision were dominated by the opposition, Hart said, so when the South Burlington City Council held a meeting near his home for residents to voice their opinions, he took the opportunity to present “a more neutral position.”
In his argument, Hart made a case for the strategic importance of the Vermont Air National Guard base. As the Northeast’s largest, he said it deserved the most advanced military technology. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Hart pointed out, the Vermont Guard was the first to establish an air patrol in New York City.
Several Winooski residents echoed that point, including Kelley and Karon Sims on West Spring Street. Their son just reenlisted with the Green Mountain Boys, they explained, and Kelley used to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. Now retired from working as a lineman and firefighter, Kelley enjoys watching the F-16s fly over their home.
“They’re gonna be noisy,” he said of the F-35s, “but every jet is noisy.”
“That’s the noise of freedom,” his wife added.
Portilla and his wife, Kari Hoose, a teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School, listed several reasons for their opposition to the planes. The Air Force hasn’t demonstrated the safety or cost-effectiveness of the jets, Portilla said, and no one has raised the possibility of creating a fund for homeowners whose property values drop as a result of the basing. With three young children, the couple is worried about the impact on students and believes thicker windows should be installed in schools to protect their hearing.
Referring to the closed-door process by which the Air Force ranked locations for the basing of the F-35s, Hoose added, “One of the pieces that’s been undemocratic is that elected leaders haven’t discussed the risk and benefits.”
Although he now lives in Colchester, Tom Campbell, an operations director at the University of Vermont, grew up in the Onion City and on Saturday was repairing his sister’s porch there. He pointed to IBM’s recent layoffs as a reason to welcome the economic development that may come as a result of new jets, which are expected in 2020.
“I’m not a warmonger, but I support the F-35s,” Campbell explained, pointing to the mom-and-pop stores that rely on business from the airport.
But on Valley Ridge Road in South Burlington, William Gay, also a UVM staff member, expressed shock at the Air Force’s decision. The claims of economic development, he says, haven’t been fleshed out. “I think couching it in terms of, ‘It’s going to bring all kind of jobs to the area,’ well, no one’s saying what kind of jobs,” said Gay.
Donna Carlson moved to Kirby Road in 1986 and — although she stresses that she isn’t anti-military — has always taken issue with the sound of the F-16s. An inner ear disorder known as Meniere’s disease necessitates that Carlson cover her ears or go inside whenever the planes take off or land, and she worries that lowered property values will prevent her from selling her home after 2020.
Also disturbing to Carlson has been the lack of representation by leaders like Leahy, who she says have been cheerleaders for the basing. “Because our congressmen don’t live in this area, they don’t have any sense how these planes affect these neighborhoods,” Carlson said.