Editor’s Note: The Honorable John W. Henderson, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy, visited Madison, Wisconsin and the 115th Fighter Wing Nov. 22 to meet with elected officials and discuss the proposed bed-down of the F-35A at Truax Field and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared in advance of the Air Force’s record of decision. Henderson sat down with Wisconsin National Guard personnel to answer some of the questions brought up by the community during the public comment period on the Draft EIS. The full discussion can be seen here: youtu.be/8TQM7T1OuFY
Q: Why are you visiting Madison this week?
Henderson: The bed-down of the F-35s through the Air Force is extremely important for our national security. We’re just now starting to get these out to some of our initial bases, and we have several more to go as we replace and upgrade our aging fighter fleet. So this initiative overall in support of our national security with one of the most advanced weapons systems, really in the history of the world, it’s extremely important for us to get this right.
I’m here to better understand some of the context and some of the comments that we got back from the EIS. There have been some concerns in the press. We received a few letters and we received over 6,000 comments in response to the Environmental Impact Statement we’re doing here at Truax. We take those comments very seriously.
This seemed like a good time for us to come out and make sure that we’re hearing those in the right context, and make sure we understand the concerns and the challenges from the constituents and some of the elected officials here. And to make sure we are appropriately addressing them through our National Environmental Policy Act requirements, make sure we appropriately characterize those in the EIS — and if this determines in the decision that the Secretary of the Air Force makes, that we have thought forward enough to mitigate some of those impacts.
This was just a boots-on-the-ground commitment by the Air Force, on behalf of the Secretary and the Air Force Chief of Staff, to make sure our process is going the way it should, and to make sure that we understand some of the comments we were getting back. We take those comments very seriously, especially with regard to environmental justice or noise impacts. And we want to check and see how the F-35 bed-down planning is going here at a very important base for the Air Force.
Q: Is the F-35A four times louder than the F-16s that currently fly over Madison? What are the sound differences between the F-16 and the F-35?
Henderson: First of all, that’s not true here for Madison.
The way we measure noise exposure is complex. The way sound travels in different areas and different geographies and different situations and the way it’s perceived by the human ear is really complex. And then noise and soundwaves are measured on a logarithmic scale which is at another level of complexity.
We try really hard to use the best science — which isn’t easy science, it’s the best science — and we apply that consistently. In many cases, there’s federal policy and federal law that tells us how we have to account for this noise exposure and we endeavor to do that in the EIS, to the extent we can to ensure that we’re complying with federal policy and law and how we articulate what that exposure was.
I think some of the comments that have come up — that it’s four times as loud — comes from looking at another EIS. The Burlington EIS had some statements in there — in that particular case, in some areas at some specific points, the way they would fly F-35s and the way noise was measured in these particular points — that was true for Burlington. But for Madison, what we’re looking at here in our EIS, that’s just not the case.
The way we measure those noise impacts, that noise will sound different based on where you’re standing, how far away from the jets you are, how high or low they’re flying, whether the afterburners are on, what the air pressure and temperature is — there’s just a number of different factors that we have to take into that. We’ve used a standard, scientifically-vetted process to do that.
What we’re finding here and the different points we’ve measured — I think it was 16 points that we’ve gone out and measured what the noise difference would be between F-16s and F-35s — and in most cases that’s one to three decibels in change overall, which is just a little bit above perceptible.
And most people who have heard the F-35 versus the F-16 would say it’s hard to tell which one is louder because they’re both very loud. We’ve tried to articulate what those impacts are. We’re not trying to say they’re not loud — they both are very loud, but it’s a different kind of noise. It’s hard to tell which one is louder. The F-16 is sometimes described as something with a little higher-pitched noise, where the F-35 has more of a lower kind of a rumble. The impact is a little bit louder than the F-16.
We’re trying to make sure that we articulate the time and the intensity and a number of different factors on how that noise is perceived by humans, using the best science that we have right now. Unfortunately, that makes it very hard to articulate exactly what the difference is, depending on where you live, what kind of structure you live in, whether you’re inside or outside, where you are in relation to the airplane, and all those other things.
So it is complex — it’s complex by design. But that gives us a chance to have some dialog back and forth in the EIS to help provide a better understanding with acoustical science.
I think a big part of this, right now no decision has been made. But we want to make sure the EIS is appropriately accounting for the impacts for the noise increases, and then the important thing is what comes after that. If the decision is made to bring the F-35s to Truax, then we can go back and look at those impacts and work with the FAA. We talk about go back and do further work on what the impacts are and then really get after what things we can do to mitigate those impacts and the people affected by it.
Q: Some in the community have asked whether the F-35A would carry a nuclear payload in Madison. Can you address the topic?
Henderson: Right now, our plans are no — categorically no. The airplanes that are coming here don’t have the hardware or the software to do nuclear operations. We don’t have the weapon storage capabilities here — we’re not certified to do that. That’s just not a mission that’s ever been here, so it would be extremely difficult for us to get there — that’s just not the plan right now.
So, no nuclear operations for F-35s based out of Truax.
Q: You had the chance to tour the 115th Fighter Wing. What was your impression?
Henderson: I was very impressed. There were a couple of things that caught me.
First of all, like many of our bases they have a lot of older infrastructure. There’s things there that were built in the ‘40s and ‘50s and they’ve taken extremely good care of it. They’ve kept their facilities up to date, and that just shows a level of ownership, a level of care about the mission, a level of unit camaraderie that was just very impressive. I’ve got to hand it to this particular Guard unit — they’ve taken very good care of their stuff.
One of the reasons why it’s a lead runner to put the most advanced weapons systems here is because we know this unit’s going to take good care of them.
I’ll just reflect a conversation I had with the chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, this morning. He [spoke of] the fighters that went down and flew F-16s in support of the [recent Middle East] mission — he relayed back very positive comments about their performance on the ground, their performance in the air and what a great unit this was. I know they just returned and are on a well-deserved break right now.
I’d say the infrastructure here and the people here, it appears to be a great unit. I can reinforce that from the general officer feedback from their mission downrange that things are going well here to project the combat power, and to make sure these guys are ready and trained in support of our national defense, and that bodes very well for this community.