An F-35 Lightning II lands at Truax Field in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in this screenshot from video.

An F-35 Lightning II lands at Truax Field in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in this screenshot from video. (115th Fighter Wing/Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — On a crisp Tuesday afternoon, four of the most advanced fighter jets in the world emerged like speeding, roaring, dark seeds from banks of silvery white clouds above Truax Field on Madison's North Side.

Minutes later, Lt. Col. Mike Koob of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing emerged from the cockpit of one of the sleek, gray F-35s that had rolled to a stop before hundreds of upbeat invited guests and unfurled a state flag and a small banner honoring Maj. "Hawk" Jones, a Madison-based airman who was killed in a crash in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2020.

After years of planning, controversy and robust efforts to both attract and keep the aircraft out of Madison, the first of 20 F-35s to be stationed at Truax had arrived at their new home. Three of the four will be staying in Madison permanently assigned to the 115th Fighter Wing and one will be returning to another base.

"We really appreciate the support of the host city," Koob said as guests lined up to have photos taken with the plane. "It really means a lot to come here and have this outpouring of support."

The rest of the F-35s are expected to start a permanent assignment at the airfield over the next year.

"We find ourselves now in an age where national borders are no longer recognized, and the international order as we know it is being tested," said Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, the adjutant general for Wisconsin. "As we engage in this new era of great power competition, the ability of this fighter wing to deliver reliable F-35 combat airpower is vital to the national defense of our nation.

"To the airmen of the 115th Fighter Wing: You have been entrusted with the most advanced and lethal weapons system the Air Force has ever fielded in its arsenal," he said. "In your hands now is the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. A magnificent aircraft."

The jet, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is described as the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world. But the fighter also has faced criticism over costs and technical difficulties. The roughly 2,500 F-35s the Pentagon plans to acquire are estimated to cost $1.27 trillion to operate and maintain over the next 66 years, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Truax has been home to the Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing since 1948 and was most recently home to a group of F-16 jets that were among the oldest in operation.

In 2020, the Air Force chose Madison and Montgomery, Ala. as the two latest Air National Guard locations that will fly the new jets. In October, the 115th Fighter Wing moved the older generation F-16 fighter jets from Truax in preparation for the arrival of the F-35s. To accommodate the new jets, Truax is undergoing a roughly $120 million renovation.

The 115th has a long history of successfully converting from one aircraft to another, but the current conversion is thought to be as significant, if not more significant, than moving from propeller driven aircraft to jets in the early 1950s, akin to moving from a flip phone to a smartphone, military officials have said.

"The F-16 was developed in the late 1970's," Capt. Leslie Westmont said. "The F-35A represents a quantum leap in combat aviation technology, with its very low observable air frame, electronic warfare, sensor integration and weapons capabilities."

"Imagine the technological differences between an aircraft built in the 1980s versus something rolling off the factory line today," Koob said.

Col. Bart Van Roo, the 115th Fighter Wing commander, said the F-35's arrival is one of the most exciting days in the fighter wing's history.

"Our focus turns today to ensuring that our wing and these new aircraft are ready to respond at a moment's notice to whatever is asked of us," Van Roo said. "We ask all of you, for your collaboration and partnership … to maximize these capabilities as we take on this new mission. Madison and the 115th was chosen for our history of producing the world's most capable airmen. Our pilots, maintainers and support personnel have never been more needed."

Despite the festivities on base, "No F-35" signs still dot much of the East and North sides, and there is ongoing uncertainty over what their impact will be on residents who live near Truax and the Dane County Regional Airport. Those opposed to the jets being stationed at Truax say noise and the possibility for other pollution will particularly affect low-income residents and people of color.

An Air Force environmental impact found that the presence of the F-35s will increase takeoffs from Truax by 27% and expose more than 1,000 homes to average daily noise of 65 decibels or more — a level deemed "incompatible" with residential use, though not uninhabitable.

The Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition, which has fought the basing of the planes in Madison, has tried to enlist the support of Democratic leaders in the state, including in a full-page ad in the Wisconsin State Journal addressed to Gov. Tony Evers last month in which it called the move "child abuse."

"Unlike the F-35s, which the Air Force admits are four times louder than the former F-16's, the governor has been quieter than a church mouse on this issue," Safe Skies organizer Tom Boswell said at a protest outside the base the next day. "By the time he speaks up and addresses the concerns of his constituents on this issue, it may be too late to protect our infants and school children from the egregious damage the F-35s are likely to cause."

The concerns were not lost at Tuesday's observance.

Knapp noted that in early March, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D- Madison, announced that the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs is receiving a $798,000 grant from the Department of Defense to conduct community outreach and noise mitigation planning to prepare for the jets' arrival at Truax Field.

The grant will fund community outreach initiatives — including town halls and multilingual education initiatives — and prepare a feasibility study to assess noise mitigation options for affected neighborhoods and develop best strategies for mitigation.

Historically, Truax air operations have been conducted between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, Westmont said. "This will continue with F-35 operations," she said.

Also, given the increased use of simulation for training in the F-35A and concentration of flight operations at Volk Field Air National Guard Base and the Hardwood Air-to-Ground Weapons Range near Camp Douglas, Truax Field will likely experience fewer flight operations annually with the F-35A, she said.

"To those that are less than excited about the arrival of the F-35 today, know that we will continue to be responsible and honest members of the community … the community where we work, live, worship, and raise our families as faithful Wisconsinites," said Brigadier Gen. David May, deputy adjutant general for air.

(c)2023 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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