By CAROLYN DRYER
The weather was just one factor in the selection of Luke Air Force Base by the Department of Defense as a training center for the fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-35 Lightning II. The Department of Defense released its Record of Decision and Wednesday afternoon, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley announced Luke had been chosen. The base will receive 72 aircraft for a total of three fighter squadrons. Luke AFB met with the media at a last-minute press conference Wednesday.
Col. Robert Webb, Vice Commander, 56th Fighter Wing, and Rusty Mitchell, Director of Community Initiatives at Luke, stood together to spread the news and answer questions from more than a dozen reporters at the wing headquarters. Webb praised the F-35’s capabilities to those who questioned its safety. He said it would replace the F16s and A10s now being flown by the military. In addition to U.S. pilots, Webb said there would be seven F-35A partners on site.
As for local economic development that will occur with the training center at Luke, the base is receiving $110 million with a target of October for construction projects to begin. Webb said local contractors and subcontractors will be called upon to provide labor. Up to 3,000 people are expected to be utilized in that construction. Aircraft is expected to begin arriving between late 2013 and mid-2014.
Luke had its competitors in the training center selection process, and Webb said the Air Force “was very diligent, transparent, and open” in its procedure to choose a site. But after all was said and done, it was Luke’s facility and capability to expand, the ramp capacity, range access to Barry Goldwater Range, and weather, as well as capacity for future growth. Worth mentioning as a major factor in the selection of Luke was community support.
“We’re the envy of the Air Force when it comes to community support,” Mitchell said. “While there has been development that’s grown out toward Luke, the community has made every effort to ensure that the growth has been compatible with our mission. We cannot thank our West Valley neighbors enough for letting us be part of the community, not just in the community.”
Mitchell addressed the noise complaint issue, saying the public affairs office receives noise complaints all the time. But he pointed out that two weeks ago, an F-35 flew into Luke, then flew out, and nobody even noticed, or at least, nobody called to complain. In a written statement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said, “The Air Force is committed to training our U.S. and partner nation pilots on this fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Collaborative training on aircraft designed with stealth, maneuverability and integrated avionics will better prepare our combined forces to assume multi-role missions for the future of tactical aviation.”
Mayor Bob Barrett made a statement today on the announcement by the Department of Defense that the Air Force’s new F-35 training center will be located at Luke AFB.
“This is an exciting, and much needed shot in the arm for all of the cities in the West Valley. I know how much all of the mayors and their staff have worked to bring this announcement to fruition.” Peoria, through the efforts of the Intergovernmental Affairs Director, John Schell, as well as Mayor Barrett, City Attorney Steve Kemp and City Council Members have taken lead roles in the developing of policies and political relationships, both locally and nationally, resulting in today’s announcement.
“As someone who served our country in war, as well as a proud Arizonan, landing this agreement has been a top priority for me and our community. I cannot say enough of all the work John (Schell) and all of the other unsung heroes who work behind the scenes in West Valley city government offices who got this deal done. Congratulations to all of us.
Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs, co-chair of Luke Forward campaign, said, “The goal of our statewide initiative was to send a clear message to the decision makers in Washington D.C. that Arizona strongly supports Luke Air Force Base continuing to serve as our nation’s premier fighter pilot training facility.
“Arizona’s military industry is one of the largest industries in our state, and Luke serves as the anchor. This new F-35 training mission will bring with it decades of tremendous military value to our national security and sustainable economic benefits to our region and state. I want to thank and recognize all the elected officials and citizens of the West Valley cities and Maricopa County for standing firm in their unwavering support of Luke Air Force Base all the way through to the end of the F-35 basing process.”
Fighter Country Partnership Chairman Charley Freericks, who co-chaired the campaign with Scruggs, believes the widespread community support garnered for the F-35 by Luke Forward elevated Arizona from states in other parts of the country where the Air Force was considering placing the F-35.
“Through Luke Forward, we were able to engage nearly 10,000 residents to attend public hearings, send emails or phone Air Force representatives in support of Luke and to get 21,000 citizens from throughout the state to register their support of the F-35 at LukeForward.com,” said Freericks. “This tremendous support, from state and local officials, business partners, homeowners associations, residents, retirees and others, really made us stand out among the competition.”
Even the F-35 manufacturer had a few things to say. Michael J. Rein, director of communications for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Program, said, “Today’s decision to designate Luke Air Force Base as a U.S. and international pilot training base is another positive step in the F-35 program’s operational maturation. We look forward to working closely with the Air Force and the Luke Air Force Base community to support their pilot training operations for decades to come.”
To learn more about the F-35 Lightning II, visit www.f35.com.
Also look for more news in the fall edition of Fighter Country Partnership’s quarterly VISIONS newsletter, due to hit news stands in September.