The Vermont Air National Guard will take delivery of its first F-35 fighter planes in 2019, a year earlier than originally planned. People in Burlington are paying close attention to the move.
The Air Force announced on Monday that two squadrons of F-35s would be stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. The notice that the Vermont Air Guard would receive the jets on an accelerated schedule was included in a sidebar to that announcement. Air Force Lieutenant General John Cooper said slightly accelerating the delivery of the F-35s to the fall of 2019 instead of 2020 allows the Air Force to capitalize on the Vermont Guard’s “…experienced fighter aircraft maintenance force…”
Vermont National Guard Assistant Adjutant General Air Brigadier General Joel Clark says the state did not request early arrival of the jets. “In discussion with the Air Force they asked us if we could accept them early.”
General Clark says moving up the arrival of the first of 18 planes will give the Air Force more time to train crews for the active Air Force units that will receive the F-35s. “By moving the jets here it gives them time to train and bring on more fighter maintainers for the active duty. (What is a fighter maintainer?) It’s the people who maintain the aircraft. They work on the engines. They work on the electronic systems, a whole host of things that they work on on the aircraft.”
A pending lawsuit seeks to block or delay stationing the jets in Burlington. Stop the F-35 Coalition member Roseanne Greco is former chair of the South Burlington City Council and a retired Air Force Colonel. She was shocked that the F-35 schedule was accelerated. “In all of the reports it’s showing that it’s so far behind schedule and falling even more behind schedule because of all the problems they’re experiencing with it, many of which are safety related, I anticipated that the F-35 would not be operational for quite a few years much less deployed in the near future.”
Greco claims the F-35 has an unreliable safety record and should not be placed in the Burlington area. “When we have had new generation aircraft the Air Force has never based them first in a populated area. They based them at Air Force bases generally in remote areas. Why? Because they’re not reliable yet. But they’re breaking precedent now because of political pressure and are putting them in a populated area. We are the wrong location for the first basing of the F-35’s.”
General Clark calls the F-35 the future of the Vermont Air Guard. “We will receive a couple jets in the fall of 2019 and then the schedule from there on is something we will work with the Air Force and we’ll have more detail on that as time gets closer. The F-16’s will leave before the F-35’s get here so that timeline would be adjusted accordingly. There are no Vermont Air National Guard pilots that have gone to start learning to fly the F-35. As far as getting people off to school and so on it may change some of their dates but there’s still enough time because we have three and a half years to get all that accomplished.”
The F-35s will replace the Vermont Guard's current F-16 fleet.