Military News

Talk of F-15s, F-35s at Gowen Field has South Boise on alert

An F-15E, normally based in Boise, at Gowen Field in August.
An F-15E, normally based in Boise, at Gowen Field in August. Second Lt. Kip Sumner, Idaho Air National Guard

People who live near the Boise Airport are worried the Idaho Air National Guard’s next flying mission will damage their lives, though that new mission is probably years away.

They’re worried the U.S. Air Force will replace Gowen Field’s 21 A-10s, which are low-speed warplanes designed to attack ground targets, with F-15s or F-35s.

The A-10’s top speed is about 440 mph. The F-35 tops out at almost three times that, while the F-15’s top speed is around 1,650 mph. The faster planes make more noise, partly because they have afterburners, which increase the power their engines can deliver.

Boise got a taste of just how much more noise those faster planes make in August when a group of F-15s stationed at Mountain Home made Gowen Field their temporary home.

Heinrich Wiebe, who lives near Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise’s Vista Neighborhood, said the noise from the F-15s was enough to rattle two large windows in his house.

“I found it highly disruptive,” Wiebe said.

THE MCCAIN EFFECT

When they arrived in 1996, A-10s reduced the noise coming from Gowen’s operations.

Their predecessors, the RF-4C and F-4G, were fighter planes whose thrusters and top speeds rivaled the more modern F-15s. In fact, they were louder than the F-15, Boise Airport spokesman Sean Briggs said.

Last year, the Air Force proposed grounding its entire fleet of A-10s and consolidating the Idaho Air National Guard’s flying mission with Mountain Home Air Force Base. That set off alarm bells in Boise.

Politicians, including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Idaho’s congressional delegation, joined forces to encourage the Air Force to either keep the A-10 active at Gowen or replace it with another air mission, such as an F-15 or F-35 fighter wing.

1,000Number of pilots, crew members and support staff in Idaho Air National Guard’s flying mission. About two-thirds are part-time reservists.

Some worried about the impact on the city’s economy if the Gowen flying mission were to depart. The Guard has a budget of about $300 million, most of which comes from the federal government.

Guard representatives said a move to Mountain Home could hurt their ability to recruit and retain people, since it’s about an hour’s drive from Idaho’s densest population center.

The decision to abandon the A-10 is still the Air Force’s official policy, Guard spokesman Maj. Christopher Borders said. But Congress has delayed execution of that decision. Arizona Sen. John McCain was instrumental in enforcing that delay, Borders said.

“Otherwise, we probably would not have A-10s right now,” he said.

WHY BOISE?

Sooner or later, Borders said, the A-10 will be decommissioned, but it probably won’t happen for three to five years. In that time, the Idaho Guard and local leaders will try to persuade the Air Force to put a new flying mission at Gowen.

A couple of factors are in their favor. First, Boise was one of 11 finalists — out of 205 facilities across the country —to host an F-35 fighter wing. Second, Borders said, Boise’s airspace is considered elite for training pilots.

Why?

“One is the vastness out there. Two, it replicates so much of the environments that we’re operating in today, with regard to combat operations,” Borders said. “I mean, I could show you pictures of Afghanistan and you’d think you were looking out in the high desert mountains south of Boise.”

Wiebe thinks it makes more sense to consolidate the Boise mission with the one in Mountain Home.

“The idea that we have that type of military aircraft flying here, when we have an air base 25 nautical miles from here, is preposterous,” he said.

THE STUDY

Kansas City-based engineering firm HNTB Corporation is conducting a $464,000 study on Boise’s behalf that measures the amount of noise likely to come from warplanes such as the F-15.

But at this point, there’s no official plan or even proposal to station F-15s or F-35s at Gowen, Briggs said.

A map in the HNTB study identifies the Hillcrest Neighborhood as the one that would be most affected.

“I would say there are some (neighborhood residents) that are concerned. A percentage? I don’t know,” said Dan Loughrey, president of the Hillcrest Neighborhood association. “I haven’t had a whole lot of people ask me questions about it or anything like that. I haven’t heard a whole lot of talk.”

Loughrey and Wiebe both criticized HNTB and the city for not doing a better job of involving the public in the study. The airport hosted two open houses for the study — one on June 3 and another on Sept. 2. But attendance was sparse at both events, Wiebe said, because the city didn’t put much effort into letting people know about them.

“Public outreach program” is the second item on the city’s document outlining the scope of work for the study.

“If the study is for the public, for God’s sake, we should involve them,” Wiebe said.

Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp said her staff published legal notices of the open houses, sent emails to neighbors, announced the meetings on Facebook and other social media outlets, and sent notices to media outlets. KBOI Channel 2 covered all of the meetings, Hupp said. All of those efforts add up to an adequate outreach, she said.

“They coincide with what has been done at other airports across the country — kind of the standard,” Hupp said.

The public comment period has been extended to Nov. 13.

‘MINUTES, NOT HOURS’

The noise implication of moving from A-10s to F-15s at Gowen Field is significant

With F-15s, 1,050 people living in 419 homes will be exposed to 24-hour average noise levels of 65 to 75 decibels — a moderate noise level similar to what you’d expect from a typical restaurant or a busy street — according to materials presented at the Sept. 2 open house. That’s compared to 89 homes and 260 people affected by the A-10.

The noise peaks when the jets take off and land, Borders said.

“This equates to minutes, not hours, of hearing them,” he said.

Clearly, the roar of an afterburner is a different level of noise than the commercial air traffic Boiseans have gotten used to. Still, Borders said a Gowen-based F-15 or F-35 wing could be feasible, and there’s nothing to say F-16s, a single-engine fighter, couldn’t be stationed here. First, he said, the amount of time when people are exposed to their noise is fairly limited.

Today, six military jets typically take off from Gowen around 9 a.m. every day of the week, then return about noon. Another six take off in the early afternoon, then land midafternoon. There’s more activity during drill weekend, usually the first Saturday of the month. Any new flying mission would probably follow this rough schedule, Borders said.

Loughrey thinks some people are overreacting to the possibility of an F-15 or F-35 fighter wing in Boise.

If such a proposal gets serious, he pointed out, there’ll be plenty of time to protest it because the government first would have to conduct an environmental impact study — a legally required thorough investigation of all environmental ramifications, including noise.

“Some of these people who have exhibited their concern are a little bit ahead of the ball,” Loughrey said.

MITIGATION

Borders said Gowen could take measures to reduce noise, such as requiring pilots to turn off their afterburners and bank south — away from the city — as soon as possible after takeoff.

Another possible solution is construction of a third runway about a mile south of the Boise Airport’s two main runways. This runway would be used primarily for military flights and would further reduce the noise exposure to homes nearby.

But a lot of expensive work would need to be done to prepare that runway to accommodate military planes. Besides the length and width, it would need roads, power lines and other infrastructure extended to it. Loughrey, a Navy veteran who spent some time around F-4s when he was on the USS Midway, likes the third runway option.

But either way, he’s personally not too worried that increased noise from military planes will ruin his neighborhood.

“I’ve got a neighbor — he’s not at all concerned about it,” Loughrey said. “There’s people that are concerned about it, about property values, and I can understand that. But time marches on.”

Sven Berg covers local government and accountability for the Statesman. 208-377-6275, @IDS_SvenBerg

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What’s happening with the F-35?

U.S. military leaders are pressing ahead with developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the face of controversy, cost overruns and a long list of technology problems.

The Air Force, Navy and Marines are testing their own versions of the aircraft — 14 years after Lockheed Martin won a contract to build the cutting-edge fighter. Setbacks to the F-35 program include concerns about the safety of pilot ejection seats, software delays, unreliable components and problems with controls and helmet displays.

On top of all that, there’s been some concern that the F-35 can’t outperform older fighter jets such as the F-16.

Nevertheless, the Air Force hopes to have a fleet of F-35s operational by next summer. No decision yet on where the fighters will be based.

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