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The late-December announcement by the US Air Force that Madison’s Truax Field is the chosen home for a squadron of F-35 fighter jets (provided it clears a final study) is a huge victory for the city, politicians representing the area say. The choice of Madison out of five Air National Guard base finalists was years in the making. Jeff Wiegand, recently retired commander of the 115th Fighter Wing and executive director of the Badger Air Community Council, shared how the city got this far — and what’s still to come.
What kind of work went into getting the F-35s to Madison?
This goes back 10 years when the F-35 was [first] being discussed. I was a member of the Fighter Wing and we recognized that this was going to be a very competitive process. We started an organization, the Badger Air Community Council, of business and civic leaders. The mission was to support the 115th Fighter Wing in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and give them the advocacy they needed. Over the years BACC formed a very strong relationship with the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. We really became a strong team officially representing the Fighter Wing when the Air Force began [its] objective F-35 basing selection process.
What went into making a successful case to locate the jets here?
We were confident the Fighter Wing in round one would score very high. We wanted to make sure subjectively that they had the support. That support really came from coordinating the efforts of our elected officials, congressional delegation and business leaders, but most importantly educating the local community on the value of the 115th Fighter Wing. The value of the Fighter Wing is not just what people see with F-16s deploying overseas to fight different wars. It’s that every single day they are in our communities, cities and state [operating] different missions. One example is that the Fighter Wing provides all the fire crash and rescue services to Dane County Regional Airport. It is a $10 million annual cost savings for the airport. The other part is … the economic impact. I don’t know how many times I’ve been speaking with elected officials and said, you know, the Fighter Wing employs 1,200 men and women. Nearly 500 of them are full-time employees and 700 of them are traditional guardsmen. Payroll is $62 million annually [and the total] economic impact into this region is $100 million.
Four other bases were finalists. How intense was the competition?
It was extremely competitive to a point of almost being unnerving. All along our strategy was to keep this process fair and make sure that the Air Force process stayed objective. The best way to do that was to engage with our congressional delegation. The chamber organized several visits to Washington, D.C. It was very powerful for elected officials to hear from our business leaders and other organizations on why they should support the Fighter Wing. That message carried a lot of weight. Rarely is there an issue that you get 100 percent bipartisan support for, but all of our elected officials, U.S. senators and congressmen supported this initiative.
What does it mean for the future of Truax to get the F-35s?
I always want to be thinking 10, 20, 30 years out. The 115th Fighter Wing currently has F-16 Block 30s. That’s a 1987 aircraft and extremely well maintained. But it’s a quantum leap from the F-16 to the F-35. The aircraft the Fighter Wing has the oldest F-16s in the Air Force inventory, so it would be reasonable to assume that those would be the first aircraft to be phased out. If there’s no replacement aircraft for the Fighter Wing, then the Fighter Wing is at risk.
So your job isn’t done yet?
We’re still a year or two off from a final record of decisions [following an environmental impact study]. Until that final decision is made, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to strategically position the Fighter Wing for success.
Jessica Arp is assistant news director and chief political reporter for WISC-TV.