BASING OF F-35s AT TUCSON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The Air Force is inviting the public’s input on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed Pilot Training Center of F-35 aircraft at Tucson International Airport (TIA). The EIS covers potential training centers at four locations, with Luke Air Force Base being the preferred location. There are three other proposed training locations with smaller numbers of aircraft: Tucson Air Guard Station at TIA; Boise Air Guard Station; and Holloman AFB. Actual aircraft assignments will be decided in the future depending on the requirements of the Air Force.
The EIS proposes 3 alternatives of increasing numbers of F-35s for TIA – increments of 24,48, and 72 planes. There is a “baseline” of no F-35s against which the 3 alternatives are compared. The EIS is deceptive in that it carefully avoids providing the obvious alternative of no F-35s at TIA for public review and comment. Thus, the apparent only choice is the F-35, in various numbers.
According to the EIS, there will be significantly higher noise levels than existing air traffic. It notes that the F-35 in traffic pattern flight will be twice (8 dB) as loud as the F-16. Approaching TIA, the F-35 will be approximately 4 times louder (22 dB) than the F-16. This would be 4 times louder than the A-10 while in traffic pattern flight and some 5 – 6 times louder approaching the airport. Some 7% of the F-35 training takeoffs would make use of afterburners.
Even the smallest increment of the 3 proposed alternatives for TIA will require an expansion of the noise contours around TIA beyond the existing commercial noise contour of today. The commercial noise contour had been shrinking in recent years as newer commercial aircraft with less noisy engines replace older equipment.
Safety risk analysis in the EIS is not based on facts. The F-35 is a brand new aircraft, incorporating new technologies, with no historical safety data records. It should be noted that this aircraft is currently undergoing operational readiness testing and evaluation. Major issues have been found in its engines, software systems, landing gear, etc., which have caused an unexpected three year delay in operational readiness and production. The EIS simply anticipates that operational readiness will be achieved and makes the statement that history shows that mishap rates of all types will decrease the longer the aircraft is operational as flight crews and maintenance personnel learn more about the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations. It then somehow concludes: “there would be no anticipated increase in safety risks associated with aircraft mishaps.”
The EIS notes that live and heavy inert ordnance is not stored at TIA. Therefore, the F-35 must transit to D-M AFB for weapons loading and takeoff. There is no discussion of the number of sorties or flight paths to and from D-M over the City of Tucson.
In addition, the F-35 scoping literature specify that facilities at DM may be required to meet training objectives and would be utilized as necessary. There is no discussion of flight paths over Tucson in the EIS other than a general statement that the F-35 will use the same flight paths as current F-16s.
There is no discussion of the F-35 inclusion in future Snowbird Programs, although it is noted that the F-35 will replace the F-16s, F-18s and Harriers from the existing Snowbird Program that fly into DM today. The EIS does note that the F-35B, slated for the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, proposes to use air space in the vicinity of Tucson AGS without specifying where and how often.
It is clear that neighborhoods surrounding TIA under approach/departure and other flight paths will suffer significant noise impacts. The EIS does point out that some 1,511 to 8,127 residents not now affected will fall under the new 65 dB noise contours generated by the 3 alternatives of F-35s proposed. Although the EIS does not so state, both DOD and FAA guidance identify areas within the 65 dB or higher contour as incompatible with residential use.
Unfortunately, the noise analysis itself is replete with technical jargon and fails to note general DOD and FAA guidelines, making it impossible for an ordinary citizen to decipher the overall effect on his neighborhood and quality of life. (A non-technical summary of noise effects is badly needed.)
It is also clear that these neighborhoods will suffer degradation over time. While aircraft degradation in neighborhoods is difficult to quantify since it is a long-term process (which sellers are reluctant to discuss), it is clear in hindsight when one drives through neighborhoods immediate to DM under its approach paths or Phoenix neighborhoods under the approaches of Sky Harbor.
The F-35 will shape Tucson’s future. The key Hospitality Industry brings in $2.4 billion annually to Tucson and provides 25,000 direct jobs and some 40,000 indirect jobs. Visitors are drawn by the area’s unique natural beauty, with 5 mountain chains, the desert and the outdoor climate combined with a rich heritage and culture. Building on this, Tucson has engaged in a major effort to expand its tourism appeal with a major rehabilitation of its City Center. Will winter visitors sitting poolside at higher-end hotels be willing to pay top dollar to listen to overhead air traffic? Would you?
Tucson is developing a second major economic driver – the promotion of high tech, bioscience, optic, medical treatment, and solar businesses linked to UofA research and development. The Bio5 Institute, Critical Path Institute, the Tech Park and new BioPark are all elements in that effort. These are the high-skilled, higher-wage jobs of the future. Will companies and their technical and professional employees be attracted by the amenities of the Tucson area, including the air traffic and degraded urban neighborhoods?
The fundamental question for Tucson residents is: does it make common sense to base the Air Force’s most powerful, loudest, and yet unproven fighter plane at a commercial airport in the center of a relatively large metropolitan area to train foreign pilots?