Interview with Assistant Secretary of the Air Force John Henderson

Capt. Leslie Westmont, public affairs officer with the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin, asks Mr. John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, about the Environmental Impact Study process for the F-35A basing decision. Truax Field, home of the 115th Fighter Wing, is a preferred alternate location for the F-35A.

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Hello, I’m Captain Leslie Westmont, Public Affairs Officer at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin. Mr. John Henderson, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, visited the 115th Fighter Wing and briefly discussed some of the community concerns regarding the F-35 aircraft and the environmental impact statement process. Thank you for joining us today, sir. I appreciate you being here to answer our questions and to address some of the community concerns that have been kind of aroused by the F-35 EIS process here in Madison. So thank you for being with us today.

Yeah, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Yes sir, so if you could just tell us a little bit about why are you visiting Madison this week?

Right, so the bed-down of the F-35s for the Air Force is extremely important for our national security, and we’re just now startin’ to get these out to some of our initial bases, and we have several more to go as we replace and upgrade our aging fighter fleet. So, this initiative overall, in support of our national security, to put one of the most advanced weapon systems, literally, in the history of the world, is extremely important for us to get this right. I’m here to better understand some of the context and some of the comments that we got back in the IS. There’s been some concerns in the press. We received a few letters, and we received over 6,000 comments in response to the environmental impact statement we’re doin’ here at Truax, ’cause it was designated as a preferred alternative. We take those comments very seriously, and this seemed like a good time for us to come out, make sure that we’re hearing those in the right context, make sure that we understand the concerns and the challenges from the constituents of some of the elected officials here, and make sure that we’re appropriately addressing them through, what is, our National Environmental Policy Act requirements to make sure we’ve appropriately characterized those in the EIS and that, if this turns to be the decision that the secretary makes. And then we have thought forward enough to mitigate some of those impacts. So, this was just a boots on the ground commitment by the Air Force and on behalf of the Secretary in Chief, I wanted to make sure that our process is going the way it should. To make sure that we understand some of the comments that we we’re getting back, ’cause we take those comments very seriously, especially with regard to things like environmental justice or the noise impacts. And to just check and see how the F-35 bed-down planning is going here at a very important base for the Air Force.

Great, well again, thank you for visiting, visiting us and taking the time outta your busy schedule to come down here and talk to us all about the IS process and also to address these community concerns.

Exciting stuff right? The IS process.

Yes, it is, it is. There’s been some comments in the media about how much louder the F-35 is, than the F-16. And so, we were wondering, there’s been some statements from opposition of the F-35 initiative about, that the F-35 is four times louder than the F-16. Can you comment, maybe, on or tell us a little bit about the sound differences between the F-16 and the F-35, and is that statement, in fact, true?

So, first of all, that’s not true here for Madison. The way we measure noise exposure is complex, the way sound travels in different areas and in different geographies and in different situations, and the way it’s perceived by the human ear is really complex and then noise and sound waves are measured on logarithmic scale, which just adds another level of complexity and we try really hard to be, to use the best science, which isn’t easy science, it’s the best science. We apply that consistently and many cases, there’s federal policy and federal law that tells us how we have to account for this noise exposure. And then we endeavor to do that in the EIS, to the extent we can, then ensure that we’re complying with federal policy and law, And then how we articulate what that exposure was. I think some of the comments that are coming up, that it’s four times as loud, comes from lookin’ at another EIS, the Burlington EIS had some statements in there and in that particular case, in some areas, in some specific points, the they would fly F-35’s and the way the noise was measured at any particular point, that was true for Burlington, but for Madison, what we’re lookin’ at here in our EIS, that is just not the case. The way we measure those noise impacts, remember that that noise will sound different based on where you’re standing, how far way from the jets you are, how high or low it’s flying, whether the afterburners are on, what the air pressure and temperature is. There’s just a number of different factors that we have to take into that. We’ve used a standard scientifically vetted process to do that. So, what we’re finding here and the different points we’ve measured, I think it was 16 points, that we’ve gone out and measured what the noise difference would be between F-16’s and F-35’s and in most cases that’s one to three decibels and change overall. Which is just a little bit above perceptible, so. And most people that have heard the F-35 versus the F-16 would say, “It’s hard to tell which one’s louder “if they’re both very loud”. We’ve tried to articulate what those impacts are, so we’re not saying that they’re not loud, they both are very loud. But it’s a different type of noise. And it’s hard to tell which one’s louder, the F-16 is sometimes described as something with a little bit higher pitched noise, where the F-35 has more of a lower, kind of a grumble noise. In fact is a little bit louder than the F-16, and we’re trying to make sure that we are articulate the time and the intensity and a number of different factors, how that noise is perceived by humans using the best of science that we have right now. Unfortunately that makes it very hard to articulate exactly what the difference is depending on where you live, what type of structure you live in, whether you’re inside or outside, where you are in relation to the airplane, and all those other things. So, it is complex, it’s complex by design. But that gives us a chance to have some dialog back and forth in the EIS and help provide a better understanding for, what’s acoustical science.

Yes, sir. Well thanks for clarifying that. ‘Cause that’s a big question for numerous people in the community, so thank you for clarifying that.

I think a big part of this is, right now no decision’s been made. But making sure the IS has appropriately accounted for the impacts, for the noise increases. And then the important thing is what comes after that. If a decision is made to bring the F-35’s here to Truax, then we can go back and take a look at those impacts and work with the FAA, and they were here today with us. A great federal partners with the Air Force. And we talk about, go back and do further work on what the impacts are and then really get after what things we can do to mitigate those impacts, and the people affected by it.

Yes, sir, great. Thank you for clarifying that. Just a couple more quick questions. One on safety, there’s been some rumors that, maybe the new F-35’s selected, if Madison was selected, they might be carrying nuclear payload here over the skies of Madison. Can you dispel or confirm that rumor, whether or not the F-35’s would carry nuclear weapons or nuclear payload here in Madison?

Right now our plans are no. Categorically, know that the airplanes that are coming here don’t have the hardware or the software to do nuclear operations. We don’t have the weapon storage capabilities here, we’re not certified to do that, that’s just not a mission that’s ever been here, so it’d be extremely difficult for us to get there and that’s just not the plan right now, so. No nuclear operations for F-35’s based out of Truax.

Great, thank you for that. So my final question for you, sir. I know you visited the Fighter Wing yesterday. This is an easier question, maybe. You visited the Fighter Wing yesterday, got a tour, got to meet some of the personnel that work there. So, what was your impression of the 115th Fighter Wing, walking away, what would you say to someone who asked you, how was your visit with the 115th Fighter Wing?

I was very impressed. There was a couple things that caught me. First of all, like many of our bases, they have a lot of older infrastructure. There’s things there that were built in the ’40s, ’50s, and they’ve taken extremely good care of it. And they’ve kept their facilities up to date and that just shows a level of ownership, a level of care about the mission, a level of unit camaraderie that was just very impressive and so, I gotta hand it to the unit that this particular guard unit has taken very good care of their stuff. One of the reasons why it’s in as a lead runner to put the most advanced weapon systems here, because we know, this unit’s gonna take good care of ’em. And I just reflect… A conversation I had with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Goldfein this morning. Also relayed back from the fighters who went down and flew F-16’s in support of the Afsent mission, relayed back very positive comments about their performance on the ground, their performance in the air, and what a great unit this was. And I know they just returned and they’re on a well deserved break right now. And so, home safe. My observations of the infrastructure here and the people here, appears to be a great unit and I can reinforce that from the General-Officer feedback from their mission down range. Things are going well here to project the combat power and to make sure these guys are ready and trained in support of our national defense and that bodes very well for this community.

Well thank you so much for your time again, sir. I know you’re extremely busy and thank you for sitting down and answering some of our questions today and for visiting the Madison area.

Yeah, thanks it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Thank you so much, sir.


On behalf of the 115th Fighter Wing, thank you to Mr. Henderson for taking the time to speak with us today regarding some of the community concerns about the F-35 aircraft and the environmental impact statement process. We would also like to thank the community for their comments, input, feedback, and support during the entire environmental impact statement process. And we look forward to the Secretary of the Air Force’s final decision in the spring of 2020.

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