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BURLINGTON, Vt. – After years of delays and busted budgets, America's most expensive weapons system – the F-35 fighter jet – is starting its service.
With its stealthy design and millions of lines of computer code that act as a kind of artificial intelligence, it's being hailed as the future of combat aviation.
But many Burlington residents don't see the jet as the future of defense. Instead, they see it as an imminent danger to their safety. The Vermont Air National Guard, based at Burlington International Airport, will be the first unit in the country to get the plane, replacing its aging F-16s. It's scheduled to receive 18 of the fighter jets by 2020.
"Never before has the Air Force put a brand new fighter bomber at a commercial airport," said resident Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel. "Usually, they go at Air Force bases in remote areas. They do that purposely, because new aircraft crash more."
The Air Force is training pilots to fly F-35s at Luke Air Force Base outside of Phoenix in Glendale, Arizona, where the surrounding fields act like a buffer zone. That point was reinforced in June 2013 when an F-16 went down outside of the base, and no one was seriously injured. In contrast, the Burlington airport has homes around its perimeter and towns on both ends of the runway: Williston to the south and Winooski, a working-class community of some 7,000 people, to the north.
Consider the record of the F-16: Since its introduction in 1975, the Air Force has lost more than 320 in crashes and mishaps out of a fleet of 2,230. That's one in seven.
"If something happens on takeoff and landing of the F-35, it is probable that it will land in this area here," said Greco, who's leading a local group fighting to keep the F-35 out of the airport. "It is a recipe for a colossal disaster. It's almost too horrendous to even think about."
America Tonight wanted to speak with someone – anyone – about the decision to base the F-35 in Burlington, but the Pentagon, the Air Force, the Air National Guard, Vermont's senators and Burlington's mayor all declined requests for interviews.
Local protesters aren't just worried about the damage of an initial impact. They're concerned about toxic smoke and fumes that burning wreckage might release.
Like many modern military planes, the F-35 is largely made of composite materials, such as carbon and graphite, and held together with resins and glues. Inhaling the smoke of burning of composite materials can cause "acute and delayed health problems" and even death, according to the textbook "Fire Properties of Polymer Composite Materials."
Stealth aircraft like the F-35 are also typically covered with special membranes designed to absorb radar, which airplane designers and environmental experts say are toxic when burned. In the '80s and '90s, several workers at the secret air base Area 51 in Nevada reported becoming seriously ill after alleged exposure to burning stealth material. According to news reports, two of them may have died as a result.
"Let me ask you this," said Jason Flesher, one of the few people in America who's been within a few feet of a burning stealth aircraft. "Is the community writing a playbook in regards to the hazards and risk of bringing this plane in?"
In 1995, Flesher was the leader of a search and rescue team in New Mexico. One night, his team got a call that a huge fireball had been spotted over the Zuni Indian Reservation in the northwestern part of the state. Flesher assumed it was a plane crash but was told nothing. He went to look for survivors without a respirator.
It would be weeks before Flesher found out the reason for the secrecy. The Gallup Independent, a local New Mexico paper, uncovered that it was an F-117a, the Air Force's first true stealth aircraft, that had gone down. The pilot, Capt. Kenneth Levens, was killed in the crash. The newspaper also dug up an Air Force paper, delivered at a NASA conference in 1994, that said that some of the materials that may have burned – beryllium, radar absorbent material, depleted uranium, thermal plastic and a graphite used for reinforcement – posed serious health risks.
After the truth came out, Flesher says he received a letter from someone who had worked on the development of the plane. The man explained that he always worked under a hazmat suit and with a respirator.
"Back in 2008, 2009, I started developing some back problems," Flesher said. "Eventually, they had to remove the vertebrae out of my back from the cancer."
Doctors never could identify the cancer. Flesher can't help but wonder if his exposure caused it. He asked the Air Force for regular medical evaluations, but was denied. To this day, he says the Air Force hasn't been forthcoming about the health effects of the burning wreckage to which he was exposed. Flesher believes that lack of transparency should be a lesson to the people of Burlington.