Who’s roaring for fighter jets in Madison, and who has to hear them?

The planned F-35 installation at Truax Field threatens to steamroll people who bear the brunt of racial and class disparities in Madison.

The planned F-35 installation at Truax Field threatens to steamroll people who bear the brunt of racial and class disparities in Madison.

By now you’ve likely read or heard some of the coverage about the debate over whether or not to install the military’s new F-35A fighter jet at Truax Field. The voices of opposition are growing, and you can add mine to the chorus. 

Unfortunately, we’re being drowned out—and not just by the sound of afterburners going to the Danger Zone overhead. Supporters of the plan are louder and have a whole lot more money behind them, despite the fact that few actually appear to live in the areas of Madison that will absorb the most noise. I could at least understand some of the folks who worry about losing the base and its associated jobs, but an Air Force spokesperson and local Air Guard officials have all stated that Truax’s mission is vital enough that it is unlikely to close simply because the F-35s don’t come here. 


However, most of the folks who spoke in favor of the plan at a recent public meeting held at the Alliant Energy Center seemed intent on painting the issue as one of “patriots vs. snowflakes.” A recent op-ed published in Madison Magazine by John Roach took a gobsmackingly racist approach, comparing opponents of the F-35s to Ho-Chunk people resisting white settlement in Wisconsin. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has thrown its weight and money into a pro-jet campaign, likely thanks to the promise of millions of dollars in federal funding for new construction.

At least one gentleman (who doesn’t live in the neighborhood) who spoke at a public comment session in September simply thinks we ought to install the new jets in “all 50 states as a show of national unity.” Our own U.S. Senate representatives—who will have a part in the final say on the proposal—are both in favor of bedding down the new jets in Madison. Madison’s own Sen. Tammy Baldwin, in fact, championed Truax as a site as part of her reelection campaign in 2018. 

Those of us who live in the Carpenter-Ridgeway Neighborhood on the east side have long lived with the ear-splitting noise of the old F-16 jets on their training flights, living as we do in the direct takeoff path for the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing. We also live in the flight path of commercial airplanes taking off and landing at Dane County Regional Airport, though in that case, the noise is considerably less intense.

Some of us accepted living near a commercial airport as the trade-off for living in one of the few neighborhoods left within city limits where it’s still somewhat affordable to own a home. Others simply can’t afford to own or rent elsewhere.

We did not, however, agree to the quadrupled noise level of the new F-35s, an increase such that the military’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) labels more than 100 homes as potentially “incompatible for residential use” because of them—including my own. The EIS also estimates that more than 1,000 homes will be added to the zone where average decibel levels will increase dramatically.

The military says we would qualify for federal noise mitigation funds to add soundproofing to our houses, so we shouldn’t worry. But that program isn’t guaranteed to pay out, and we’d have to wait for two years into the bed down of the new planes before we could even apply for the funds. Beyond that, soundproofing only helps when you’re indoors. God forbid you want to spend any time outside. 

Additionally, a City of Madison analysis of the EIS accuses the Air Force of downplaying the impact this will have on low-income communities. It notes that some 500 homes, including those in a mobile home park and in the Truax neighborhood, won’t be eligible for any funds, despite being directly impacted by the major increase in noise pollution.

All in all, there are more questions than answers, many of them involving serious concerns, but the project still appears to be going full-steam ahead—the Pentagon rarely changes its mind once it’s made up, after all, consequences be damned.

A real pain

The problems go far beyond those of us with the luxury to just complain about the incredible levels of noise and having to apply for soundproofing grants or sell our houses to the government. There are plenty of people who live just outside the 65 decibel contour who simply won’t be eligible for help (the FAA considers a daily average of 65 decibels or higher to be the “significance threshold” for exposure to aircraft noise). 

An entire mobile home park falls within the area that otherwise qualifies for noise mitigation, but won’t be eligible for help because the residences aren’t considered “permanent” (despite the fact that most modern mobile homes are not, in fact, on wheels). 

Several elementary schools fall within the two zones with the highest level of noise, including one that specifically serves children with special needs. Interestingly, Hawthorne Elementary doesn’t appear on any of the military’s EIS maps, even though it’s all of a mile outside the zone and a specially designated community school (meaning it acts as a community center in addition to school, with laundry services and a computer lab to assist low-income parents, etc.), with a disproportionate number of homeless and/or low-income students and students of color. 

There are real health consequences associated with exposure to the levels of noise described in the EIS, too: high blood pressure, hypertension, irregular heartbeat (which can lead to stroke), sleep loss (which contributes to everything from diabetes to heart disease), and, in children specifically, memory and attention problems.


Meanwhile, the City of Madison’s own analysis of the EIS also highlights the fact that the Air National Guard and the Department of Defense still haven’t conducted required surveys of soil and water contamination on the base caused by a chemical called PFAS, which is used in firefighting foam and other military materials. PFAS, which is shown to cause developmental problems and various types of cancer, have shown up in testing of water in several municipal wells, most noticeably well 15—the well nearest the airport—which was taken out of service.

The addition of the squadron of F-35s would require new construction on the base—something touted by boosters as an economic boon, though temporary. That construction, though, would spread any PFAS contamination that hasn’t been cleaned up—something the Air Guard was ordered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to do, but never acknowledged (and somehow got the DNR to drop last year). Again, the resulting pollution would most directly impact neighborhoods with a high percentage of low-income residents, i.e. the folks with the least power to hold polluters accountable or to stop this sort of thing from happening in the first place, and the least ability to pick up and move away.

Misleading estimates

Thanks to activists in other locations being considered for the F-35, it’s come to light that the Air Force may be significantly downplaying the level of noise, too. 

The Wisconsin Air National Guard has been estimating that the new F-35s would require the use of their afterburners (which cause a good chunk of the high-level noise) significantly less than the older F-16s: just 5 percent of the time. 

However, according to an internal Pentagon document obtained by Vermont news site VTDigger (leaked by Roseanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel and former Burlington city council member), real afterburner use on the F-35 may be much higher than publicly predicted:

“As the Air Force moves forward with environmental impact reviews at other bases, it appears to be counseling officials to calculate afterburner use for at least 50% of all flight operations,” VTDigger’s Jasper Craven wrote in August. “The Air Force has already delayed at least one base review by at least four months ‘due to some discrepancies and concerns over F-35 flight elevation and afterburner usage.'”

The lower 5 percent estimate not only influenced the contours of the resulting noise maps in the EIS, but also the overall decision and discussion about whether or not Madison is a good fit for the planes. 

Under pressure from constituents, U.S. Rep Mark Pocan recently called on the Air Force to actually bring an F-35 to Madison for further noise level testing. The EIS estimates about 1,000 additional households around the airport would be subject to an average daily noise level from jets above 65 decibels, but the actual noise during the moment a jet passes overhead can reach 110 decibels or more: “about 16 times louder than a vacuum cleaner—the equivalent of being at a loud rock concert or standing next to a car horn.” That average would likely go up, too, if the 50% afterburner use were to be factored in.

The Air Force pushed back, saying there’s no way to order the planes to Madison before they’re actually stationed here. We can look to Burlington, Vermont instead, which—despite heavy opposition—got its first F-35s just last week.

Follow the money

Of course, the plan has its backers. There are certainly regular folks who generally support military spending and/or the presence of the Guard in our community and believe it when the Air Force tells them the F-35s are needed and good.

There seem to be a lot more people backing it who have a vested interest, and plenty of money to throw around in order to get their way.

Case in point is the Badger Air Community Council, a non-profit formed in 2012 with the ostensible mission to “support the mission of the 115th Fighter Wing by raising awareness among the general public, the business community, and state and federal legislative leaders about the societal and economic benefits the Fighter Wing has on the community.”

The Board of BACC is made up entirely of retired and current business executives. They are all white men, and none of them live in the impacted areas (few even appear to live in Madison).

This is the group responsible for handing out bright blue baseball caps and stickers for supporters to wear at the open house and public comment session held at the Alliant Energy Center in mid-September (a location that was difficult, at best, for many residents of the north side and far-east side to get to on a weekday early evening). They’re also responsible for some of the hardest lobbying on behalf of the F-35 expansion plan, including full-color mailers sent to residents across the city.

Their members list is a who’s-who of Madison area business interests, including Craig Culver (yes, that Culver’s), the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, and Downtown Madison, Inc.

I’m still looking for the 501(c)3’s form 990, which all such entities are required to file to show their financials and which are public, but so far no dice

Those in favor of the plan also point to its alleged positive economic impact and job creation. Baldwin’s own website touts “$4.8 billion over the lifetime of the project” (how long is that? How much per year?), and the military claims the addition of 64 permanent jobs and $1.8 million expansion of the tax base. 

Ostensibly, this also explains why the Greater Madison Chamber and its president, Zach Brandon, are stanning so hard for the project. Brandon was behind an effort to significantly water down a resolution at the Madison Common Council penned by east- and north-side alders aimed at holding the project to more account. An alternate, more Air Guard-friendly version was put forward by alders not representing constituents in the impacted communities, which was ultimately adopted with a tie-breaking vote by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. 

According to Ald. Marsha Rummel—who sponsored the original version alongside Alders Grant Foster, Syed Abbas, Rebecca Kemble, Marsha Rummel, Tag Evers, and Patrick Heck—they were at least able to add back some of the important points, but the final resolution includes several of the talking points about alleged economic gains that come straight from the military.

Meanwhile, the real cost of the base and the F-35A program (the most expensive military project in history, costing U.S. taxpayers of over $1.5 trillion in its lifetime) is far greater, with Dane County on the hook for noise abatement efforts, and Wisconsin taxpayers already shelling out $201.33 million per year for the F-35 project itself. Once up and running, each flight hour will cost approximately $44,000. Not to mention, there are still serious safety concerns and technical problems with the F-35A, as reported on extensively by Defense News. Color me not excited to have this flying over residential areas.

David vs. Goliath

For those of us asking questions about and/or voicing opposition to the F-35 plan, it can’t help but feel a little hopeless. In the end, the military and the federal government will make the decision (to be announced in February 2020) and really, the project doesn’t seem like a good fit for any of the proposed locations. All of the cities will face negative consequences for the residents least able to afford them (though Madison and Birmingham have been reported to have the most disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color).

There is a growing movement to stand up to yet another attempt to steamroll communities into blindly supporting military projects, though. Residents have begun their own grassroots campaigns to spread awareness and muster opposition. 

The Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, which has members in the impacted neighborhoods, is organizing around the issue and even went door-to-door in the Truax Park Apartments to get feedback from those residents who have the least access to public meetings or thorough information about the plan. Most of the people they spoke with were opposed to the F-35s and worried about their living situations if the plan is greenlit for Madison.

A large crowd of protesters gathered at the open house at the Alliant and voiced their concerns during the public listening session. Many of them lived in the impacted area and were worried about everything from health and environmental impacts to the safety and security of their hard-earned homes. Meanwhile, the blue hat-wearing crowd of jet cheerleaders skewed heavily older, white, male, and not from the community. They tried their hardest to paint this as an issue of “patriot vs. peacenik,” as though the two are exclusive.

It’s clear there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue, regardless of how well anyone understands the details. I can’t help but worry that our community is about to become just another casualty in the rush to be unquestioningly pro-military, or even just to back anything that looks like it might secure a handful of jobs, regardless of collateral damage. Plenty of people I know and respect so far support the plan. All I can do is hope they listen to the real concerns of the folks who live here, and take a hard look at the glaring question marks that remain.

In short, I won’t be resting easy about this any time soon—and not simply because of the sound of afterburners in the air over my head.

The public can submit comments directly to the U.S. Air Force through September 27.

NOTE: Since this piece was written, a response by the Air Force to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont (where the F35s are now also based) regarding the question of afterburner use has come to my attention.

The Air Force asserts “the Air National Guard would maintain afterburner usage of five percent or below, and any changes were only under consideration for Fort Worth and for the Air Force Reserve.

“The Air National Guard is a dual-mission force geographically bound to individual states and under the command of its governor, with both Federal and State responsibilities. Guard units tend to be largely made up of individuals from the local community, who serve for decades and sometimes their entire careers with their state. In contrast, the Air Force Reserve is a Federal force always reporting through the national chain of command, which draws individuals from around the country with specific skills.” Read the full response here.

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