Anonymous, Associated Press
BOISE — The new F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter is tardy, billions over budget and the roar of its jet engine could eclipse the older planes it's due to replace.
Despite these concerns, U.S. Air Force officials at 11 bases in 7 states — including Utah — and civilian leaders of communities that surround these military installations are scrambling to persuade Pentagon brass to choose their facility to house the latest air-combat bling.
For bases, success during a first round of selections in 2011 could mean survival in a post-Cold War era of downsizing. For military communities, it means a much-needed economic shot-in-the-arm.
In Idaho, where officials predict a $1 billion boost from up to 3,000 personnel and 144 planes, even the state-sponsored lottery is in on the act: Its website urges gamers to join the effort to lure F-35s to Gowen Field Air National Guard Base in Boise and Mountain Home Air Force Base, 50 miles to the east.
"We feel strongly that it would be foolish to not support this, with the state of the economy," said Adam Park, a spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
Meanwhile, Tim Amalong, a general aviation business manager at the Tucson International Airport in Arizona, is talking up the local Air Guard station's attributes — and trash-talking rivals. Four-season weather above the Sonoran Desert's 1.9-million-acre Barry Goldwater Training Range makes for better flying than colder airspace in Utah or Idaho, Amalong insists.
"I've been up there sometimes during the winter and it ain't pretty," he said.
So far, Lockheed Martin Corp. has built just a few of roughly 2,400 F-35s the United States has said it wants to buy, but the plane's cost already has more than doubled to some $113 million apiece.
What's more, the joint strike fighter — "joint" because different versions are also being built for the U.S. Marines and Navy — isn't likely to be ready for Air Force operations until 2015, two years behind schedule.
Air Force officials responsible for the F-35 didn't return repeated phone calls.
Five sites are training-mission candidates, where American and foreign pilots from U.S. allies that buy the planes would come to learn their way around the cockpits: Gowen Field; Tucson; Luke Air Force Base, also in Arizona; Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Operational squadrons are slated for another six bases: Mountain Home; Burlington International Airport Guard Station in Vermont; Hill Air Force Base in Utah; Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida; and Shaw Air Force Base and McEntire Air Guard Base, both in South Carolina.
All aim to fill possible holes in their aging combat arsenals.
Arizona's Luke Air Force Base began slashing 550 military jobs and 28 aging F-16 jets last year. Eglin lost its F-16s.
In Idaho, Mountain Home Air Force Base's 20 F-15C Eagles are departing this summer, while C-130 cargo planes that exited Gowen Field last year left vacant hangars. The base's 22 A-10 "Warthog" tankbusters are 34 years old and counting.
Even so, the roar of the F-35's proposed Pratt & Whitney engine — dubbed by backers as "the sound of freedom" — has some homeowners who live near bases talking about plunging property values and plummeting quality of life. The Air Force's own estimates, from a 2008 environmental analysis, show the jets may be twice as loud at takeoff, and four times as loud on landing, as an F-15C Eagle.
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