The F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter taxis out for its first local orientation flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on March 6, 2012. (Lockheed Martin)
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VALPARISO, Fla. — Dive shop manager Bryan Kennington chatted with customers about masks and fins on a recent afternoon over the roar of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet as it streaked above the downtown Valpariso business.
“That’s the sound of freedom; I love it,” Kennington said. A group of young military men shopping for dive equipment agreed with nods and thumbs-ups.
But not everyone in this town likes the noise created by the jets belonging to Eglin Air Force Base’s new Joint Strike Fighter training squadron. The town sued the Air Force to force those in charge of the sprawling base to mitigate noise from the supersonic and stealth F-35, which is supposed to be adopted by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, many NATO countries and other allies.
Valpariso and the Air Force have since settled the dispute with the military, agreeing to some noise-mitigation steps. While not everyone is happy with the results, the fighter pilots and the residents seem to be making things work in part because of a noise committee established after the lawsuit.
As the military continues its push to replace its aging fighter jet fleet with variants of the F-35, towns from Vermont to Arizona have raised similar concerns about noise, and some are looking to this Florida Panhandle town to find out how communities can make peace with fighter jet noise. The governor of Vermont, where 18 to 24 F-35s are supposed to be based, recently visited Eglin to see how much noise the planes generate.
Eglin has 22 F-35s and could eventually have 59. The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, at a total estimated cost of nearly $400 billion. The Pentagon envisions buying more than 2,400 F-35s, but some members of Congress are balking at the price.
It’s unclear how much louder the planes are than other aircraft. Opponents cite Air Force charts indicating that the F-35 can be at least twice as loud as the F-16. Others say that’s an unfair comparison because measuring sound involves factors including how the planes are flown, weather conditions, the time of day and how long people are exposed.
The 13,000 residents of Valpariso, which sits on the northeast corner of Eglin Air Force Base, have grown accustomed to the sounds of fighter jets and helicopters. But the city argued in its lawsuit that the F-35 was something much louder than anything it had experienced.
“There is no question those jets are noisier than other jets — their engines are two to three times bigger,” Mayor John Arnold said. “I was never against the F-35 itself — I wanted the Air Force to do things to help with the noise.”
Arnold said the noise levels to date have been manageable, but he still worries about what will happen when more F-35s arrive. He fears properties near the base could be devalued. City Hall, a school and businesses are near the end of the runway.
“I feel that the Air Force has tried to work with us, but the whole process has been frustrating. We never know who makes the final decisions about anything to do with situation. We don’t know what will happen when they do get 57 or so F-35s out there.”
Air Force Col. Michael Contrado, a fighter pilot who has worked with the community to mitigate noise concerns about the F-35 program, said he thinks the F-35 generates about the same level of noise as other fighter jets.
“I’ve been around a lot of aircraft, and determining the noise levels would involve some highly analytic work because there are a lot of variables — the Navy pilots might fly with their gear down and that could create more noise, the atmospherics are different day to day, and the noise might carry more.”
The pilots are not allowed to break the sound barrier, creating a sonic boom, unless they are over the open ocean, he said.
Contrado said Eglin takes all noise complaints seriously, logging and investigating each one.
Eglin officials divide noise complaints into either aircraft or explosive ordinance. The school where the Navy trains its bomb technicians also is on the base, which generates noise complaints, too.
Contrado said the base aircraft generated 69 noise complaints last year, with about 30 caused by F-35s. Base officials say the number spiked after city officials encouraged residents to report any noise concerns.
Base spokesman Michael Spaits said calls also increase on days with cold weather, high winds and low humidity because noise carries in the atmosphere. Just that morning, he said, a woman had complained that the explosions she had heard coming from the base were louder than ever — but it was the same exercise as the day before. The atmospheric conditions were different
“Noise is very subjective,” he said.
While the town has largely, if unhappily, accepted the noise levels and the Air Force’s efforts to control it, Arnold fears more jets will make the noise levels intolerable. He said he thinks the Air Force is ratcheting up the noise slowly so residents won’t notice.
“It’s like a lobster — you put him in a pot and turn up the heat until he boils alive,” Arnold said.