Rep. Jeff Van Drew has signed onto the effort to get the latest jet fighters — the Lockheed Martin F-35A — for the Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing stationed at Atlantic City International Airport. During a recent tour of the unit, he learned that nearly half of the fighter wing’s old F-16 jets are in for maintenance at any given time.
The F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter introduced in 1986. The F-35A is fifth generation, a stealth plane that can fly 1.6 times the speed of sound (1,200 mph) and handle turns so tight the gravity experienced by the pilot increases ninefold.
The 177th was among 18 locations considered for the new jet by the U.S. Air Force in its first round of fighter modernization efforts in 2016. The fighter wing didn’t make the cut to five finalists, primarily because South Jersey’s air quality, although good, was lower than other places on the list. Most of this region’s pollution is from factories and power plants in the Midwest. Can’t do anything about that.
Van Drew’s predecessor, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, and the rest of the New Jersey congressional delegation sent the Air Force secretary a letter asking what could be done to get the new planes earlier and pointing out the advantages of the fighter wing’s ACY location. It already had the infrastructure for the advanced jets and needed little modification; it was strategically located midway between New York City and Washington, D.C.; and the unit had 14 years of homeland-defense experience including three combat deployments to the Mideast.
The winner of that first round, the Vermont Air National Guard stationed at Burlington International Airport in the northern part of the state, will get its first F-35 fighter next month, with 19 more due by the end of next year. The following round selected locations in Wisconsin and Alabama for Air National Guard F-35A bases.
Van Drew will be challenged to expedite the upgrade for the 177th Fighter Wing. The Air Force expects to keep flying fourth generation jets into the 2040s, and even though the cost of each F-35A is falling below $80 million, that’s still a lot of funding to secure. Maybe ACY will benefit from Lockheed Martin’s expected increase in production from 66 of the planes last year to 170 a year by 2022.
An upgrade to the F-35A would help the wing’s nine squadrons and bring an economic benefit as well. The base in Burlington is getting $117 million in upgrades to handle the jets.
Probably the best hope in the near term for the 177th Fighter Wing is that it will get F-16s in better condition as they are replaced by the new jet and become available.
The ACY area may need years of patience before getting the world’s most capable jet fighter. It’s a louder plane than the F-16 and was opposed by some in Burlington who argued the new planes shouldn’t be located near residential neighborhoods. So enjoy the lower noise level while it lasts.