Liberally Speaking (5/6/10)

F-35 and the cost of safety

May 6, 2010

By Steve Mount

Back in October of 1988, I wrote a story for The Vermont Cynic about the Atlas nuclear missile sites in northern Vermont, including one in Alburgh. This story for the University of Vermont’s newspaper was close to my heart, because for years I’d driven by the Alburgh site, as it was at the end of a back road between my family’s camp in Alburgh Springs and Alburgh Town.

When I went to interview a neighboring property owner in 1988, a time of relative fear of nuclear holocaust, I asked how he felt when the government put the missile in place. Surely they were scared to death about having such a powerful weapon buried just a few feet under the ground.

The owner’s response was, “Well, I guess it’s scary if you think about it now, but back then, all we knew was that missile was there to keep us safe.”

When I was in the National Guard, my home armory was in the middle of a neighborhood in Swanton. We kept our jeeps, trucks and M60A3 tank in the motor pool, separated from the neighbors by just a chain link fence. The armory, like Williston’s today, was used for community purposes as well as for the military — a preschool used our classrooms during the school year.

But come training days, when we had to start up those vehicles, we did so knowing that we were disturbing the peace. The engine of an M60A3 is anything but quiet, and after a few months sitting idle, it could throw off thick, black exhaust that would blanket the neighborhood. Once, so I’m told, someone hit the switch on the tank’s smoke generator. Having experienced the thick, white smoke on training battlefields, I could only imagine what the neighborhood looked like.

I’m certain that on training days, our neighbors watched us warily, so they could be prepared for the billowing exhaust, the roar of the engine and the loud squeak of the tracks as we maneuvered the nearly 50-ton monster around our grounds. Perhaps those neighbors also had the feeling that despite the inconvenience, we were there to help keep them safe.

When my family and I moved to Williston, we lived on North Brownell Road. We quickly found that our home, like the Lamplite Acres neighborhood across the street from us, was on the landing path of some flights flown by the Vermont Air National Guard. The first few flyovers were a surprise to us, as we had quickly learned that civilian planes rarely ever flew overhead.

By the next summer, the loud whine of the jets’ engines were just background noise, and it was actually exciting to see the jets fly so low over our house that you could see the pilots and hear the hydraulics whine as the pilot worked the controls.

When the kids asked what the loud noise was, the sentiment expressed by that Alburgh property owner always came to mind. That plane, that noise, was telling us that someone was up there to keep us safe.

Having experienced living on the landing path of F-16s hardly compares to those who live closer to the airport and will have to deal with increased noise from the proposed F-35. I can only imagine the noise when one of these advanced fighters engages its engines and afterburners to move 15 tons of metal from a standstill to take-off speed.

However, just as we cannot reasonably pull the F-16s out of the airport and maintain the same security in our skies, we cannot fail to innovate. The F-35 is the latest innovation, and the Vermont Air Guard is right to feel honored to be one of only a handful of bases where the F-35 is being considered for deployment over the next half-decade.

That honor is probably little consolation to the airport’s neighbors, just as it is little consolation that some tests done so far show the F-35 is only slightly louder than the F-16. Tell that to a child woken by afterburners roaring for night missions.

Our service men and women, however, need to be using the latest equipment possible in order to help secure our freedom and safety. This is less a liberal or conservative issue than it is a community one.

My suggestion is that we, as a community, work with the Guard to be sure that when Vermont is chosen as a site, we can make the situation the best possible, rather than work against even bringing the new planes here.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at