By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — The idea of luring Air Force F-35A aircraft to Plattsburgh International Airport from across the lake could be gaining some traction.
“We want to keep an open mind about this, and I believe some phone calls will be made,” said Clinton County Legislator Robert Heins, who chairs the county’s Airport Committee.
At Wednesday night’s County Legislature meeting, Heins (R-Area 10, City of Plattsburgh) was asked by fellow Legislator Robert Butler (R-Area 6, Saranac) if the Airport Committee had discussed the idea of going after the F-35s.
Heins admitted that it was being discussed.
“There are a lot of political issues to deal with, but we should take a look at this, and we are,” Heins said.
The idea came up in July, when rumors swirled that the Air Force might consider finding another location for the aircraft, including Plattsburgh, instead of Burlington International Airport across Lake Champlain in Vermont.
Some residents of South Burlington, where the airport is located, have strongly objected to the Air Force putting the aircraft there, mostly because of noise. In May, the South Burlington Council voted 4 to 1 to oppose the plan to locate F-35s at Burlington International Airport.
The council cited concerns about noise, air quality and safety as the chief reasons for its opposition.
Burlington Airport is the home of the Air National Guard unit known as “the Green Mountain Boys.” That unit now flies F-16s, but the Air Force is looking to replace those older planes with the newer F-35s.
Air Force officials denied the speculation about Plattsburgh in July, saying they were still analyzing five locations, including Burlington, which was a preferred site, along with Hill Air Force Base in Northern Utah.
The Air Force said it was also considering Mountain Home AFB in Idaho, Shaw AFB in Sumter, S.C., and Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida.
The Air Force reiterated that position Thursday.
“We have no plans to base F-35s in Plattsburgh, but we appreciate the community wanting us,” Air Force Media Operations Officer Ann Stefanek told the Press-Republican from the Pentagon.
Stefanek said the Air Force is still conducting environmental impact statements on the F-35 project at Burlington and the other possible sites.
“Plattsburgh is not considered a reasonable alternative site and is not being evaluated,” she said.
Plattsburgh served as home to an Air Force Strategic Air Command base from 1955 to 1995. When the base was operational, it housed several types of aircraft, including the FB-111 fighter-bomber and KC-135 stratotankers.
The base was well-received by the community at large, with many civilians participating in efforts of the PAFB Liaison Committee.
Plattsburgh International Airport opened on the flight line of the former base in the summer of 2007 and has attracted thousands of travelers from the area, as well as Montreal.
Heins said there is plenty of room for an Air National Guard unit along with commercial flights.
“There certainly is enough room out there. Some structures might have to be built, but enough room was never an issue.”
Heins said such an Air National Guard operation could mean about 300 to 400 jobs and federal funding for services at the airport.
“This could lead to a lot of jobs and a tremendous amount of money for snow plowing and other items, so we do need to let people know we are interested,” he said.
He did not think noise would be an issue for the community.
“Noise is progress,” he said. “The problem with the Burlington Airport is that it is kind of in the middle of a residential area. Our airport is not like that.”
When the issue first came up this past summer, the legislature discussed it but made no moves to get involved.
City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak supported the idea then, and he still does.
“As I was five months ago, I am fully supportive of having the F-35s at Plattsburgh International Airport,” he said.
“With the potential for 300 to 400 jobs, this could lead to further development not only at the airport but for the community at large. I am glad the legislature is taking steps toward this.”
North Country Congressman Bill Owens was not available Thursday, but his spokesman said Owens spoke to the Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard earlier this year about the possibility of Plattsburgh hosting the aircraft.
“They had a good discussion in which the congressman noted Plattsburgh’s past experience as a military community and the infrastructure already in place at the former facility as reasons why Plattsburgh deserves consideration,” spokesman Jon Boughtin, said.
“Congressman Owens believes this issue deserves fuller study and consideration, but looks forward to continuing this dialogue with local leaders and military officials in New York and Vermont.”
Owens (D-Plattsburgh) served in the Air Force at PAFB in the 1970s before embarking on a career as a lawyer in Plattsburgh. He was elected to congress in 2009 and serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
“If the opportunity presents itself, Congressman Owens will do what he can to bring this capability to Plattsburgh,” Boughtin said.
Email Joe LoTemplio: firstname.lastname@example.org