The new F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter is tardy, billions over budget and the roar of its jet engine could eclipse the older planes it's due to replace.
Despite these concerns, U.S. Air Force officials at 11 bases in 7 states — and civilian leaders of communities that surround these military installations — are scrambling to convince Pentagon brass to choose their facility to house the latest air-combat bling.
For bases, success during a first round of selections in 2011 could mean survival in a post-Cold War era of downsizing. For military communities, it means a much-needed economic shot-in-the-arm.
In Idaho, where officials predict a $1 billion boost from up to 3,000 personnel and 144 planes, even the state-sponsored lottery is in act: Its website urges gamers to join the effort to lure F-35s to Gowen Field Air National Guard Base in Boise and Mountain Home Air Force Base, 50 miles to the east.
"We feel strongly that it would be foolish to not support this, with the state of the economy," said Adam Park, a spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
Meanwhile, Tim Amalong, a general aviation business manager at the Tucson International Airport in Arizona, is talking up the local Air Guard station's attributes — and trash-talking rivals. Four-season weather above the Sonoran Desert's 1.9-million-acre Barry Goldwater Training Range makes for better flying than colder airspace in Utah or Idaho, Amalong insists.
"I've been up there sometimes during the winter and it ain't pretty," he said.
Jet is behind schedule
So far, Lockheed Martin Corp. has built just a few of roughly 2,400 F-35s the United States has said it wants to buy, but the plane's cost already has more than doubled to some $113 million apiece.
What's more, the joint strike fighter — "joint" because different versions are also being built for the U.S. Marines and Navy — isn't likely to be ready for Air Force operations until 2015, two years behind schedule.
Air Force officials responsible for the F-35 didn't return repeated phone calls.
Five sites are training-mission candidates, where American and foreign pilots from U.S. allies that buy the planes would come to learn their way around the cockpits: Gowen Field; Tucson; Luke Air Force Base, also in Arizona; Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Operational squadrons are slated for another six bases: Mountain Home; Burlington International Airport Guard Station in Vermont; Hill Air Force Base in Utah; Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida; and Shaw Air Force Base and McEntire Air Guard Base, both in South Carolina.
All aim to fill possible holes in their aging combat arsenals.
Arizona's Luke Air Force Base began slashing 550 military jobs and 28 aging F-16 jets last year. Eglin lost its F-16s.
In Idaho, Mountain Home Air Force Base's 20 F-15C Eagles are departing this summer, while C-130 cargo planes that exited Gowen Field last year left vacant hangars. The base's 22 A-10 "Warthog" tankbusters are 34 years old and counting.
"In order to maintain our relevancy, eventually we're going to need a new mission," said Col. Tim Marsano, of the Idaho Air National Guard.
Air Guard F-16 pilots from Vermont were among the first to be scrambled over New York City's "Ground Zero" after the Sept. 11 attacks, but Burlington's 18-plane squadron is aging.
"In a perfect world, there would be a one-for-one replacement with the F-35s, and these F-16s would retire," said Brigadier General Steve Cray, of the Vermont Air National Guard's Green Mountain Boys.
Even so, the roar of the F-35's proposed Pratt & Whitney engine — dubbed by backers as "the sound of freedom" — has some homeowners who live near bases talking about plunging property values and plummeting quality of life. The Air Force's own estimates, from a 2008 environmental analysis, show the jets may be twice as loud at takeoff, and four times as loud on landing, as an F-15C Eagle.
Valparaiso, Fla., which borders Eglin, sued the Air Force, settling in March only after military officials agreed to consider changes. But Mayor John B. Arnold isn't sure it's over; the city may go back to court. He's not against the F-35, he said, but just raising noise concerns has won him enemies in neighboring towns.
"We still have people that won't talk to us," Arnold said.
El Mirage, Ariz., officials feel Arnold's pain. They commissioned a study that found property values could drop by a fifth, should the jets come to Luke. Now, the Phoenix suburb has come under pressure from gung-ho military communities nearby.
"On the worst day, we've been called unpatriotic," El Mirage spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.
'Planes are a battlefield weapon'
Monty Mericle has lived near Gowen Field in Boise for 35 years and helped start the "Save Our Valley Now" group after becoming convinced F-35 noise would surpass even the din of the F-4 Phantom, a noisy fighter-bomber retired in the mid-1990s.
If Boise wants the F-35 so bad, Mericle suggests it or the Air Force should buy his house.
"These planes are a battlefield weapon," Mericle said. "They need to put them into a remote location."
Air Force officials cite an April 2009 Lockheed Martin study showing F-35s aren't much louder than existing jets. Strategic timings of takeoffs and landings could further remedy complaints, they said.
Brigadier General William Shawver, Idaho's assistant adjutant general, said his own house is located off the tip of Gowen Field's runway. Critics should wait for a preliminary environmental impact study, due this summer, before passing judgment, he said.
"We have a long history of after-burning aircraft in the pattern," Shawver said.