RUMFORD — Pending a final decision this fall by the U.S. Air Force, western Maine airspace could become a venue for training flights of the new F-35 stealth fighter.
But 95 percent of the flights from the 158th Fighter Wing installation at the Burlington Air Guard Station in Burlington, Vt. — should the base be chosen — would occur above 5,000 feet elevation, Ann Stefanek, Air Force spokeswoman, said Friday at the Pentagon.
“For the Air National Guard, Burlington is the preferred alternative,” Stefanek said of a draft environmental impact statement filed April 13 by the Air Force. "That's kind of the first choice."
The EIS is for the proposed operational basing of the F-35 Lightning II within the continental U.S.
Current active Air Force and Air National Guard alternatives being considered are the Burlington station, Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida, Mountain Home AFB in Idaho and Shaw AFB/McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina.
Quoting the EIS as it pertains to Burlington, Stefanek said, "'Standard flight rules require all pilots to avoid direct overflight of populated areas by 1,000 feet and structures by 500 feet."
“But they said the F-35A would fly more of the time at higher altitudes than the F-16 it is proposed to replace, conducting operations below 5,000 feet AGL (above ground level) only 5 percent of the time,” she said.
“So, it follows standard flight rules, but 95 percent of the time F-35 (operations) will occur above 5,000 feet AGL.”
The F-35 is a fifth-generation fighter aircraft designed with stealth, maneuverability and integrated avionics to assume multi-role missions, Mitch Gettle, Air Force Public Affairs Agency spokesman, said. It is built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas.
The "A" designation means it is a conventional take-off and landing fighter jet that is 51.4 feet long, 14.4 feet tall and has a 35-foot-long wingspan.
While the F-35 is a supersonic, single-seat, single-engine, all-weather aircraft capable of performing and surviving lethal strike warfare missions, its supersonic air combat training flights from Burlington can only be conducted more than 15 nautical miles offshore.
"The Air Force views the aircraft integral to the future of strike aviation and to counter emerging anti-access/area denial threats," Gettle said.
Aircraft operating out of the Burlington Air National Guard Station train in airspace over New York, Vermont and Maine.
The Western Maine airspace is designated as Condor Scotty, which extends over more than 190,000 acres of land owned or managed by Maine and New Hampshire.
In Maine, Mount Blue State Park and Rangeley Lake State Park, managed by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, are located completely under Condor Scotty. Grafton Notch State Park north of Newry is almost entirely under the airspace.
Condor Scotty also covers Franklin, Oxford, Somerset and Piscataquis counties in Maine, including Rumford, Bethel, Andover, Canton, Wilton, Farmington, Phillips, Rangeley, and Kingfield; and Coos County in New Hampshire.
While F-35s are noisier than F-16s, Stefanek said Condor Scotty would remain at ambient levels less than 45 decibels. The humming of a refrigerator is 45 decibels.
"While general noise would increase, individual overflights occur at various altitudes and are dispersed and transitory in nature," the EIS document states.
"Changes in noise levels could cause annoyance, but would not change general land use patterns, land ownership, or affect management of lands or special use land areas beneath the airspace."
The Fighter Wing currently flies and maintains 18 F-16 aircraft. Under the proposed EIS plan, either 18 or 24 F-35A aircraft would be based at Burlington no sooner than 2015, and would replace the F-16s eventually.
"But we will not get nearly as many F-35s as we have F-16s," Stefanek said.
"So the F-16s will continue to fly so long as they have service life, and we're extending their service life right now as much as we can, but the F-35 is the fighter of the future."
Currently, the Air Force is in the draft EIS status, which will be followed by a final EIS and then a Record of Decision this fall, Stefanek said.