- Jesse Azarian
A sudden roar announced that the military jets were taking to the sky again.
Julia Parise's son had developed a routine for whenever this happened: He would look to his mother and assess whether it was "one of them" — the F-35 fighter jets that had become such a constant presence in his young life — before asking her to cover his ears. He might do it himself, recalling aloud her reassurances as he did: "They won't hurt me. They won't hurt me."
But as the 2-year-old boy scaled a jungle gym at Winooski's Landry Park on this summer day in 2020, the noise snuck up on him. He tried to reach Parise as the jets began their ascent from Burlington International Airport, but there wasn't enough time. It was not until the last jet had passed overhead that Parise realized he was speaking to her.
"I pooped," he said through tears. "I pooped." It was his first accident since he had been potty-trained six months before.
Parise couldn't help but laugh when retelling the story a year later — parenting, after all, is filled with tragic comedy and soiled clothes. But there was also a sadness in her voice as she described just how deeply the F-35s have impacted her family and the many others who call their flight path home.
Jet noise has become a source of angst, agitation and anger in the greater Burlington area ever since the next-generation stealth fighter first landed in Vermont nearly two years ago. Those feelings have only intensified as the Vermont Air National Guard has ramped up training runs using its full complement of 20 jets.
The aircraft now fill the skies with thunderous noise twice a day, four days a week, one weekend a month and on occasional evenings — a training schedule expected to continue indefinitely.
Those who hear the jets are increasingly voicing their concerns: More than 1,000 calls have been made to the Guard's complaint hotline this calendar year, matching the number placed all of last year. And in March, Winooski residents voted overwhelmingly to urge the Guard to halt the flights, a request the Guard subsequently denied. The next month, two local filmmakers released "Jet Line: Voicemails From the Flight Path," a 12-minute documentary made up entirely of recorded phone messages from people impacted by the noise.
The disruptions come as no surprise to the residents and activists who for years fought the federal decision to base the jets in Vermont's most populous county. Many argued even before they arrived that the noise would wreak havoc on the working-class neighborhoods surrounding the airport. The U.S. Air Force itself warned that the new jets were louder than the F-16s they would replace — and would impact far more people.
A computer-generated sound map released in the spring of 2019, shortly before the jets' arrival, confirmed those projections. It showed that the F-35s — along with an anticipated increase in commercial air traffic — would nearly triple the number of homes impacted by average noise levels at or above 65 decibels, the figure used by the Federal Aviation Association to determine whether areas are suitable for residential use.
More than 2,600 houses and apartments now fall into the exposure zone, making them eligible for noise mitigation projects. The vast majority of the impacted properties are confined to the communities of Winooski, South Burlington and Williston. The jets' roar, of course, extends far beyond these boundaries.
In front of Winooski's O'Brien Community Center, which is located outside the sound map's contours, one round of morning takeoffs peaked at 110 decibels, according to readings taken by Seven Days using a professional-grade sound monitor. That's the equivalent of a rock concert. And the noise has caused disruptions in Burlington, Essex and Colchester, too.
Despite this, Vermont's most powerful politicians — including its congressional delegation, Gov. Phil Scott and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger — have remained unwavering in their support of the F-35s. They believe the jets are synonymous with a strong Air National Guard presence. Without them, the officials argue, the future of the so-called "Green Mountain Boys" — and the economic benefits of a military installation — would be at risk.
The Air National Guard's presence does provide a substantial economic boon. It employs more than 1,050 people, nearly 75 percent of whom live in Vermont; boasts an annual payroll of $55 million; and provides the Burlington International Airport, where the jets are based, with fire and rescue services valued at $3 million, according to stats from the Guard. It has also spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading the base to prepare for the jets, money that has made its way into the pockets of some local contractors, further stimulating the economy.
The F-35 program as a whole, though, has been a considerable drain on American taxpayers. Production delays, technical glitches and cost overruns have plagued the stealth fighter jet throughout its more than two-decade journey from conception to reality. While the price of an individual jet has gradually fallen from $100 million to $80 million, the cost of flying one remains on par with a year's college tuition: Each hour a jet is in the air costs some $36,000. Pentagon officials have projected that the expenses for the F-35 program will eventually surpass $1 trillion over its estimated 60-year life span.
In an interview at the South Burlington base last month, Vermont Air National Guard commander Col. David Shevchik dismissed any concerns about the jets' long-term viability.
"The Air Force has said the F-35 is going to be at the cornerstone of [our] fighter force, so we're proud to have it here," Shevchik said. "We're committed to being a ready F-35 Fighter Wing."
Barring a major reversal from both the Pentagon and Vermont's top officials, then, the F-35 jets appear all but certain to call Vermont home for the foreseeable future.
For its part, the Guard says it has done everything it can to shrink its aural footprint, changing flight patterns to avoid schools and approaching landings at the highest possible altitude. Pilots have also studiously avoided using afterburners, which assist in takeoff but can make the jets even louder. Shevchik said only one out of more than 3,000 flights to date has used afterburners, well below the estimated 5 percent of flights that the military had estimated.
The Guard's public affairs team has been proactive in its outreach, Shevchik said. It recently launched a new web page with frequently asked questions and info on filing online noise complaints. And it alerted residents this week to expect night training flights on Thursday, July 8.
But officials appear to recognize that this is not enough and have promised to push for additional funding to speed up noise mitigation programs, which likely won't be completed for decades.
In the meantime, the roar of the F-35s has become routine in the greater Burlington area, invading lives in both small and significant ways.
To better understand this new reality, Seven Days spoke to more than 40 people who have been affected. The diverse group included parents such as Parise, whose children are terrified of the noise; a business owner considering moving his company from its longtime office; an Army veteran who recalls difficult wartime experiences each time the jets tear by overhead; and New Americans who are also reminded of the conflicts they witnessed in their home countries.
They share a common thread: Most express frustration that they have been put in this position and that elected leaders are valuing the state's bottom line over the quality of their lives. Some are now even thinking about moving — or, like Josee Compton and her husband, already have.
The Comptons left their apartment in downtown Winooski last year because the noise proved too much. They now live in a part of Burlington where the jets are slightly quieter; they no longer wear earplugs inside when the jets fly over. But they have become so disillusioned that they aren't sure whether they want to even stay in the area.
"It is just so barbaric," Compton, 66, said. "I can't believe this is happening in Vermont."
The Kids Aren't All Right
- James Buck
- Julia Parise outside her Colchester home
Winooski father Ace McArleton keeps a child-size pair of noise-canceling headphones in strategic locations: his house, his car — even attached to his 2-year-old daughter's stroller, a decision he made after the jet noise caught him unprepared on one too many walks.
The rumbling sky often cuts short playtime in the yard, sending McArleton's family scrambling for the car or the house, where the noise is dampened. As she's tucked into bed, his daughter asks whether "the planes are coming."
"It's like having to live your life afraid of the sound," McArleton said.
Parents such as Parise and McArleton grapple not only with the disruptive nature of the noise, but also its impacts on their children. More than a half dozen parents interviewed described kids running, hiding or crying in response to the racket. Some of the youngsters have grown accustomed to the jets over time, but even that is troubling to parents who don't like this new normal. Many now worry that long-term exposure to the jet noise could hurt their kids in unseen ways.
Several recalled warnings from medical professionals who told them to shield newborns from noises as loud as vacuum cleaners. Yet there is very little research about how repeated exposure to sudden loud noises impacts children's hearing, according to Les Bloomberg, who runs the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a national nonprofit based in Montpelier that focuses on noise impacts.
Why? Because such a study would require exposing someone to the loud sound over and over, then examining its effects, according to Bloomberg.
"I'm not offering my kid," he quipped.
The Air Force says the F-35 noise can peak at 115 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls for limiting exposure to noise that loud to just 28 seconds a day. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, recommend no more than an average of 70 decibels over a 24-hour period. When weighted for a sound of 115 decibels, Bloomberg said, the allowable exposure time drops to just three seconds.
"Since we don't have an ethical way to find out what the exact value is," Bloomberg said, "we should just be erring on the side of caution."
The impact of loud noise isn't just confined to the ears. Humans evolved to regard noise as a warning signal. "The crying of a child, the honking of a horn, the siren of an ambulance — we use them because they're very effective," Bloomberg said. "They get our attention and immediately trigger our fight-or-flight response to get us to respond."
In other words, loud noise can evoke a fear response: breathing accelerates, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises. Authors of a 2013 Harvard University study found that older adults exposed to high levels of aircraft noise face increased risk of heart disease. The researchers theorized that the noise could be triggering repeated stress reactions.
Other studies have shown that noise can impact student learning. One undertaken at a New York City school located next to an elevated subway line compared test results from pupils in classrooms right next to the tracks with those of students in quieter parts of the school. The former group was lagging in its academic performance.
Despite this, local school officials seem wary of getting in the middle of the F-35 debate. Principals at South Burlington's Chamberlin School and Winooski's JFK Elementary both said last month that they were too busy to be interviewed. The Winooski School District instead provided a written statement from its superintendent, Sean McMannon, confirming that the jets have disrupted "some classes and meetings."
"To minimize disruption, we work with the Vermont National Guard by sharing our district's schedule of the most important instructional times of day, significant events like graduation and student testing dates," McMannon wrote. "They have assured us they will accommodate to the best of their ability."
Several people who work in schools said the jet noise poses a severe obstacle — both the staggered flyovers themselves, during which loud rumbling can last 10 minutes or more, and the aftermath, when it can be difficult to regain students' focus.
"The class just has to come to a standstill," said Adam Hurwitz, who spends time at Winooski High School as part of his job with a University of Vermont outreach program. "You can't really do anything."
Brian Perkins teaches a traditional singing program at the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington's Old North End. He held most of his classes outdoors during the pandemic, and while jet noise interrupted many, one particular day stands out.
It was his final kindergarten class of the year, and his dozen students were gathered in a circle of tree stumps. They were "right on the verge" of figuring it out, he said — that rare moment when 4- and 5-year-olds, singing their little hearts out, come together as one. Then the first jet started to take off. Then another. And another.
"It just utterly destroyed the class," Perkins said. "The kids who were acting out started acting out in a much more aggressive manner, and the kids who were desperately trying to focus — it became pointless."
Similar scenes are likely playing out in some of the 40 licensed childcare centers spread out across Williston, Winooski and South Burlington, though, like school leaders, providers seem cautious about speaking out. Of the three contacted by Seven Days, only one responded, declining an interview out of concern that parents would think twice about sending their kids there if they knew how loud it was.
Parents themselves say anticipating the flights can be just as bad as the noise itself. They find themselves subconsciously scanning the skies — or reaching for headphones when they mistake a passing garbage truck for an $80 million military aircraft.
"I feel like I have to be on all the time," said Suzanne Blain, a Winooski mother of a 1-year-old.
The Guard isn't helping parents plan: Officials say national security concerns prevent them from sharing precise schedules beyond a pair of two-hour windows — morning and afternoon — each day. The pilots also vary their flight patterns based on the wind, sometimes taking off over Winooski or, other times, Williston.
That leaves many parents trying to proactively shield children from the noise, an effort that has largely proven futile: It is simply too loud.
Just ask Christina Pasnick, a South Burlington mother who keeps the windows of her 3-month-old son's room closed whenever he sleeps, and yet she still watches as the jet noise registers as "red" on his baby monitor. Or Benjamin VanderVeen, who recently installed sound-dampening curtains in his Williston home, only to find that the flights still wake his 3-year-old from naps.
Samara Brown, who lives on Burlington's Riverside Avenue with her fiancé and 3-month-old daughter, is now considering whether she, too, needs to start bringing noise-canceling headphones on daily walks, though she's so far resisted, largely out of principle. "It just feels so ludicrous to me that I would have to prepare my daughter's ears for a normal walk in the neighborhood," she said.
McArleton feels helpless that he cannot protect his family from the noise — and angry that he must worry about it at all. His resentment has only grown now that he has another set of ears to worry about; his wife, former state representative Diana González, gave birth to their second child last month.
'Hold on, the Jets Are Coming'
- Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
- Suzanne Blain and her 1-year-old daughter, wearing noise-canceling headphones, in their Winooski backyard
Annalee Pratt, a pediatric social worker who lives and works in Winooski, didn't give much thought to the jets prior to the pandemic. She had been caught out in the parking lot several times and was shocked by how loud they were, but her windowless office in the O'Brien Community Center helped mute the racket.
When she started working at home during the pandemic, her experience changed. Her remote trainings are frequently disrupted. The takeoffs regularly derail her 30-minute sessions with clients, sometimes dragging out for half of the scheduled time. The noise has even interrupted parents as they are sharing a traumatic memory or an upsetting development in their child's life. "They need, in that moment, immediate emotional support," Pratt said, "and I've had to say, 'Hold on, the jets are coming.'"
Pratt is just one of many who say the noise has disrupted their professional lives.
The F-35s typically take off in the mornings and early afternoons, which is not ideal for night-shift workers such as Sarah Zareva, who lives in Burlington's Old North End and works at City Market, Onion River Co-op. The jet noise has disrupted her sleep more times than she cares to remember.
"Home needs to be my sanctuary," she said, "and that's been taken away from me."
Others recalled frequent interruptions to their workdays, forcing them to pause or reschedule important meetings or phone calls. Those with jobs that require them to make audio and video recordings said redoing their work or editing around the noise can take hours. Some said they struggle to regain their focus long after the sound subsides.
Terry Bouricius works for Pearson VUE, a nationwide company that runs a professional exam site in South Burlington. The high-stakes tests can determine whether people get a certain job or advance in their careers, and Bouricius routinely hears complaints that the jets make it difficult to focus. "It's definitely an infringement," he said.
Some companies say the noise is making it harder for them to get employees back into the office. John Canning, president and cofounder of Physician's Computer Company, a software business located in Winooski's Champlain Mill, said only a fraction of his 100 employees have resumed working in-person. For some, it's simply a matter of preference: They just like working from home better. But many others have expressed concerns about the noise.
"Even when you cover your ears," he said, "it's just so loud."
The growing company completed a major renovation of its office just before the pandemic hit, taking over the rest of the mill's second floor to double its footprint to 20,000 square feet. Despite spending a "small fortune" on the project, Canning said he's already looking for new space, a search that will likely force him out of Winooski.
"I don't know that there's a place here that's free of the noise," he said.
- James Buck
- Marlon Fisher at home in Burlington
Supporters of the F-35 basing often rebuke these complaints, describing the noise as a point of pride and a small price to pay for national safety and security. But for some in the flight path, the roar of the jets represents something far more ominous.
"That's not the sound of freedom," said Marlon Fisher, a Burlington resident. "That's the sound of war."
He would know. A U.S. Army veteran, Fisher served in southern Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 as an intelligence analyst, working to locate and eliminate potential threats. Some of the people he tracked were ultimately captured or killed, and he often received post-mission briefings that featured gruesome images of the aftermath.
Fisher has spent the last 10 years coming to terms with his time in the service. He's made great strides, he said, but one question still haunts him: Did I choose the right person?
This is where his mind goes when the jets take off while he's on a work call, or when the evening flights interrupt him as he reads a book to his kid. "[Despite] the work that I've done to get where I am today, to move on from that, it just brings it up every single time," he said.
The same is true for some New American residents who arrived in Vermont after fleeing unsafe living situations in places where the sound of jets was sometimes followed by the crash of bombs. Many of these residents have settled in Winooski, making it the most diverse place in Vermont: The Onion City has a nonwhite population of 25 percent and runs the state's only majority-minority school district.
Standing on the back porch of her home one afternoon last month, Wabiwa Mubuenju explained through a translator that her primary concern was the noise: It is so loud that she covers her ears. But the roar of the jets also reminds her of the conflict that drove her from her home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said. One jet might not be so bad, she explained, but when so many fly at once, "it's traumatizing."
Shabani Munyugu, 17, said the same was true for his mother, a Congolese woman who served in the armed forces in her home country before she became pregnant. Her father died in the war, and the family spent 10 years in a refugee camp, worrying about the future. Shabani himself was too young to remember much about those days. For his mother, however, he knows the jet noise "brings back those memories," he said solemnly.
On an early June day, Gov. Scott and other dignitaries gathered in South Burlington to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Vermont Air National Guard.
Addressing the crowd, Vermont's Republican governor recalled some of the Guard's defining moments: responding to the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, aiding the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, lending a hand during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also noted another important anniversary marked that day — D-Day, when Allied forces, his father among them, stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.
"From my perspective, the takeaway from the first 75 years of the Vermont Air National Guard is this," Scott told those gathered: "No matter what the challenge — no matter how difficult the task, or daunting the enemy — breathe easy, because the Green Mountain Boys are here — ready, willing and able for anything that comes our way." Soon after, four F-35s in formation flew overhead.
Scott has been a fierce defender of the Air Guard and its controversial jet. In 2018, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Air Force secretary and reiterate his support for bringing the F-35s to Vermont. More recently, he rebuffed the Burlington City Council when it asked him to halt the flights during the pandemic.
In response to a request for comment for this story, Scott said in a written statement that he "unequivocally" supports the F-35 mission and remains proud that Vermont's Air National Guard was one of the first units to be assigned the stealth fighters.
"I respect the concerns of those impacted by the several minutes of noise per day, but I believe the benefits of this mission to our state and nation are vitally important and outweigh the costs," Scott said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been vocal about America's "bloated" military budget. He recently told the Washington Post that he planned to use his new position leading the Senate Budget Committee to provide tougher oversight of the country's national security establishment.
"Citing former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's warnings about the military industrial complex, [Sanders] excoriated defense agencies and weapons manufacturers over hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns on programs, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter," the Post reported in May.
At the same time, Sanders supported the decision to base those very jets near his hometown and, in response to an interview request, attached his name to a statement, along with Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), that acknowledged the "very real" noise concerns.
"We have listened to these concerns and continue to work to ensure that the Federal Aviation Administration brings federal resources to the Burlington Airport for noise mitigation strategies," the delegation wrote. The officials then pointed to a new U.S. Department of Defense program that will set aside an additional $50 million for such efforts nationally. Leahy spokesperson David Carle said in a follow-up email that it was too soon to know how much of that money might make its way to Burlington.
"We know the sacrifices made by our friends and neighbors serving in the Vermont National Guard, and are especially grateful for their hard work over this last year responding to the COVID-19 pandemic," the delegation wrote. "Together, we believe we can address community concerns while preserving the flying mission of the Vermont National Guard."
Weinberger, meanwhile, said in an interview that he, too, stood by his decision to support the basing, arguing that it was "magical thinking" to believe the Guard could have maintained its current presence without the F-35 mission. Still, noting that it was "not a decision without trade-off," Weinberger acknowledged that the new jets do seem louder than their predecessors. He echoed calls for further noise mitigation funding.
There has been some movement on that front in recent months. Last fall, the FAA gave the airport permission to roll out a new noise mitigation program, replacing the highly controversial buyout strategy that resulted in the razing of nearly 200 homes in South Burlington between 1989 and 2019.
The new program will involve replacing doors and windows of eligible properties to better insulate them from the sound. Between 10 and 12 homes are expected to begin the process this year, and the airport expects to soundproof roughly 50 homes per year moving forward, according to BTV deputy director of aviation Nic Longo.
The airport plans to use an annual $4.5 million grant from the FAA to pay for the projects, while Vermont Gas Systems has agreed to cover the $550,000 needed for a 10 percent local match.
For those who would rather sell their homes, the airport is offering a pair of assistance programs that will ensure they receive fair market value. It's also rolling out a monitoring program this year, placing noise readers in South Burlington, Winooski and Williston so that people can better understand how loud the jets are in certain locations.
Elected officials hope that the mitigation efforts will eventually change the tide of public opinion, but critics note that the noise exposure maps cover only a portion of the affected municipalities, leaving out many impacted homeowners. McArleton, for example, the Winooski father who keeps noise-canceling headphones on his daughter's stroller, lives outside the zone.
Even those who do qualify say new doors and windows would do little to improve their situation.
"The whole reason we live in Vermont is to enjoy these beautiful summer days," said Brandy Tougas, who owns a Williston duplex within the noise exposure zone. "I can't suffer all winter to sit inside all summer."
Ann Pearce, a 63-year-old Winooski resident, echoed that sentiment. "You walk outside, and those things bomb at you," she said. "It would be so much easier to put the planes elsewhere and build affordable housing."
- Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
- F-35 opponent Jimmy Leas speaking at a July 4 rally in Burlington
Outside of Burlington City Hall on July 4, a man and woman approached Jimmy Leas looking for guidance. The couple said they lived in Williston and found the noise of the F-35s unbearable.
"I don't know what to do," Joey Mele, 62, said.
Leas had just given a rousing speech against the F-35s during an Independence Day rally he had planned with organizers from the Burlington-based Black Perspective. Speakers addressed a wide range of social issues and drew a crowd of roughly 50. Some carried signs with messages such as "Silence is Golden: Save Vermont's Brand" and "No F-35 Flights in a City."
Leas, who wore a T-shirt featuring a red strike-through over an image of Sen. Sanders riding an F-35 with an American flag rippling in the background, recapped for the couple how the jets landed in Vermont, then urged them to contact their elected officials. He whipped out a pocket calendar and took down their contact information.
Leas represents a dying breed in the now decade-old movement against the F-35s: an early adopter who continues to carry the torch, still hoping to make a difference.
The bespectacled 73-year-old patent attorney pens frequent mass emails about the jets, maintains a large complaint database and has started a free Substack newsletter titled Cancel the F-35. One recent article provided a satirical "exclusive interview" with top commanders at the Guard. In others, he makes the case that the jet basing is unconstitutional and that Vermont officials could easily stop the flights if they wanted.
"I'm certainly not giving up," Leas said after Sunday's event. "If we're just persistent and we just keep raising the issue, eventually we'll win."
But for other longtime critics, the fight against the basing has lost its allure.
Carmine Sargent lives within earshot of the airport in a home retrofitted to be accessible for her 50-year-old daughter, Kara Paige, who has spina bifida, a congenital disorder that requires the use of a wheelchair. The two stayed put even as the airport bought and razed dozens of homes in their neighborhood.
Sargent was once an active voice in the fight against the basing. And years later, Sargent still hates the jets — passionately. She sometimes stands out in her backyard and flips them the bird as they take off.
But for the most part, her heart's not in it anymore. "It really is like hitting your head against the wall," she said. "After a while you just go, 'I don't think I can do this anymore.'"
And the noise continues, altering the trajectory of individual lives within the flight path.
Diana Arnell, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter are making the same Winooski-to-Burlington migration as the Comptons, citing jet noise as the primary reason. "We don't want to expose her to it, not knowing what the long-term developmental consequences might be," she said.
Emma Rose Horowitz-McCadden said she is all but certain to leave South Burlington once she and her husband decide to start a family. "I will not bring a kid into the world here because of it," she said.
Parise, whose son had the accident on the playground, has held off on getting a dog because of how scared her friends' pets are of the noise. She, too, now plans to eventually move farther from the flight path, even though she would rather stay closer to Burlington.
"It's changing our life course a bit," she said.
Moving is simply not an option for many others.
Zareva, the night-shift worker, knows she would be hard-pressed to find another apartment in her price range; the $712 she now pays in rent is all she can afford. The same is true for Brown, the Burlington mother who lives on Riverside Avenue.
Without the financial means to easily relocate, Brown has started to channel her frustrations to the decision makers who brought the jets to Vermont.
"They are just waiting for us to tire out and stop complaining," she said. "I just can't do that while I live here."
She has reached out to the congressional delegation and repeatedly left voicemails on the Guard's complaint line. She has also encouraged her friends to do the same, posting links to complaint forms and surveys on her social media pages. At the very least, the small steps of advocacy help relieve some of the stress of her situation.
Still, with all the money and powerful people behind the jets, Brown doubts any of it is making much of a difference.
"I feel like I'm screaming into the void," she said.