An occasionally heated neighborhood meeting on the city’s north side Wednesday night exposed divisions among Madisonians over whether the city should become home to a squadron of F-35 fighter jets.
Many of the residents who spoke before a panel of alders and county supervisors at the East Madison Community Center were critical of the F-35s, the sophisticated stealth fighter planes that the U.S. military has spent nearly three decades and hundreds of billions of dollars developing. They voiced concerns over environmental impact, the militaristic nature of the jet, and the risk of crashes or other accidents.
Largely, the meeting’s focus was on noise levels. Many residents said they were already frustrated with the noise made by F-16 jets conducting exercises out of Truax, and were worried the F-35s will exacerbate the issue.
“I have to cover my ears, actually,” said Michael Johns, an Atwood resident, describing the noise from the jets he hears from his home by the Barrymore Theatre. “And I see little kids freaking out — like, ‘What is going on?’”
Sam Skar, an educator at Schenk Elementary, echoed her concern for children based on how she’s seen them react to noise from the jets.
“Our children were scared. They were running with their hands over their ears,” said Skar, who stressed that she was not “a representative of the district.”
Others thought the concerns about noise were overblown.
"Why move into a place if it's just going to irritate you?" vented Paul Volkmann, a resident of the Hiestand neighborhood. "I just don't get it.
"I hear people talking about, ‘Well, we just can't have a decent conversation,’" he added. "What is that important that you're talking about that you can't wait 10 seconds, look up into the air, and thank those people in those planes for protecting your ass?"
Dennis Smith, a longtime Madison resident and a military veteran, took issue with people saying they had trouble sleeping due to the jets.
"Well, I'll tell you what, I feel and sleep a lot better knowing that (the jets are) there,” he said.
Gov. Scott Walker announced in December that the Air Force’s had decided to name Truax Field a “preferred candidate” for its next squadron of F-35 jets. If the site passes muster as part of an environmental impact analysis, which gets underway next week, Madison could receive the jets in 2023.
F-16s have been flying out of the Air National Guard base at Truax Field, next to the Dane County Regional Airport, since 1992. The F-35s could ultimately replace those planes.
Madison City Council President Marsha Rummel organized Wednesday night’s meeting to gather public input on the pending arrival of the F-35s. While city officials play no official role in the decisionmaking process, Rummel said she and other alders have been invited by the National Guard to send along their thoughts.
The other officials who listened to public testimony were alders David Ahrens, Ledell Zellers, Denise DeMarb, Larry Palm and Samba Beldeh, along with Dane County supervisors Paul Rusk and Dennis O’Loughlin.
“This is an unusual activity for us — for us to engage in something that’s a local, yet national issue at the same time,” said Ahrens, before residents spoke. “We really know very little about this.”
While a lot of the concerns over noise and environmental impact expressed by residents were localized, others were more philosophical in scope: Harry Richardson, a resident of the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, called the F-35 “immoral.”
“Its purpose is to kill people,” said Richardson, bluntly.
Ed Blume, who runs a Facebook page “No F-35s in Madison,” echoed that concern. He said he was disappointed that Mayor Paul Soglin, part of a “Mayors for Peace” coalition, would support the F-35’s potential arrival in town.
“He has the hypocrisy to turn around and welcome the planes that can carry nuclear weapons,” he said. “That undermines our confidence in our elected officials.”
Others said that the community should be grateful for the military presence at Truax.
“If somebody doesn’t like having a military base here, then they can move,” said the semi-retired doctor Kim Hetsko, who said he’s been wary of Madison attitudes toward the military ever since having been the target of jeers when he would walk around State Street in uniform during the Vietnam War.
The listening session precedes a “scoping meeting” that the Air National Guard has announced at the Crowne Plaza Madison Hotel on East Washington Avenue on March 8. The guard says it will solicit comment for its environmental impact assessment.
Editor's Note: The story was updated to include Ald. Larry Palm and Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner in the list of officials present at the meeting. Also, it is Harry Richardson, not Gary Richardson.