Is there a solution to the F-35 fight?

A corner of the current third runway south of Gowen Field, via Google Maps

A corner of the current third runway south of Gowen Field, via Google Maps

The standoff between proponents and opponents of the basing of a squadron of F-35 jets at Gowen Field has been particularly spirited.

Those for the jets tout the economic impact.

Those against them say they are too noisy.

The two sides aren't engaging with each other much these days - and are instead engaged in a heated war of words.

But is there a common sense solution to all this?

Probably. But as with many things in life - it would take a truckload of cash.

The Third Way

So far, much of the battle has centered on two options: bring the F-35s here and base them at Gowen -- or don't.

But one item in the Boise Airport's 20-year master plan could solve it: a third runway.

Currently, a takeoff and landing strip in the desert south of Boise is not connected to the rest of the taxiways and airport infrastructure - but if the infrastructure investment was made, it would allow the jets to take off in a place much further from homes and businesses that would likely be impacted by the F-35.

"It would certainly mitigate impact," City of Boise Communications Director Mike Journee said in an interview with BoiseDev.

The additional runway could be the magic bullet in the battle -- and would move almost the entire 65db noise contour on to property owned by the Boise Airport.

"We have a space for a third runway, we know where it would go if it were to come to fruition," Journee said. "We know in the long run it would be good for the airport and the city."

Challenges to overcome

The biggest challenge, aside from money, is the current Gowen Road which slices between the existing airport and the third runway area. Taxiways would have to go under or over Gowen - or the road would have to be relocated entirely.

"How you navigate that adds numbers on the final price tag," Journee said. "There’s still a lot of things to define. "

Cash - and who would front the money - is also a big challenge.

"For something like this to happen, we’re talking a very hefty price tag," Journee said. "I’ve heard in the neighborhood of one hundred million."

He notes that the City of Boise wouldn't be able to finance a third runway project alone, and would need help from the State of Idaho as well as federal dollars.

Timeline mismatch

Even if another runway is added to the Boise Airport/Gowen Field complex - it won't happen before the likely start of a potential F-35 mission in Boise.

"We are not going to have a runway down before the current mission that’s being considered by USAF," Journee said.

But - the idea of adding the infrastructure could be a way to help solve a complicated dilemma. 

"I think the mayor would say that in the longterm it makes sense to have a third runway," he said. "These noise mitigating factors are a big reason for that. In the fact that long term that makes sense."

Boise officials to investigate F-35s on Utah trip, hope to hear the jets

F-35s lined up on the tarmac at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah. USAF photo.

F-35s lined up on the tarmac at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah. USAF photo.

Several officials with the City of Boise will travel to Utah next week - and some of them will take a sideline to Hill Air Force Base.

Mayor Dave Bieter, City Councilors Elanie Clegg and Lauren McLean will all be in town for an undisclosed economic development project. They will be joined by Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Amber Pence on a sidetrip to Hill.

"Since they will be in town, the mayor and two council members wanted to visit with officials at Hill AFB about their F-35 mission and possibly hear an F-35," City of Boise Communications Director Mike Journee said via e-mail.

The City of Boise has said it is not advocating for or against the F-35, only for a continued flying mission at Gowen Field.  The Air Force is currently evaluating retiring the A-10 mission - a portion of which is hosted at Gowen. The USAF is also evaluating Gowen as a potential site to host the F-35.  City officials note the large economic impact the base generates for the Boise economy.

 The moves have some neighbors on alert - as the F-35 jets have the potential to be significantly louder than the current A-10s.  An A-10 produces 99.9 decibels, while the F-35 can top out at 125 decibels.  More than 1,500 residents signed a recent petition encouraging the City of Boise to reconsider its action on the F-35.

For comparison, 100 decibels is about the sound level from a motorcyle in riding mode - while 125 decibels compares to that of a balloon popping (over a more sustained period).

Journee notes the economic development trip isn't related to the Hill activities.

For those travelling to Hill and the economic development meeting - taxpyayers will shell out about $2,460.  Three more official will attend just the economic meeting but not make the journey to Hill AFB. 

More than 1,500 speak out on F-35 petition, leaders respond

A digital petition from Citizens for a Livable Boise has been delivered to city and state leaders with more than 1,500 signatures.

The story was first reported by Boise Guardian.

A BoiseDev analysis of the petition signatures shows 1,568 unique names (five numbers were skipped over).  Of those, the vast majority of signatories listed Boise as their home city - 1,398 names - or 89%.  Meridian, Garden City, Nampa and Caldwell made up for 73 more names - and 97 were from a variety of other places.

Citizens for Livable Boise petition responses

Breakdown of cities listed by respondants to a petition against the F-35 by Citizens for Livable Boise

After reading through the long list of names, you will likely recognize many if you grew up or live on the Bench.

The comments attached to the petition range from the short to the outraged to the thoughtful.

"I don't want jet noise over my house!," Frank Blue of Boise wrote.

"These jets have no place in a metropolitan area. The negative impact(s) are astounding. Mountain Home is a much more viable option," Debra Gallagher of Boise noted.

Emily Hokett warns the F-35 would harm her business.

"I own a house at ground zero," she wrote - apparently referring to the area near the airport.  "I am a 39-year-old entrepreneur who makes my income from my Airbnb that I run out of my home. This is a main source of income for me. I believe if the F35 are to come to Boise, it will destroy what Boise stands for. We are a community united by our community.

She ended her plea in all caps: "PLEASE DON'T DESTROY MY FAMILY AND MY HOUSE!!!"

Megan Roberts of Boise echoed the city's vision statement in her comment (Our vision: to make Boise the most livable city in the nation).

"We work hard to keep Boise a very livable City, that is what makes this place so special and attractive to newcomers and long-time residents alike. Please don't ruin the quietude we still have as a Western community, the jets belong somewhere where they won't shatter the peace of mind of thousands of residents as they go through routine practices."

New maps show impact of F-35

Leaders respond

BoiseDev reached out to each Idaho recipient of the Citizens for Livable Boise petition and letter.

Gov. Butch Otter: “I’ve been studying issues surrounding the F-35 and the opportunity to base a squadron in Idaho for a number of years now. I understand the concerns but believe any challenges can be overcome and that Gowen Field is among the best places anywhere to locate these aircraft.”

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter in a letter in response to the petition released to BoiseDev: "Input from community members is vital and we greatly appreciate your interest in this issue and taking the time to send us the petition.  While the City of Boise does support a replacement flying mission at Gowen Field, the decision… will be made by the United States Air Force.  The City of Boise has no say over what aircraft can or cannot fly in and out of Gowen Field."

The Mayor went on to detail a number of what he called "inaccuracies" that his office felt compelled to correct, including:

  • Noting Mtn. Home is "ineligible for this National Guard mission" because it is an active duty base, not a National Guard base.
  • That the F-35 mission would "result in less than 10 minutes of audible IDANG aircraft activity per day" - which the mayor contends is similar to the current A-10 mission.
  • No homes would be "uninhabitable" or condemned. 
  • You can read the full letter here.

The mayor ends the letter on a conciliatory note: "We do understand the concern some residents have for this current proposed flying mission, and we are working on ways to mitigate those challenges if Gowen Field is selected. One thing that can be prominently seen by both those who are in support of the proposed mission and by those opposed is just how passionate and caring the people of Boise are for their city and its future."  He then says he hopes everyone will remain respectful and show support for National Guard members at Gowen Field.

Idaho Commerce Director Megan Ronk: "Idaho Commerce is committed to retaining and growing jobs across Idaho and the F-35 mission presents a tremendous economic opportunity for the Treasure Valley and the state. While the Idaho Air National Guard has been flying at Gowen Field for over 70 years and is responsible for 2,800 jobs for families stretching across southern Idaho, their impact serving our state and protecting our country is immeasurable and deserving of our full support. We respect the concerns of this group of citizens but, rather than speculate with unfounded claims, we eagerly await the environmental impact study process at which time we will have a complete and current factual report on the impact of this potential mission."

From Lindsay Nothern, Sen. Mike Crapo's spokesperson: "We have not seen the petition but Crapo supports the F-35 efforts."

Spokespeople for Sen. Risch, Rep. Simpson and Rep. Labrador did not respond to requests for comment.



New maps show impact of F-35

US DOD photo - F-35 Lightning II

US DOD photo - F-35 Lightning II

Newly released maps of noise contours for a proposed F-35 program at the Boise Airport provided to BoiseDev adds new information to an ongoing debate over Boise's bid for the flight program. 

Where we are: The State of Idaho, City of Boise and business leaders have banded together to make the case to the US Department of Defense that Gowen Field is the best spot among five candidates to house F-35 jets. Two sites will get picked, and Boise is the only site outside the eastern swath of the country. 

2012 EIS map. Blue is current "not suitable for residential use" area, red was 2012 projection based upon 72 jets. 

2012 EIS map. Blue is current "not suitable for residential use" area, red was 2012 projection based upon 72 jets. 

A group of residents in and around the Boise Airport is nervous - and are becoming increasingly vocal. The concerns rest, in part, on a 2012 Environmental Impact Study for the Boise Airport that shows a significantly larger area that is designated for "not suitable for residential use" - essentially an area where the average noise over 24 hours is above 65 decibels (about the level of average human speech). That's an average - with large spikes when jets take off. The map shows a massive swath of land that includes schools, parks and hundreds of homes. 

First on BoiseDev.com: Updated 2016 sound contour map - projection for 2020 with the F-35 program at GTowen. The blue lined-area represents the "not suitable for residential use" area.

First on BoiseDev.com: Updated 2016 sound contour map - projection for 2020 with the F-35 program at GTowen. The blue lined-area represents the "not suitable for residential use" area.

The new map: An updated map actually changes the calculation significantly. The 2012 map was based on the idea of 72 of the jets being based at Gowen Field. Instead, the DOD proposes 18-24 jets as part of the project.

According to Matt Borud, Marketing and Innovation Officer for the Idaho Department of Commerce, the contour is smaller based on several factors:

  • Fewer jets meaning fewer missions ("sorties") 
  • Guidance from the US Air Force to not require afterburners upon takeoff/landing - though the use of these devices is upon pilot discretion
  • Flight procedures to mitigate noise (I.e. flight path direction - banking away from town)  
  • Sorties would generally be limited to two-four takeoffs and landings during weekday daylight hours

The updated map shows a contour that would cover far fewer homes.  

Why this matters: Residents are concerned, rightfully so, about the impact of noise. The prior EIS shows a big chunk of Boise under a loud virtual cloud of jet noise. If the USAF's guarantees related to noise abatement and number of jets/missions are followed, the sound will be less of an issue than the 2012 estimate. But after a contentious meeting in which leaders hoped to focus on Boise Airport expansion unrelated to the F-35 boiled over into media coverage,  optics for the project will be challenged. 

Caveat against: Folks opposed to the jet, like Boise Guardian editor Dave Frazier, are dubious on the noise mitigation promises. He's challenged leaders to haul an F-35 to Gowen and let her rip with the afterburner on. That would be a spectacle that would, of course, doom any public support.  The Gowen Strong team contends afterburners won't be used near the airport. 

Caveat for: That same team has hired a public relations firm, and is working to impress on the public the economic benefit. Material provided to BoiseDev says 2,800 jobs are at stake - either directly or secondarily. Gowen is said to contribute $155 million in terms of impact on Idaho's GDP. 

Mountain Home? The Gowen supporting folks have two things to say about the (seemingly logical) idea to base the jets at nearby MHAFB (:45 away):

  1. The travel distance would hurt recruitment. Harder to convince employees to sign on for a 90-minute roundtrip commute.  
  2. DOD is looking at this as a Guard mission, meaning MHAFB isn't in the running. 
Comparing the contours. Green, 2004 boundrary with 13 homes impacted. Yellow, 2015 boundary with 89 homes. Blue dashed, F-35 mission projection with 270 homes. Black, 1994 boundary with 1,003 homes (based on 2016 occupancy)

Comparing the contours. Green, 2004 boundrary with 13 homes impacted. Yellow, 2015 boundary with 89 homes. Blue dashed, F-35 mission projection with 270 homes. Black, 1994 boundary with 1,003 homes (based on 2016 occupancy)

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated residents were not allowed to speak at a 2016 public meeting. Residents were allowed to voice concern, with airport officials saying the F-35 noise concern is unrelated to the airport's master plan. 

Statesman: Boise on short-list for F-35, faultline emerges

Sven Berg at the Idaho Statesman reports Boise's Gowen Field is one of five finalists for the Air Force's F-35 program.

This is going to be a contentious program - and seems to fall along a divide laid bare in recent national elections - with elites and some everyday citizens on very different sides.

Boise's Mayor, City Council, Congressional delegation and Governor have all lined up in favor of the program.  But as Boise Guardian notes, hundreds of Boiseans are upset - and feel they have not had a chance to have their voice heard - with worries about noise and property values. KTVB's Morgan Boydston reported last month that about 150 citizens showed up for a public hearing on the future of the Boise Airport to express concerns about the F-35 program, but were shut down by city officials.

A 2012 map provided by the Air Force shows a "not suitable for residential use" area that would include the Simplot Sports Complex, part of Hillcrest Country Club, Hillcrest & Owyhee Elemntaries - and thousands of Boise Bench homes and businesses.

Boise is in the running with four other sites - and the public comment period will likely be quite raucous.