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As the Air Guard gets a new lease from Burlington, what's the status of the F-35?

A photo of an F-35 jet on the runway at the South Burlington Air National Guard Base in January 2021.
Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell
U.S. Air National Guard
A photo of an F-35 jet on the runway at the South Burlington Air National Guard Base in January 2021.

Burlington recently renewed the Vermont Air National Guard's lease at the airport to 2073, raising again questions about the Guard's presence at the airport and its use of F-35 fighter jets.

The previous lease was due to expire in 2048, and an extension was necessary because the federal government requires at least 25 years on a lease to continue making investments, said Col. Daniel Finnegan, the 158th Fighter Wing commander with the Vermont Air National Guard, speaking on Vermont Edition.

Four members of City Council, all Progressives, voted against the lease extension.

"It was not a vote against the Vermont National Guard in any way," City Councilor Melo Grant said on Vermont Edition. "There was grave concern about the process around the lease renewal. There was grave concern around the lack of community engagement about the the lease renewal."

Grant said it would have been good to have a shorter-term extension to try to negotiate additional terms into the lease, such as a livable wage, protections against discrimination and protection for unions.

Such an arrangement would have been "exceptionally non-standard," Finnegan said, and the Vermont Air National Guard's funding for new projects at the base would have remained frozen during negotiation.

Finnegan said it's unlikely that the Guard would still be using the F-35 in the latter years of the new lease. But the discussion generated renewed questions from the community about the jets, their environmental impact and noise, and ongoing sound mitigation efforts at affected homes. The jets generally fly Tuesday through Friday and one weekend a month.

Speaking earlier on Vermont Edition, Sen. Peter Welch said it would likely be possible to reduce the number of training flights through the use of simulators.

Finnegan agreed, but said simulators wouldn't replace flights in the near future.

"The concept of what we can do with simulator work is really defined a lot by the Air Force and their ability to purchase that level of simulation technology," Finnegan said.

And simulators can only go so far, Finnegan added.

"I liken it to playing a sport. You know, if you're going to be teaching young kids to play soccer, you can't just put them in a simulator and then go put them on the playing field and think that they're going to win their first soccer match. That there is an element to flying these type of aircraft that has to be done in the real world, and the Air Force delineates how much we need to do that."

The discussion also featured Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport Aviation Director Nic Longo and addressed questions and comments from the public about the use of F-35s. For the full discussion, listen to the audio clip.

Broadcast at noon Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.