Flyover Future

The Air Force holds public meetings as it considers locating a new plane in Tucson

Tucson International Airport, a base for fighter-jet training since the 1950s, is one of five locations being considered as a home for the F-35, the military's next-generation aircraft.

Opponents warn that if the F-35 comes to Tucson, city residents will be heavily impacted by noise and safety issues. Supporters, on the other hand, predict economic problems if the aging F-16 project, currently flying about 50 sorties a day out of TIA, is not replaced.

Both sides, however, agree that next week's Air Force-sponsored open houses are important opportunities for people to voice their opinions.

"Quality of life is the first priority," argues midtown resident Stanley Feldman, who is concerned about the possible substantial increase in noise with F-35s. "Economics comes next."

But Bill Valenzuela, a member of the 162nd Fighter Wing Minuteman Committee, a group that supports the Arizona Air National Guard training mission at TIA, says economic needs come first. "We've had two tough years and need the dollars," he says. "We need the F-35 bad."

Currently, the F-16 provides about 1,000 full-time jobs and an estimated annual economic impact of $280 million.

By the Air Force's own reports, though, the F-35 is a loud aircraft—possibly louder than any jet that has ever been used for training in Tucson.

Despite that, Tim Amalong, president of the Minuteman Committee (which has no relation to the border-vigilante groups with similar names), told a press briefing a few weeks ago: "If we have Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (DM) and the 162nd Fighter Wing at TIA going away, noise won't be considered that much of an issue."

F-35 opponents fear the plane will dramatically degrade Tucson's quality of life. Feldman, a former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, says of the F-35: "It's going to destroy the integrity of the central city, and the quality of life in dozens of neighborhoods and across the University of Arizona."

Amalong responds: "Noise won't be the deciding factor in the F-35 coming to town." He and other supporters believe the increase in noise can be mitigated to a level that is acceptable to the community.

But Chris Reynolds, a former air traffic controller at both D-M and TIA, told a recent meeting of Tucson Forward—a group that believes the F-35 will have negative impacts on Tucson—that there was "no silver bullet to mitigate this thing. ... There's not much the Air Force can do to mitigate (the noise) with the procedures we have in place."

Opponents say that noise from the F-35 will not only be louder, but much more grating than the sound of the F-16, due to his higher frequency level.

A 2008 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida seems to confirm the point. That EIS has a table showing that at 2,000 feet, the F-35 produces 112 decibels of sound on the ground, which is louder than a power saw three feet from your face. The comparable noise figure for the F-16 is 94 decibels.

Jobs and noise are not the only concerns that will be raised at two F-35 open houses in Tucson next week. The plane's impact on desert wildlife is another factor likely to be considered in the EIS.

However, the Air Force has its own concerns that F-35 proponents say justify the new plane. Maj. Gabe Johnson, a spokesman for the 162nd Wing, observes: "Our fleet of fighter aircraft is the oldest it's ever been in the history of the Air Force."

Valenzuela, a former Marine, sees the F-35 giving vital air support to our troops. "The men and women fighting on the ground are close to my heart," he says.

However, Feldman—who says he supports the mission of the military—doesn't believe that patriotic arguments should be used against citizens trying to defend their homes and quality of life. In a recent letter, he wrote: "The United States will be just as safe if the F-35s are based ... (at) any one of many other (less densely populated) locations."

The F-35 EIS now being prepared for Tucson International Airport will play a role in the Air Force's ultimate decision about the plane coming to Tucson.

In its first phase, known as "scoping," a federal contractor will gather input at the open houses.

"The government will have its ears wide open to the public," says Maj. Johnson. "... There'll be displays, posters and literature, but no formal presentation. Mostly, the open houses will be information flowing from the public into the study."

After the scoping process, draft environmental impact statements will be prepared for each of the five training sites under consideration. The Air Force anticipates completing these by the end of 2010.

Public hearings will then be held next year on the draft reports, and a final EIS will be released. After a public comment period, a formal "record of decision" based on the EIS will be made, and the Air Force will ultimately decide where to train pilots to fly the F-35.

Despite their differing viewpoints, Feldman and Amalong agree that it's important for the public to attend the open houses.

In Feldman's mind, people should be looking for "the truth, not propaganda." He says the F-35 should be flown over Tucson in its actual possible flight pattern during the EIS process. "That way, people will know what the reality of the situation is," he says.

For Amalong, the overriding priority is economic opportunity: "This is about the community and the financial impact (of the F-35)."

He predicts that F-35 supporters will "be out in force to the scoping meetings."

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