Proposed basing of F-35s at Davis-Monthan draws support, criticism
By DAVID WICHNER | The (Tucson) Arizona Daily Star | Published: March 15, 2020
TUCSON, Ariz. (Tribune News Service) — The F-35 fighter jet won’t be based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base any time soon, but the base is still in the running as a future home to the multirole aircraft.
In early February, the Air Force issued a draft study on the potential impact of basing a squadron of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets at Davis-Monthan and three other bases.
The study found the basing of the F-35s at Davis-Monthan and two other sites would result in “significant noise impacts” while another site would see “adverse but not significant” noise impacts.
In 2017, the Air Force chose Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth as its preferred site for the first Reserve squadron of F-35As, passing over Davis-Monthan and two other bases under consideration.
But under its routine policy, the Air Force Reserve Command has prepared a draft environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act, studying Davis-Monthan in Tucson, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Homestead Air Force Base in Florida as “reasonable alternatives.”
The Air Force and other armed services have historically stuck with their preferred sites in final basing decisions.
But the decision on the Reserve F-35 base is ultimately up to the secretary of the Air Force, said an Air Force official in Tucson last week for a public hearing on the F-35 study.
The commander of Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth said last week that he expects the F-35 Reserve squadron to come to his base.
“Fort Worth is in the lead. There’s no reason to think it won’t happen,” Navy Capt. Jon Townsend told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week.
The F-35 is assembled at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth.
All four candidate bases were studied to the same degree in the environmental study, in case the Air Force secretary decides to pick another site, said Hamid Kamalpour, manager of NEPA programs for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.
The Fort Worth base “is preferred, but that doesn’t mean there is not a chance for the airplane to come to Davis-Monthan,” Kamalpour said, adding that the recent study will help guide future basing decisions.
The environmental impact statement does not need to reach a finding of no significant impact for the Air Force to choose any base, he noted.
“We know the impact here is significant — this is based on factual stuff; the Air Force is not hiding anything,” Kamalpour said.
The 30-day public comment period on the environmental study ends March 31, and the Air Force then has 90 days to issue a final statement.
The secretary of the Air Force — Arizonan Barbara Barrett since last October — will then issue a record of decision on the F-35 basing, he said.
The Air Force is looking to have the Reserve squadron of F-35s in place by 2024.
All the public comments will be included in a final environmental impact statement with responses from the Air Force, Kamalpour said.
That final study may include a mitigation plan for the chosen base, including things like restricted flight hours, he said.
However, the Air Force studied noise-mitigation measures at each of the four proposed sites, and none were determined to be “operationally feasible.”
Beyond operational measures, the Air Force does not have funding for mitigation such as home soundproofing, Kamalpour said.
But some homes in airport areas shared by the military have qualified for soundproofing through a Federal Aviation Administration program.
When the Air Force decided to base F-35s with the Vermont Air Guard at Burlington International Airport in 2013, the airport used an FAA grant to buy several homes that were in an expanded area deemed too noisy for residential use without mitigation measures.
The F-35 is significantly louder than planes now based at Davis-Monthan, raising protests from residents in Tucson and other base communities that the jet is inappropriate for an urban area.
At Davis-Monthan, the F-35s would replace 24 A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack jets, which are among the quietest jets in the Air Force inventory.
The draft environmental impact study shows that under one scenario, an estimated 1,506 more people living near Davis-Monthan would experience increased average noise levels of 65 decibels or more — a threshold the Air Force has said can make an area potentially incompatible for residential use.
Among other things, the study found that schools and parks and parts of the University of Arizona campus would be subject to potentially disruptive noise levels, some homes near the base could see lower property values, and the basing of F-35s would result in disproportionate impacts to minority and low-income populations” at Davis-Monthan, as well as at Fort Worth and Homestead.
The report also cites significant noise impacts at Whiteman and Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and “adverse but not significant impacts” at Homestead.
At last Tuesday’s public hearing on the F-35 basing study at the Tucson Convention Center attended by about 70 people, residents concerned about increased noise and other effects from the F-35 voiced opposition to basing the jet at Davis-Monthan.
Several members of the group Tucson Forward, which is fighting the basing of F-35s at Davis-Monthan, said the noise from the base’s planes already is unbearable at times and the F-35 would make it unlivable.
They also cited safety and health concerns.
Midtown resident Gary Hunter, a longtime critic of Davis-Monthan aircraft noise, said transient flights by F-35s over Tucson recently have shown their noise levels are harmful. He cited complaints from fellow residents calling the noise “horrendous,” “excruciating” and “ear-splitting.”
But Glenn Bancroft, a local businessman who originally came to Tucson while in the Air Force in 1978, said he manages more than 700 residential properties in a business he’s had for 40 years and has not heard a single complaint about air traffic from Davis-Monthan or the Morris Air National Guard Base at Tucson International Airport.
“I hear jets all the time, I love ’em,” Bancroft said, noting that thousands of military have settled in Tucson because of Davis-Monthan and a community supportive of the military.
“I think you ought to elevate D-M to the number one position (to host F-35s),” he said.
Supporters including local government representatives cited the importance of Davis-Monthan to the local economy and welcomed the F-35 as a mission to sustain the base as its A-10 fleet faces retirement in the 2030s.
Ron Barber, district director for U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, relayed a letter from Kirkpatrick supporting Davis-Monthan as a site for the F-35 and all flying missions.
“Tucsonans have a long history of supporting Davis-Monthan over its 80 years of military operations and will continue to support flying missions there,” Barber said, noting that the area’s climate and access to major air ranges make it a good choice to host flying units.
Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez said the county supports any flying mission at Davis-Monthan. He said Tucson has adapted to the changing missions at Davis-Monthan over the years and the Air Force has taken steps, including changing landing patterns and reducing night flights, to lessen its impact on the community.
Valadez said he believes soundproofing and other mitigations would help minimize the F-35’s impact if the aircraft is based here in the future.
County Supervisor Steve Christy said Davis-Monthan has long been a part of Tucson. He cited the base’s major economic impact, which totals $2.6 billion including direct and indirect effects, and added that home prices in the Davis-Monthan area have risen steadily in recent years.
Leaders of the Tucson Metro Chamber and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also spoke in support of basing F-35s at Davis-Monthan, citing the base’s economic importance.
Safety and learning
Lee Stanfield, a Tucson resident since 1976, said she’s concerned about the safety of the F-35 because of documented problems with its single engine and its helmet-mounted flight data display.
“Those problems are still being worked out, though they’re allowing this plane to be flown over living beings in densely populated areas, like midtown Tucson,” she said, calling the F-35 a flawed and obsolete “monstrosity.”
Rosanna Salonia, a Tucson resident since 1995, said the environmental impact statement must explain why basing F-35s at Davis-Monthan is more important than our social well-being, and the well-being of our low-income and minority residents.
Salonia, a member of Tucson Forward, said the Air Force study said no funding is available for soundproofing home and businesses.
“The DOD with a 2019 budget of nearly $800 billion, of which 98.8% is discretionary, could easily fund such a program,” she said, adding that otherwise the Air Force study must consider the cost to homeowners.
Matthew Yates noted that the Air Force study states noise from the F-35 could interrupt learning in area schools, citing an Air Force manual citing lower test scores and other effects.
“By bringing the F-35 to D-M, the Air Force will knowingly and intentionally impair the learning of Tucson students, handicapping them for the rest of their lives,” Yates said.