Honorable Eric Fanning
Secretary of the Air Force
1670 Air Force Pentagon
Washington, DC 20330-1670
Dear Secretary Fanning:
I’m writing you from Tucson, where people are pretty worried about the city’s future as an Air Force town. Some people think Davis-Monthan Air Force Base will not get any F-35 missions and will end up dwindling into insignificance as a result. Others worry the base will get the F-35, and its noise will make the central part of Tucson unlivable and unworkable.
What you need to know is that both perspectives exist, in significant if not equal numbers, no matter what anyone says. That doesn’t mean Tucson doesn’t want to continue being an Air Force town, though. We just disagree among ourselves on how to make it work best.
You’ll be hearing, if you haven’t already, from some of our top political and business leaders, who say Tucson fully supports bringing the F-35 to either Davis-Monthan or to Tucson International Airport as part of the Air National Guard operation there. They are right that most business groups in Tucson — and perhaps most people — want the F-35 here, and their reason is clear: D-M is a key economic engine for this area.
You may hear from Phil Tedesco, who is president of the Tucson Association of Realtors. He put it to me this way: “You can’t support the long-term viability of the base without supporting the F-35.”
A corollary to that position, one that many of our leaders hold, is that, as Tedesco told me, “Failure to support the F-35 puts the long-term viability of Davis-Monthan in jeopardy.”
“The challenge for Tucson is going to be approaching the decision makers with a unified voice,” he concluded.
Mr. Secretary, I want to be sure you understand that Tucson is essentially united in supporting the base. This is a college town, so there is a small portion of the local population who just don’t like the military and would just as soon the base close, but that group is insignificantly small. What Tucson is mainly divided over is the F-35.
Robin Gomez, a member of the Military-Community Relations Committee in Tucson, puts it this way: “Where you live is where you stand on the issue.”
Gomez and his wife, Anne, live in Colonia Solana, a well-to-do neighborhood that is below a common D-M flight path. I visited their house last week to speak with Anne Gomez, who leads an anti-F-35 group called Tucson Forward; and Gary Hunter, another central Tucson resident against the F-35 and a member of the same committee.
Mr. Secretary, people refer to them as part of a “vocal minority” that does not represent the point of view of most of Tucson. In fact, Tedesco told me the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, a new military support group he is a part of, will be polling Tucson-area residents on the F-35 issue, and he’s confident the results will back up his view.
Let’s assume that’s the case, because it’s probably true — they are a vocal minority. Really, Mr. Secretary, that makes sense: Only a small portion of the Tucson area’s 1 million people live under the frequent flight paths in areas where the planes are close enough to the ground to bother them.
It’s easy for people who live outside the noisy zones to say that residents there should bear the “sound of freedom” no matter how loud it gets.
Let me introduce you to a few members of the “vocal minority” for your consideration.
Hunter is a retired civil engineer who moved into the Blenman-Elm neighborhood 17 years ago. Noise was a concern, he told me, so before he closed on the house, he went to the neighborhood several times to check out its sounds. The aircraft weren’t flying then, so he found out how much they bothered him only after he and his family moved in.
“When you can’t talk on the telephone or hear the radio or TV, it harms the quality of life,” he said.
So he got involved with residents trying to persuade the Air Force to change flight patterns and make other adjustments that could alleviate the bother. The Air Force has responded by raising the altitude of some takeoffs, Hunter told me, and things have improved.
“I just kind of got sucked into this against my will,” he said. “It takes a lot of time, and I don’t like it.”
Anne Gomez grew up in Tucson during the 1950s and 1960s, in the Arroyo Chico neighborhood just west of where she lives now. Aircraft noise wasn’t a problem back then. She left for about 35 years, moving around the world with her husband’s State Department jobs, before they came back in retirement to Colonia Solana in 2000. Even now, though Gomez complains sometimes about noise, she worries equally about the possibility of airplane crashes.
Here’s an interesting thing about Hunter, Gomez and other members of the vocal minority, Mr. Secretary: They’re OK with the status quo.
“What I’m concerned about is what the Air Force intends to do in the future to turn something tolerable into something intolerable,” Hunter told me.
Another of the residents critical of the F-35 idea is Tom Bever, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the UA who has lived in El Encanto and is also on the committee. He argues people should not fear that missing out on the F-35 will kill D-M, in part because D-M already hosts other vital missions — such as the aircraft “boneyard” and, more recently, drone pilots — but also because other bases with urban-encroachment issues have successfully transformed themselves.
“I think people are just instinctively afraid of any change. That doesn’t make much sense to me because Davis-Monthan has gradually become part of a city. That’s just a fact,” Bever said. “It’s going to have to, like many other Air Force bases have, adapt its missions so they’re consistent with its location.”
An aspect of this debate that has bothered me is that some of those who want to bring the F-35 to Tucson argue that simply having this debate in public undermines the likelihood that Davis-Monthan will remain a vital local institution. For example, when City Council member Steve Kozachik wrote an opinion piece for our newspaper in June that questioned the financial viability of the F-35, the Tucson Association of Realtors withdrew its endorsement of him.
You probably didn’t see his piece, Mr. Secretary, and you probably would have laughed it off if you had. To say the least, I doubt our Steve K is in a very good position to judge the future of the F-35 program. But the Tucson Association of Realtors viewed it as damaging just to try to argue that point in public.
“The bottom line is that he has harmed one of the core economic pillars of our community, and his words will be used in Washington and across the nation to demonstrate Tucson’s lack of support for expanded military operations in our community,” Tedesco said in a press release.
Let me be frank with you on this, Mr. Secretary: It would disappoint me if you view a little public debate and disagreement as a failing. To me, it’s just the way business is done in a free country.
I know public support matters when it comes to keeping a base alive. Alton Cornella, who was on the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, told me Friday that community support is “extremely important, and it starts long before BRAC.”
“If the community support is not obvious, then it becomes an easier choice for a commission,” he said. But Cornella also knows a little about Davis-Monthan, and he said, “The support of the community there is very good.”
So, Mr. Secretary, it’s true Tucson’s mayor and City Council have not specifically endorsed bringing the F-35 here. But they have supported the base in a broad resolution passed earlier this year. This simply reflects the political pressures they’re feeling from the internal debate we’re having.
I hope you don’t view Tucson’s ambivalence over the F-35 as a sign that Tucson is no longer an Air Force town. It is, but there is sincere disagreement over this issue.
In the meantime, there is something almost all of us agree on: the A-10. We understand you’re considering “divesting” the Warthog because of budget pressures. We know that eventually the fighter plane’s lifespan will end, but we would be proud to continue hosting it at D-M until a real replacement is ready.
We are who we are, Mr. Secretary, and that’s about as unified as we’re going to get.
Thank you for your consideration.