South Jersey politicians and businessmen are intensifying efforts to convince the Air Force to base the new F-35 fighter jets at the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard at Atlantic City International Airport.
The 177th’s location in the mid-Atlantic is strategically important, as it patrols airspace over major cities from New York to Washington, D.C., supporters of the plan said.
And the facilities are ready to take the latest-generation jets, according to supporters ranging from U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, and state legislators to the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.
“The 177th Fighter Wing has the facilities to maintain and operate 21 fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, including covered parking and a runway of well over 8,000 feet,” Van Drew wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan.
In the letter, Van Drew asked Donovan to consider the 177th during the strategic basing process for the next National Guard F-35 main operating base.
Supporters see it as a way of ensuring the base’s future and creating more opportunities in the region, especially as South Jersey seeks to diversify its economy by focusing on aviation technology.
Last Monday, the state Assembly passed a resolution expressing support for bringing F-35s to New Jersey by a vote of 73-0-1. The bill, sponsored by Assemblymen John Armato and Vince Mazzeo, both D-Atlantic; and by Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer, Middlesex, was unanimously approved by the Senate in December 2018, and now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for signing.
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“The 177th Fighter Wing has the strength, expertise and resources to house the F-35 fighter jets,” said Armato. “The facilities have already been designed to accommodate the jets, and the 177th has vast experience in homeland defense and air-to-ground missions.”
The F-35 is the latest fifth-generation fighter, made to replace the military’s aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt II’s, according to the Air Force. They have been the military’s primary fighter jets for more than two decades.
The one-seat jets provide greater protection through stealth features and a sensor package that gives the pilot more information than any fighter in history, according to the military.
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In late October, the Pentagon announced a $34 billion contract with Lockheed Martin for the delivery of 478 of the F-35s.
Just a month earlier, in mid-September, the first two of 20 F-35 jets arrived at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington. It was the first National Guard unit to get the latest fighters, in a 2016 decision.
Dannelly Field Air Guard Station in Alabama and Truax Air Guard Station in Wisconsin were chosen to get the jets in a 2018 decision.
The jets now used by the 177th are 1986 model F-16s.
“We have kids maintaining planes 20 years older than them,” said Col. Brian Cooper, head of the aircraft maintenance squadron at the 177th, during a tour of the facility for Van Drew in August.
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Van Drew said there is one technical issue that concerns some about putting the F-35s in Atlantic City: They take longer to prepare for takeoff, and it’s important that the 177th can scramble into the air quickly to respond to threats around New York City and the nation’s capital.
“F-35s can do a lot more and are much more highly computerized, so to — for lack of a better word — warm them up and get off the ground takes longer,” Van Drew said. “The goal and job of our 177th is to monitor and take care of the Washington, D.C., to New York City corridor, so it needs to be fast.”
Van Drew said he is working with 177th Commander Col. Brad Everman on the issue.
DeAngelo called the 177th “a premier Air National Guard facility” and said the addition of the F-35s would “boost its standing as a critical asset in national security missions,” benefiting the entire state.
Other states are also mounting campaigns to get the new jets.
According to a Nov. 26 story in the Detroit Free Press, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, urging her to select Selfridge Air National Guard Base as one of the next F-35 operational bases, if Wisconsin doesn’t want it.
Earlier this month, Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway asked the Pentagon to consider dropping its choice of Truax AGB in Wisconsin for hosting an F-35 squadron.
The mayor stressed concerns about the effects of pollution and noise from the F-35s on Madison’s poorest residents.
ATLANTIC CITY — So many people wanted to pay their respects to Micah “Dew” Tennant on Saturday morning that the line of mourners stretched out the doors of New Shiloh Baptist Church and the viewing time had to be extended.
Micah, who died Nov. 20 after being shot Nov. 15 at a Pleasantville High School football game, was described by those who spoke during the funeral as a good student who liked helping others and a talented DJ who always had a smile on his face.
“This really hit home, and for these children to endure this is just so unfair,” Mayor Marty Small Sr. said. “We got to stop this senseless violence because it is accomplishing nothing, but it’s killing people who we know and love.”
Hundreds of residents, city officials and law enforcement gathered for the funeral for the 10-year-old, who was shot in the neck while watching the Pleasantville-Camden Central Jersey Group II semifinal. The viewing and service were both held at the church, where mourners filled the sanctuary to capacity. Crowds also filled the chapel and spilled into the fellowship hall, where they watched the service on a TV.
Six people have been charged in the events that led to Micah's death. One of them, Alvin Wyatt, 31, of Atlantic City, is charged with murder.
During a speech, Small said a city park is going to be refurbished and renamed Micah “Dew” Tennant Park.
The park, in the 800 block of Maryland Avenue in the Back Maryland neighborhood where Micah grew up, has been in “disrepair,” Small said.
“We’re going to make that playground a place Dew could be proud of,” he said, adding they will fix up the basketball courts. “We’re going to make it a true community place.”
In addition, a historical marker will be placed on Virginia Avenue outside a daycare center, Small said.
During the viewing, many walked away in tears as they passed the casket where his body lay, some holding each other upright with tissues pressed against their faces.
A portion of the funeral included reading letters of sympathy and condolence that the Tennant family had received, including those from local police and state officials. School administrators and members of municipal governments in Atlantic City and Pleasantville adopted resolutions communicating their grief.
“We have seen your bravery and your resilience in the face of this unspeakable loss,” according to a note from Pleasantville police Chief Sean Riggin on behalf of the department. “We’ve been inspired by your family’s love and grace. We mourn with you today as you say goodbye to Dew, and we will continue to support your family in any way we can as you begin to heal.”
In another, Pleasantville Board of Education President Carla Thomas said she was “heartbroken” to hear of Micah’s death.
“Rest assured that I am praying for you and your family and that I will continue to work as hard as I can to end this senseless violence,” she said.
Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker also sent his sympathies to the family, saying that “words are inadequate to provide much solace during this trying time.”
Outside the church, Tasha and Mirah Boyd, of Pleasantville, said it was a beautiful service.
“A lot of people came out to support and show love to his family and him,” Tasha said. “It’s wonderful how the community can continue to come together. Do it for Dew.”
CAPE MAY POINT — The monolithic bunker that sits on the beach here was boarded up decades ago with miscellaneous objects still inside. Old government filing cabinets — and Rich Chiemingo’s beer cans, swiped from his dad’s fridge at some point in the 1960s — are sealed in it like a titanic time capsule.
The Pennsylvania native used to summer here as kid, and has returned in retirement. Chiemingo, of West Cape May, got a job with the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities as a museum educator to keep busy, and has become a walking trove of information on what was once his playground.
“We got in there. We got in there,” he said of the bunker, laughing. “A lot of broken fluorescent lights. There was a couple battered filing cabinets. ... Light fixtures falling, there was wire.”
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The Cape May area is scattered with sites that act as time capsules. Call it a history lover’s paradise. Things like the bunker, the concrete shipwreck, the “ghost tracks” on the beach from an old sand mining rail operation, and more, double as touchstones for local historians and draws for offseason tourism.
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The aforementioned bunker, which has mystified out-of-town beachgoers for years, is actually a military battery and was built in 1942 to defend the coast, in combination with a lookout tower a short distance away, and was once completely covered by the dunes so as to blend in with the shoreline, Chiemingo said. Should a land invasion take place, batteries were in place to defend with Howitzer gun emplacements. The Navy took it over to track Russian submarines in the Cold War but told the public they were conducting underwater research. They later abandoned it and it became a state park, he said.
“When I was a kid, up on the top there, they had picnic tables and those telescopes you put a quarter in,” Chiemingo said.
Chiemingo isn’t the only one drawn in by the county’s history. John Cooke, general manager of the Seacrest Inn in Cape May, is often referred to as the ambassador of the city. He said the historical sites make it easy to recommend plans to visitors, first-time and longtime alike.
“From a tourism perspective, the historical value that Cape May offers adds depth to the shoulder seasons of our business when obviously the beach is no longer the attraction,” said Cooke, 59. “Places like the World War II tower, the lighthouse and the Physick Estate combine to give the visitor something else to do when they visit Cape May.”
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And “little unknown historical treasures” like the houses near Jackson Street, which are reported to be from the early 1800s, and the Mainstay Inn on Columbia Avenue, which is rumored to have once operated as a brothel, can make his job of offering recommendations a joy, he said.
“Each individual side street has its own little piece of history,” Cooke said.
Melissa Palmer, director of museum education at the MAC and a professor at Atlantic Cape Community College, acts as a liaison for the area’s past but was unaware of the full extent of the county’s history until she started working there. A North Jersey transplant, Palmer moved to the area in 2005 but vacationed in Cape May as a kid and was fascinated by it.
“We’ve been at the forefront of so much history that’s come through this area, be it the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, World War II, not to mention the whole Victorian era, with the rich history and architecture there,” Palmer said. “There’s so much for people to see.”
Some, like Chiemingo, have intimate memories of the sites that some pass by or disregard. The concrete shipwreck, the Atlantus, was one of 15 built as an experiment, he said, and went on to be used for transport in the aftermath of World War I. Some were sunk for artificial reefs. The Atlantus, docked near Cape May, became unmoored during a storm and ran aground just offshore of Cape May Point. A chunk of its hulking frame has sat there since poking above the water.
Someone lost their life after climbing and jumping off it in the 1930s, he said.
“They might have hit a projection, I’m not sure,” Chimiengo said. “Everybody was warned to stay away because there’s currents, little eddies, and there’s all this jagged metal and it’s all rusted now. You don’t want to be anywhere near it now.”
Palmer has found it’s not just visitors who are unaware of the various historical curiosities in Cape May County.
“It always boggles my mind that there are people who live in this county, who are year-round residents, who have no idea about our sites or about the history that’s taken place literally in their backyard,” Palmer said. “It makes my job rewarding because I get to bring that to life for people, and in another way it’s kind of an uphill battle because I have a lot of explaining to do to people.”