The U.S. Air Force in March held two open houses in Tucson, with the goal of gathering public input for an environmental impact statement on a proposal to bring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Tucson International Airport.
Five sites around the country are possible Air Force-training locations for six squadrons, or 144 planes, of the latest-generation military aircraft. These include Eglin Air Force Base in northwestern Florida, which is already slated to receive 59 of the planes.
Other bases under consideration are Holloman AFB in southern New Mexico; the Boise Air Terminal Air Guard Station in Idaho; and Luke AFB outside of Phoenix. In Tucson, the F-35's potential home is 92 acres of land at TIA now used by the Air National Guard to train F-16 pilots.
About 170 people showed up at Sunnyside High School open house on March 1, with at least 200 attending the open house at Roskruge Bilingual Magnet Middle and Elementary School a few days later. Some 200 people left behind written comments at these gatherings—but many questions were left unanswered.
Most important to those who fear the F-35's impact on Tucson's quality of life was the lack of definitive answers concerning the jet's noise and possible methods to mitigate it.
David Densmore, president of the Elvira Neighborhood Association, which covers an area just west of TIA, was frustrated.
"I hear the sound will increase greatly," Densmore says about the new plane, "(but) the pilots (at Sunnyside High School) hadn't heard the F-35, and couldn't describe its sound."
However, some of Densmore's neighbors support bringing the new plane to Tucson. "They are strongly for it, saying it's better to see an F-35 in the sky than a (Russian) MiG," he says.
But Densmore adds: "I don't see any benefit for our neighborhood if the planes come here. I'm apprehensive."
The amount of sound produced by the F-35 is a major point of disagreement.
Ward 5 City Councilmember Richard Fimbres represents many of the people who will be impacted by the F-35 decision. He promoted attendance at the open houses and has been trying to get the community involved.
Fimbres says he has been told the noise can be mitigated. "I was talking to an Air National Guardsman who assured me that they won't be revving up the F-35 when they take off or fly into TIA," Fimbres says, "and this will really decrease the noise impact."
But Fimbres admits he's "getting (conflicting input) from both sides" and believes the community needs more information to make the best decision.
In an e-mail, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' communication director, C.J. Karamargin, downplays F-35 noise concerns.
"Test results released by the Joint Program Office indicate that the F-35 is as loud as the F-16s operating at Tucson International Airport in most conditions, slightly less loud than a number of aircraft that fly at Operation Snowbird (at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base), and not as loud as F-16s when operating under what the Air Force considers to be the 'worse case' at the maximum performance settings," Karamargin writes.
Yet in 2008, when the Air Force released an environmental impact statement (EIS) to possibly base F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base, officials included a chart comparing on-the-ground noise levels of various aircraft as they flew over. (See the accompanying chart.) Because an increase of 10 decibels basically equates to a doubling of sound, this comparison shows the F-35 being at least three times as loud as the F-16.
In addition, the noise-contour maps contained in the EIS predict that the F-35 will tremendously expand the area around Eglin that will be included within a 65-decibel noise level.
That level of sound is critical, since according to a Department of Defense instruction, "above 65-decibel DNL (day/night average noise level) is the exterior noise level generally not recommended for residential use."
When the mayor and other elected officials in the small town of Valparaiso, Fla., realized that F-35 flights out of nearby Eglin AFB would put 70 percent of their community above the 65-decibel level, they filed a lawsuit over the EIS. Earlier in March, an out-of-court settlement was reached, with the Air Force agreeing to establish a committee to address the noise issue.
However, Giffords has already endorsed the F-35 coming to Tucson. Last November, she wrote a letter to the secretary of the Air Force and his chief of staff, saying: "(A)long with the vast majority of Tucson area residents, (I) fully support a robust basing presence of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft at both Tucson Airport and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base."
Giffords characterized those in the Tucson area who oppose this sentiment as "a small but vocal minority of residents."
In February, after hearing from a number of knowledgeable constituents who were concerned about the noise issue, Giffords requested information from the Air Force that could help clarify the situation. She asked that data from noise-output tests done for the F-35 be released before the recent open houses. That request was never granted.
In that same February letter, Giffords asked the Air Force to take eight noise-related steps before the EIS process is concluded in 2011, including "real-time fly-over measurements (of the F-35) in Tucson."
The Air Force has yet to indicate whether it will comply with that request; however, such measurements aren't needed to prepare the EIS, since a computer model generates the noise-contour maps for that document.
While the F-35 is unquestionably a loud aircraft, several mitigating measures could be taken at TIA to possibly reduce its noise impact.
In the Eglin case, the Air Force proposed "temporary operational limitations" to lessen the noise from the F-35, for a limited amount of time. Ideas that didn't require "substantive time and resources" range from flight-pattern changes to increased simulator use to the potential of having the trainer pilot fly an airplane other than the F-35.
That final option baffles Chris Reynolds, a former air-traffic controller at both TIA and Davis-Monthan, and an opponent of the F-35 being based in Tucson.
"The idea of flying a quieter plane beside the F-35 sounds strange," he says. "According to acoustic experts, one F-35 is very close in sound to four F-35s flying at the same time. That's the way these sound waves operate."
The F-16s that fly out of TIA now are already under flight restrictions that might be continued if the F-35 comes to town. These include limiting the total annual number of military flights, restricting the use of afterburners to no more than 10 percent of annual takeoffs, and eliminating flight training between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
In addition, TIA has had a program in place for many years that is directed at retrofitting structures with noise attenuation. Jordan Feld, the director of TIA planning, says that "special programs such as sound-insulation improvements for homes and noise-sensitive land uses" will continue. He adds, however, that these programs are contingent on federal subsidies.
Representative Maximum Sound Level in Decibels (dB)
Altitude in Feet Above Ground Level
The open houses provided no definitive answers about the potential impacts of the F-35 on Tucson's economy.
One of the glossy handouts distributed did explain that the 162nd Fighter Wing has been training pilots at TIA since 1956 and "is the largest Air National Guard fighter wing in the country." For 25 years, it has flown training missions for the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Information later provided by the wing's spokesman declares that almost 1,000 civilians, 275 active-duty military personnel and hundreds of reservists make up the 162nd. About 800 of these employees are in airplane maintenance; 400 support the training mission; and 60 provide medical aid. On the 162nd's operations side, there are 145 people, including about 80 instructor pilots.
According to a 2008 report commissioned by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, the total yearly payroll for the 162nd Wing was $95 million. The study also indicates that the average annual civilian and active-duty member's pay is quite high by Tucson standards, approaching $70,000.
Repeated calls seeking further clarification from the consultants who prepared the study were not returned.
Beyond payroll, the wing had almost $32 million in direct annual spending—mostly for aviation fuel—along with an estimated $11 million in indirect taxes.
Currently, the 162nd Wing has 66 F-16s in three squadrons. Most of the pilots who are trained at TIA hail from foreign countries—Norway, Poland, Singapore, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, among others—that continue to buy F-16s for their fleets.
Lt. Col. Allen Kinnison, an instructor pilot with the 162nd, thinks three squadrons of planes is all that TIA can handle, whether they're F-16s or F-35s.
Based on that assumption, even if the F-35 comes to TIA, Kinnison doesn't believe there will be much of a change in the number of people employed by the 162nd. "The Air National Guard does things with less people than the Air Force," he explains.
However, what will happen to the 162nd Wing if Tucson misses out on the new F-35 mission? Calls seeking comment on this possibility to Air National Guard public-information offices outside of Washington, D.C., and in Phoenix did not lead to answers.
But at the Roskruge open house, Lt. Col. Mike Farrell from Eglin AFB stated, "There will be F-16s in the world for another 40 years, and in the U.S. for probably another 15."
Col. Randy Straka, of the 162nd Wing, added: "We don't have a date for when we'll stop flying the F-16. Not anytime soon."
Marshall Vest, a UA expert on the local economy, downplays the economic impact of the possible loss of the existing training mission.
"We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 jobs in Pima County," Vest says, "so the loss of 1,000 jobs (if the F-16 mission is not replaced by the F-35) is a small portion of the overall picture."
However, Tim Amalong, president of the Minuteman Committee, a 162nd Fighter Wing support group, takes a much different perspective.
"The way our economy is," Amalong asks, "what will it be like in 10 years when the Air Force phases out the F-16, and then in 2025, the A-10s (from Davis-Monthan)?"
Amalong thinks community members need to give the EIS process a chance before making up their minds.
Donald Pitt, president of the Campus Research Corporation, which operates the UA Science and Technology Park and the new UA Bioscience Park, is concerned that increased jet noise and safety issues could have a devastating effect on Tucson.
"The business community must have a long-range concern as to the benefits and detriments of the F-35," Pitt says. "That only makes good business sense."
Pitt offers an example. "If you're trying to support a revitalized downtown, it's critical to understand this program. Right now, we don't know the flight pattern or how the noise will spread. We don't know how much D-M will be involved. ... I don't see how, without better information, anyone could be absolutely in favor or opposed to the F-35 coming to Tucson."
As the Air Force prepares to begin work on the draft environmental impact statement for the possible F-35 mission at TIA, the biggest questions—about the potential loss of jobs, and about the almost-assured increase in noise—remain unanswered.
So ... after months of buildup and two open houses, what does the community know about the F-35?
We know the F-35 will have three different models, built in cooperation with eight international partner countries, with an estimated cost of $112 million per plane. The F-35 is a single-seat fighter that is 51 feet long with a 35-foot wingspan, and is powered by a jet engine that produces 35,000 pounds of thrust. The initial flight of the new plane took place in late 2006.
It's also known that the F-35, which the Air Force says is meant to "replace and supplement the F-16 and A-10 aircraft fleets" as a "premier strike aircraft through 2040," is currently mired in huge cost overruns and production delays. Those delays mean that few F-35s will be flying before late 2015, as opposed to a previous estimate of 2013.
Despite that change in dates, and the possibility that technological advances could be made in the interim, the Air Force is moving ahead with the EIS process for the five facilities it is considering as F-35 training sites.
"Our position," says David Martin, who is overseeing the EIS process, "is to continue forward with it until somebody, such as the secretary of the Air Force or above, tells us to put it on hold."
Tucsonans also know Southern Arizona and its weakened economy would feel the loss of 1,000-plus jobs.
It's also known that based on the current F-16 flight patterns into and out of TIA, if the F-35 comes to Tucson, they will fly over parts of the city.
"Forty percent of the 162nd Wing flights go up to the reserves northeast of Tucson," according to Lt. Col. Kinnison. "Some of these flights are obviously over the city. Of the remainder, 25 percent fly to the (Barry M.) Goldwater (Air Force) Range, and the rest to the reserves along the border."
The community knows that whenever F-16 jets are carrying live ammunition, they're not allowed to take off from TIA. Instead, they must fly southeast out of Davis-Monthan.
The Air Force acknowledges that "a small portion of F-35A training may require limited use of the flightline and other facilities on Davis-Monthan AFB." As a result, these F-35s could raise noise levels on an occasional basis across both the central city and Tucson's southeastern corner.
Residents of Southern Arizona certainly know what an ideal climate we have for military flight training. In an overview prepared by members of the 162nd, Col. Straka notes, "Less than 3 percent of scheduled sorties here are cancelled due to weather. ... That's practically unheard of in other parts of the world."
On top of that, it's known that the military infrastructure at TIA is established. Lt. Col. Kinnison recalls that in January, Air Force officials toured TIA to assess its readiness to host the F-35 training mission.
"They were fairly impressed with the facilities available here," Kinnison says, "but fuel storage isn't sufficient."
It's also known that by the end of the year, the Air Force intends to issue a draft EIS for the five sites under consideration for F-35 training.
Finally, Tucson knows that officials with Tucson International Airport currently produce a noise-contour map for the facility that includes the noise generated by both commercial and military aircraft. This map shows loud noise primarily occurs to the mostly vacant southeast, over which a vast majority of planes take off.
That means planes descending to land usually approach the airport from the northwest, crossing above the Tucson Mountains and then a portion of the metropolitan area.
Off the end of the runway in this direction, the present 65-decibel noise line penetrates almost 3,000 feet into the Sunnyside Neighborhood, located off the northwest corner of Valencia Road and Nogales Highway.
For this reason, Rebecca Quintero, president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, is concerned about the F-35 coming to Tucson.
"Lots of people went to the Sunnyside High School open house," she remarks, "and those who did were adamantly against (the F-35)."
Last week, the association voted not to support basing the F-35 at TIA. "It's a quality-of-life issue," Quintero says.
Despite that, she isn't optimistic about the EIS process for TIA. "I think it's going to come in, no matter what we say," Quintero concludes.
• The public-comment portion of the Tucson environmental impact statement ends April 5. Those wishing to comment should write:
Mr. David Martin
266 F Street West, Bldg. 901
Randolph AFB, TX 78150-4319
• Project Vote Smart is co-sponsoring a debate about the possibility of the F-35 coming to Tucson, on Wednesday, April 14, at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St. Following a 7 a.m. breakfast, the debate will be from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. The cost is $35; call 626-8752 for reservations and more information.