F-35: I am Fighter, Hear Me Roar
At the end of September 2008, NWF Daily News reported that noise complaints from local residents may threaten the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s proposed Integrated Training Center at Eglin AFB, FL. Maj. Gen. Charles Davis was speaking at the roundtable symposium organized by the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, where he said that:
“The real issue we have to help deal with is doubled flight operations [up to every 30 minutes]… I can’t imagine that any community in the world would not like to have a (JSF training center). It’s a great mission to have… I’ve got to park these airplanes somewhere. I don’t think (Eglin losing the JSF mission) is going to happen, but I have to prepare for that.”
Since then, F-35 noise levels that are reportedly up to 4x louder than early-model F-16s have made noise a basing issue beyond the United States. Recent developments involve Australia.
Decibels and Noise Levels
Maj. Davis’ sticking point is a side effect of the F-35′s 40,000 pound thrust single engine, which currently enjoys a large lead as the most powerful fighter engine on the market. That’s helpful for the fighter, but not so helpful when it comes to audible noise; the F-35 is reportedly close to 2 times louder than the F-15 fighter, and close to 4 times louder than an F-16. This issue has forced a delay in critical approvals for Eglin AFB, and has also become an international concern.
With respect to perceptions of loudness, every 10 decibels will double apparent volume, so a 10-decibel difference is about 2x as loud, a 19-20db difference is 4x as loud, and a 30db difference would be about 8x as loud.
Events and Updates
May 21/10: Australia’s Department of Defence releases its draft Australian Noise Exposure Concept 2025 map. It outlines a significant planned reduction in forecast F-35A noise footprint at Salt Ash Air Weapons Range, compared with the initial Australian Noise Exposure Forecast (ANEF) 2025 released in late 2009. Why? After public consultation, the DoD has decided to halve the new jet’s use of Salt Ash Air Weapons Range.
May 21/10: The US Marines release the latest draft of their basing options for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter on the West Coast. The comprehensive survey on the jet’s environmental impacts outlines 6 possible plans for their West Coast basing, but the preferred plan would place 5 operational F-35B squadrons and 1 operational, test and evaluation squadron in Yuma, AZ, with another 6 operational squadrons at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, CA. USMC release | Basing plans.
March 5/10: Tucson Business: “Noise is the issue at public meetings for F-35.” The debate revolves around whether to use Tucson International Airport in Tucson, AZ as an F-35 base. The article also answers questions re: the economic benefit figures expected for the area, which actually refer to all of the current activities involving the USAF and allied air force training programs.
Dec 17/09: A vehement official release from Australian Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science Greg Combet indicates that noise has become an issue in Australia, too:
“Accusations made by the Member for Paterson, Bob Baldwin, that Defence is not listening to community concerns about the JSF are completely unfounded… Defence is a decade out from introducing the JSF to RAAF Williamtown and is already considering additional measures to minimise the environmental impact of the aircraft. These measures include minimising the use of afterburner take-off, greater use of simulation for training and reduced air weapons range use. Defence is also already looking into options for JSF flight paths, and how it can revise flight profiles such as track changes, noise abatement profiles, limiting late night flying or flying during sensitive periods, and minimizing over-flying of heavily populated areas… Bob Baldwin is ill-informed and is putting at risk investor and community confidence in RAAF Base Williamtown.”
Oct 29/09: Controversy erupts in Norway after it’s revealed that the F-16 noise comparisons used by Lockheed Martin involved late-model F-16s that are much noisier than Norway’s current fleet. Norwegian media add that the government classified Lockheed Martin’s report when in was received in Sept/Oct 2009, but leaks have brought its contents to light. Aftenposten cites confirmation from several individuals that the difference is “dramatiske,” and match claims of noise data available “apne internettsider” (on the internet).
Norway is one of several European countries with strict airport-related noise laws that force governments to modify houses or even move them at government expense, if those levels are exceeded. Norway has recently taken steps to reduce its number of military airfields, and Bodo was selected as their future fighter base. Estimates of F-35 noise abatement cost at Bodo, a town of 40,000, are about 6.45 billion Norwegian Kronor (currently, about $1.13 billion).
One option, which could hike costs to NOK 6-10 billion, would involve moving the military runway about 0.7 km, behind a set of low hills, and building the runway out into the ocean. Whether this would remove the need for additional noise reimbursement outlays is not clear, and airfields into the ocean are technically challenging with the potential for budget overruns. All articles in Norwegian: Adressa | Afterposten | Nordlys | Teknisk Ukeblad. Defense Aerospace Aftenposten translation.
Sept 29/09: Dutch Defence Secretary Jack deVries submits a letter to Parliament, which includes the admission that the MvD does not yet know the exact price of the proposed 2nd F-35A test aircraft from the LRIP 4 production batch. On one level, this is minor – but this is likely to add to jitters over the JSF program’s uncertain total cost.
The letter adds that based on noise calculations carried out by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR), the F-35′s noise footprint “is well within the current 35Ke noise zones.” Letter to Parliament [ in Dutch] | Defense Aerospace translation.
May 11/09: In response to claims from Lockheed Martin that the F-35 was no noisier than F-16s or F-15s (se March 11/09 entry), Valparaiso resident Bob Webb, an audio professional who is retired after 30 years working at Eglin AFB, recorded F-35s, F-16s, and F-15 landings on April 22 and 23, saving the results to his laptop while recording the decibel levels on calibrated meters.
Webb compiled the data and determined that the noise level created by a landing F-35 measures at 105-106 dB, compared with the F-16′s 90 dB, and the F-15′s 91 dB. These figures are slightly lower than the 19db difference in the USAF’s original environmental assessment, but a 15db difference is still about 3 times as loud.
Webb played his clips, and delivered a 45-minute briefing on the subject, at a May 11th Valparaiso City Council meeting. NWF Daily News.
March 13/09: Concerned by the economic impact of losing the F-35 program at Eglin AFB, tax collector Chris Hughes in Okaloosa County, FL stepped into the local debate by buying a billboard, and urging people to sign it to express their support. Hundreds of people have now done so. The billboard will be posted in the City of Valparaiso, at Eglin AFB’s East Gates. NWF Daily News | NBC affiliate WJHG News 7.
March 11/09: Aviation Week reports that the Joint Strike Fighter program’s deputy executive officer, Maj. Gen. David Heinz, has asked for studies of ways to improve the aircraft’s thermal signature.
It also quotes Lockheed Martin’s EVP for F-35 program integration Tom Burbage, who says that testing by Lockheed Martin and the Royal Australian Air Force placed the F-35′s noise level about equivalent to an F-16 fitted with a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 engine, and lower than Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The conditions and parameters of the tests were not discussed or revealed.
Dec 14/08: Radio Netherlands reports that local and provincial councils in Friesland, the Netherlands must contend with a law that handles noise issues by stipulating that housing in the “noise zone” near Leeuwarden AFB must be demolished. This prevents the classic problem of encroachment that affects military bases all over the world, but the introduction of an aircraft that makes 4 times as much noise as an F-16 will have obvious ripple effects.
There are concerns that the villages of Marssum and Jelsum, and a number of housing areas in the town of Leeuwarden, would have to disappear. The Friesian authorities have asked Dutch MPs to opt for the quietest fighter, and the Ministerie van Defensie has responded by saying that it will adhere to the sound limits which apply to airports.
All this assumes, of course that Leeuwarden in the north continues to be a fighter base. Volkel AFB in the country’s southeast sits in between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, and is also a current fighter base. With the RNLAF’s fighter fleet expected to shrink by more than half, it’s possible that Leeuwarden AFB may not operate fighters after the F-16s retire.
Nov 21/08: A signed Record of Decision for a Special Forces Group move to Eglin AFB is overshadowed by the news that the first Record of Decision for the Joint Strike Fighter training school has been delayed until early in 2009, and the final decision will not take place until late 2010.
That first Record of Decision would ensure that the $250 million allocated for construction at Eglin AFB is not forfeited, and the first F-35s can be delivered in March 2010. Meanwhile, the USAF plans to study the noise issue for a year, create a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and issue the required second Record of Decision in late 2010. Northwest Florida Daily News.
Oct 10/08: The USAF releases an environmental impact report that could inflame the debate. The F-35 will use the PW F135 or GE/RR F136 – both of which will boast 40,000 pounds of thrust on afterburner, making them the most powerful fighter engines in the world. That power apparently comes at a cost. The report says that the noise over Eglin AFB facilities, including housing and schools operations will reach 83 decibels, rising up to 90 decibels in civilian neighborhoods under the F-35s’ flight path. It goes on to say that military takeoff power is about 9 decibels higher than an F-15C at military takeoff power, and 19 decibels higher during landing.
With over 100 takeoffs and landings per day planned at Eglin, that noise level is becoming a community issue which threatens to trump the certain local economic benefits of the F-35 ITC. Gannett’s Air Force Times | Everyday decibel loudness comparison chart.