Callous commentary and weak leadership from elected officials have marred the debate over basing F-35s in Madison.
Flight Path is an in-depth report on grassroots opposition to the basing of F-35 fighter jets in Madison. Available as an audio documentary and a four-part written series, Flight Path is a partnership project of Tone Madison, Communication, and Northside News. The Air Force officially chose Madison as a site for the jets in April. But the fight continues in areas that stand to bear the brunt of the F-35s’ noise, environmental, and economic impacts. These efforts have already brought neighbors together to organize and advocate for their communities in a changing Madison.
Before reading this story, make sure you read Part 1: How F-35s galvanized neighbors in Eken Park and Part 2: Rights signed away and forgotten.
Even as grassroots activism against the basing of F-35 fighter jets in Madison heated up, efforts to get some elected officials, including Senator Tammy Baldwin, to take a stand against the jets stalled. Wisconsin’s Senators had the best shot of reaching the Air Force. Both Senators Ron Johnson and Baldwin supported the F-35s. Congressman Mark Pocan was lukewarm at best. A staffer for Governor Tony Evers told organizers they’d have to postpone a planned meeting as the administration responded to COVID-19. Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who might have influenced other elected officials had they taken strong stances, kept their distance from the issue.
The Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition and Eken Park Resistance are the grassroots groups that I’m aware of that have been most active opposing the F-35s.
There has been advocacy to support the F-35s as well. The Badger Air Community Council and Madison Chamber of Commerce are two of the most prominent groups advocating on behalf of the F-35s. They are definitely less grassroots, more institutional.
The Badger Air Community Council created the royal blue yard signs showing support for the F-35s that you can spot around Madison. Badger Air is a nonprofit that formed in 2012; their website says that they support the men, women and families of the 115th Fighter Wing, and it also says that they support the 115th’s mission.
I make that distinction because that mission is at the heart of this debate. The 115th Fighter Wing has three missions: a unique homeland defense mission, a bomb disposal mission and a Fighter flying mission. Supporters of the F-35s say they’re concerned that if the 115th Fighter Wing doesn’t get the F-35s, if they are left with a fleet of aging F-16s, that the base could lose its flying mission and close when those F-16s go out of commission. They are worried about the potential loss of jobs and economic impact of a base closure.
In May of 2018, the Secretary of the Air Force at the time, Heather Wilson, sent a letter to the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont thanking him for his support of the Air Force’s decision to base F-35s there. In the letter Wilson says that if the decision were to be reversed, the Vermont Air National Guard would likely lose their flying mission when their F-16s are retired. The letter does not say whether the base would close if it lost its flying mission. Burlington’s base also has a bomb disposal mission, but no homeland defense mission like Truax.
The Wisconsin State Journal published an article last September titled “What happens if Truax Field doesn’t get the F-35?” In it, reporter Mitchell Schmidt cites an Air Force spokesperson who says that it is speculative to assume Truax would close without the F-35s. There is a long process for closing a base, and it doesn’t appear that Truax is even being considered for potential closure.
Supporters also point to economic gains the Madison area could realize by bringing F-35s to Truax. The EIS says that there could be as many as 64 new jobs created and that it’s likely that many of these positions would go to people in the area, although it’s unclear how many. It also estimates that construction costs would range between $90 and $120 million dollars and could be met by the current construction workforce. In summary, the EIS says, the increases in employment and income would be beneficial but negligible.
“Loud but affordable”
Something else you often hear from supporters of the F-35s is that the Air Base has been in Madison for a long time—since before Eken Park neighborhood activists Tehmina Islam, Omar Poler, and Eugenia Granados purchased their homes. That they knew what they were getting into. And if they don’t like it, then they should just move.
The Wisconsin State Journal published an editorial in support of the F-35 beddown in February after the final version of the EIS was released. The F-35s were also the topic of an episode of the State Journal’s weekly political podcast, Center Stage. Center Stage is hosted by Scott Milfred, the editor of the Journal’s editorial page, and political cartoonist Phil Hands.
Hands kicks off the episode. “You know sometimes, Scott, we get inundated with letters to the editor about one topic. Right now, it’s the F-35 coming to Madison.”
The episode was released Thursday, September 26, 2019. The F-35s were in the local news a lot that month, but particularly the week that the episode was published. The public comment period on the draft EIS—the formal process for members of the public to provide feedback on the EIS—was supposed to wrap up that Friday. Even though it ended up getting extended until November, local groups like the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education and Madison Water Utility Board were weighing in on the issue.
Milfred and Hands start off the episode by comparing recordings of the F-35s and the F-16s to see if you can tell which one is louder.
“What a lot of this debate seems to be coming down to is the volume of the new planes and are they gonna be a lot louder than the current planes that we’ve had for something like 28 years, the F-16s. And it just so happens that we have a recording of both of them, Phil!” That’s Scott Milfred speaking.
“Ooh can we listen to those Scott?”
“Yeah, we will give you, Phil, and listeners of our podcast a blind sound test on today’s Centerstage.” Fast forward the next 30 seconds: Milfred and Hands introduce themselves and the podcast, Hands sneaks in a joke, cue the introductory music and then back to Milfred as the music fades out.
“Alright here’s the first sound, I’m going to quiz you on which is which.”
For about 15 seconds you hear the sound of a jet taking off. Is it the F-35 or the F-16? Hands offers his take.
“That is absolutely the most obnoxious horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my entire life, unfit for human habitation, when you listen to the sound it’s the worst.”
Without missing a beat, it’s back to Milfred who plays the next recording. Another 15 seconds of a jet taking off, slightly quieter this time, and then we hear from Hands.
“It’s like as quiet as a mouse. I barely heard that at all, I mean it’s clearly, that first one is so much louder, and it’s going to be so much worse.”
Milfred cuts in. “Alright, for those of you who don’t know Phil Hands he is employing sarcasm there.”
“I’m not an aviation expert but they sound pretty similar to me,” says Hands.
When I heard this for the first time, I felt offended. I know the recordings they’re listening to are for comparison purposes and that they know as well as anyone else that you absolutely cannot gauge the volume of the noise from a recording. Listening to a recording, there is no sense of what it feels like when your windows rattle as the jets fly overhead, something that I remember well from my time on Myrtle Street.
Milfred and Hands try to answer questions about what the noise will be like compared to what it is already with the F-16s based on decibel levels, afterburner use—which is something that makes take-off much louder, and flight frequency. A fair amount of this data is contested. There are numbers in the EIS. But a Lieutenant Colonel from the Wisconsin Air National Guard has argued that those numbers don’t take into account specific circumstances at Truax Field that will reduce the noise exposure from the jets. Organizers against the F-35s argue that evidence shows that the noise exposure in the EIS is actually a best case scenario.
Who you believe depends somewhat on who you trust. We have some data and some best guesses, but the reality is that we don’t know. We don’t know exactly how loud they will be or how often they’ll fly over, until they’re already here.
Near the end of the episode, Milfred brings up the fact that the jets will disproportionately impact low income communities and people of color.
“Other people are concerned about lower income people and people of color will be disproportionately affected by the noise at the airport, and the noise from the F-35s. Which is true,” (Hands jumps in here to add another “it’s true”), “But it’s also true that they currently are” (Hands echoes again, “oh absolutely,”) “— by the F-16s.
“And that kind of gets back to our intro is, it’s not like we’re going from not having an air base to suddenly having one. We have one right now. And who is most affected by the noise, by the airport? The people who live by the airport. And who lives by the airport? It tends to be people who don’t have as much money because it costs less to live at the airport because living by the airport is less desirable.”
“Yes, and so the housing is more affordable,” says Hands.
“It might not be a nice thing to say, I think it’s true, the airport has created more affordable housing, than just about anything city government has ever done,” says Milfred. “Now it’s loud, but it’s also affordable. And as we said on a past podcast, agreeing with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison has an affordable housing crisis.”
Milfred and Hands explain in the podcast episode that they recently spoke with State Representative Chris Taylor and Madison Alder Grant Foster, who both represent neighborhoods near the airport (Foster is Milfred’s alder, he notes in an aside about winding gerrymandered districts—Foster is my alder, too) and are vocal critics of the F-35s.
“I understand their concern for their constituents, that makes sense to me,” says Milfred. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t want the F-35s. There’s probably people by the airport who wouldn’t be sad if the F-16 went away.”
Hands jumps in. “No absolutely not, who wants that jet flying over their heads? Probably nobody.”
I recommend listening to the audio rather than just reading it (Part III of the written series corresponds to 42:10 to 52:26 in the audio documentary). In the audio, you can hear their tones of voice. You can tell when they’re joking or being sarcastic, and when they’re speaking earnestly.
In that last line—“who wants that jet flying over their heads? Probably nobody”—Hands sounds earnest.
What Hands and Milfred don’t acknowledge in this episode are the systemic reasons that the neighborhoods around the air base are disproportionately low income and communities of color. Racism. Segregation.
Milfred implies that because these communities are already disproportionately impacted by noise from the airport, that shouldn’t be a consideration when it comes to the F-35s.
“And who is most affected by the noise, by the airport?” says Milfred. “The people who live by the airport. And who lives by the airport? It tends to be people who don’t have as much money because it costs less to live at the airport because living by the airport is less desirable.”
But each of these statements is entangled with Madison’s history, past and present, of redlining and segregation, stolen wealth, wages, and land and discrimination.
Probably nobody wants those jets flying over their head. But it’s not probably nobody who is already stuck with the noise. And it’s not probably nobody who will be stuck with the noise, whatever it’s decibel level, if the F-35s are placed here.
Coming up in Flight Path
May 12: Part 4: The fight continues