Wisconsin’s 115th Fighter Wing, based at Truax Field in Madison, will receive 18 F-35’s by 2023, replacing existing F-16s. Wochit
A Wisconsin Air National Guard unit in Madison will get the military’s newest fighter jet, the F-35, to replace its aging fleet of F-16s, the Air Force announced Wednesday.
The 115th Fighter Wing, based on the east side of Dane County Regional Airport since shortly after World War II, will trade its 18 jets for F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the military’s most expensive aircraft.
Despite complaints from the community over noise from the F-35, the Air Force signaled earlier this year that the 115th Fighter Wing would likely be awarded the new jets.
The first of the F-35s are expected to begin arriving in April 2023, with all 18 planes likely to be in Madison by May 2024. The 115th Fighter Wing will be the fifth operational unit in the Air Force to fly the F-35.
“This selection is an honor and testament to our airmen’s performance and dedication to both our state and federal missions,” wing commander Col. Erik Peterson said in a video released Wednesday following Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett’s decision.
The base’s footprint will remain relatively unaffected. Since it will be a one-for-one swap of planes, the number of employees, around 450 full-time positions and another 700 part-time guardsmen, is expected to remain constant.
Wisconsin officials touted Truax Field as a good choice for the F-35 because it’s close to the Volk Field airspace in central Wisconsin, which means it has a short transit time to an F-35 training location and thus uses less fuel. Plus the 128th Air Refueling Wing stationed in Milwaukee provides air-to-air refueling, which can double the time fighter jet crews can spend on tactical training.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) applauded the military’s decision.
“Today’s news ensures Wisconsin’s 115th Fighter Wing, based at Truax Field in Madison, will now receive a critical upgrade with the F-35 replacing the aging F-16 fighter jets currently in service. The new fighters will help maintain U.S. air superiority and keep our state and country safe and secure,” Johnson said in a release.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents the area where Truax Field is located, heard many complaints from constituents and in response to their concerns sent letters to the Air Force seeking answers about noise issues and the potential impact of F-35s on property values and the environment.
“We’re hoping now that these jets are coming to Truax, the Air Force can be more forthright with the information we’ve requested over the last nine months. Thus far, my concerns have never been directly addressed,” Pocan said in a statement Wednesday.
Pocan has requested to the Appropriations and Armed Forces committees that the Air Force provide funding to communities affected by the louder F-35s.
The Air Force does not have funds for noise mitigation, but officials in Madison can petition the FAA for money to replace windows and possibly insulation in homes affected by loud planes.
Chris Arenz, executive director of the Badger Air Community Council, which rallied support for the new plane, said the announcement will ensure the 115th Fighter Wing will remain at Truax Field for decades. While the Air Force never explicitly said the unit might eventually fold without the new jets, Arenz and others believed that could have happened.
“That was a real concern. With the aging F-16s and the fact that that is outdated technology, without this announcement today, that was absolutely the path,” said Arenz, a former F-16 pilot who spent two decades in the 115th.
“This has really secured the unit, 1,200 jobs and 1,200 families for the next 30-40 years,” Arenz said.
‘Incompatible for residential use’
Though some residents were upset about noisier jets in their neighborhoods early in the process to change over to the F-35, criticism grew last summer when the Air Force acknowledged in its preliminary report that noise from F-35s could render more than 1,000 homes “incompatible for residential use.”
The final environmental impact study released in February reported that the time spent in the airspace by fighter jets from Truax Field could rise 28% and the number of missions flown annually by the 115th could possibly rise from 2,400 in F-16s to 3,061 in F-35s.
It’s possible the 115th Fighter Wing would continue to operate an “Alert” mission requiring planes, pilots and crews to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice, similar to the military flights on Sept. 11, 2001, when jets were scrambled within minutes following the terror attacks.
The increase in the number of missions would only happen if the Madison unit continues to fly both the “Alert” mission in F-16s and the F-35s at the same time during the transition period.
Last fall, Madison’s Common Council asked the Air Force to potentially reconsider Truax Field as a preferred site for the F-35, and 15 Dane County supervisors signed a letter opposing the fighter jet.
After the Air Force secretary’s announcement, four Madison Common Council representatives released a statement Wednesday criticizing the decision because of the significant impacts on the neighborhoods surrounding the airport.
“Residents of our districts have overwhelmingly opposed this action,” wrote Syed Abbas, Grant Foster, Rebecca Kemble and Marsha Rummel. “They have expressed serious concerns about their health, quality of life in the neighborhoods, quality of education for children in nearby schools, the quality of their drinking water and their major investments in their homes.”
Pilots in the Madison unit will train on the F-35 at bases in Arizona and Florida and maintenance crews will learn how to service the new aircraft. Truax Field will not be an F-35 training facility.
Construction for an F-35 simulator at Truax Field is expected to begin in September, and over the next three years renovation of two existing hangars to accommodate the new planes plus other projects will have an economic impact of $90 million to $120 million in construction, said Lt. Col. Charlie Merkel, who is part of the fighter wing’s F-35 Unit Conversion Office.
While two 115th pilots will begin training on the F-35 soon, other pilots will start learning to fly the new jets in 2022 and 2023. A group of 45 maintainers will begin training next year to service F-35s.
“We’re aware that people in the community are concerned (about the F-35) but we also have many many supporters in the community. We’re looking forward to moving forward and continuing to partner with the community and continuing to be good neighbors to the city of Madison,” Merkel said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.
The F-16, a workhorse for the last quarter-century, was designed and built in the early 1980s and the 115th Fighter Wing is flying some of the oldest F-16s.
There are three versions of the F-35 — one each for the Air Force, Marines and Navy.
The F-35A is used by the Air Force for conventional takeoffs and landings; that’s the model coming to the Madison unit. The Navy flies the F-35C, which features larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear to withstand aircraft-carrier launches.
Capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, the F-35B will replace Marine AV-8B Harriers and F-18 Hornets and is designed to be used on amphibious ships and airfields in support of Marine ground forces.
Like many things in the military, the process of awarding the 115th Fighter Wing the new F-35A was lengthy.
In 2016 the Madison unit was among five finalists for two bases to get the jet and a few days before Christmas in 2017, officials announced at a press conference in front of an F-16 that the 115th was one of those two preferred candidates. The other base is in Montgomery, Ala.
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