Luke Air Force Base & F-35 Pilot Training

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The U.S. Department of Defense has selected Luke Air Force Base to train pilots to fly the F-35 fighter jet. Find out what that means for the West Valley Air Force base and surrounding communities from Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs; James “Rusty” Mitchell, Director of the Luke AFB Community Initiatives Team; and Ron Sites of Fighter Country Partnership.

Ted Simons: Folks in the West Valley are celebrating a perfect landing of their own. Luke Air Force Base landed the lucrative contract for training F-35 pilots. Here to talk about what that means for Luke and surrounding communities are Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs; James "Rusty" Mitchell, director of the Luke Air Force Base community initiatives team; and and Ron Sites, executive director of fighter country partnership. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. Mayor, why was Luke selected? And what kind of campaigning did you do to get Luke selected?

Elaine Scruggs: It was selected truly because it's the very best place in the entire United States of America to train fighter jet pilots. We've been doing it for 60 years. But we had to prove ourselves over again. You have to prove it's the right place. That's where the campaign came in. The mayors of the West Valley cities and supervisor Max Wilson, who represents the West Valley cities, all joined together, put in a lot of money over a period of three years, hired some consultants to help us tell our message. There was a message in Washington, D.C., that was just wrong. We told our message of managed growth, how we want the F-35s here, how we want Luke here. Then we took it statewide, and 21,000 people joined our campaign and sent messages to the Pentagon saying, keep Luke here.

Ted Simons: Quickly, what was that message that was wrong? How did you correct it?

Elaine Scruggs: You know, Ted, the tremendous growth that's gone on in Maricopa County. That's what folks that go to the Pentagon, the military and Air Force personnel that go to the Pentagon and come back out here say: It didn't look like that when I was here. Look at these houses and rooftops. Now we can't do pilot training and so forth. We had to get the message across, no, you can. What we did -- and it's very important -- in the early 1990s, this started in the City of Glendale, we started to build a body of state legislation that continued for close to 20 years that protected the mission of Luke.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about Luke and changes that will need to be made to the base to accommodate the F-35s.

James "Rusty" Mitchell: Right out of the gate, it's about 100 to $110 million in construction contracts that will be let. They've actually already been drawn up. We're waiting for the Record of Decision. Those contracts will be let to different companies. A majority of that money goes to Arizona companies that will be able to do the construction on base.

Ted Simons: The mayor mentioned problems of encroachment and development, noise from the F-35s has been a major factor in discussions, especially folks there on the west side. Have you heard an F-35?

James "Rusty" Mitchell: I have, actually. Two years ago I was invited to listen to the F-35 and the traffic pattern. I've been around fighters for 35 years in my career. The F-35 was flying with the F-15, F-16, and F-18. If you closed your eyes, and I did, you can't tell the difference. They are all loud. You could not tell an appreciable difference. Two weeks ago we had an F-35 coming into Luke Air Force Base, unexpectedly came in. It landed, stayed about four days and left and continued on to Edwards Air Force Base. We didn't get one complaint from that aircraft. Came in mid-morning, left Sunday afternoon, we didn't get one phone call.

Ted Simons: How many planes will we see out at Luke and what's the timetable? What happened to the F-16s? Are the F-16s mothballed, yesterday's news?

Ron Sites: No, they won't be mothballed, they will be flying for quite some time. It's a good amount of planes flying in at Luke.

Ted Simons: As far as the training is concerned, does that differ from F-16 training to the point where folks away from the base are going, that didn't happen before?

Ron Sites: The aircraft is so advanced, as it's landing if it has a problem, it'll order a part before it touches down. Of course things will be different. But what you're going to have is the same high-quality individuals in the communities that maintain the F-16s. That viability of Luke Air Force Base is going to stay open for another 40 years, another 40 years of high-quality families in our community, good stuff.

Ted Simons: You mentioned in your statement, sustainable economic benefits to the region and to the state. Explain that, and explain to those who live in the area and those who don't why this is such a big deal.

Elaine Scruggs: Oh, it's tremendous. Luke is part of a total military system in the state of Arizona, but it's the key part of it. It's the main user of the Barry M. Goldwater range. That sustains the missions of other military airports. Altogether, the military would be the third highest employer in the state of Arizona, absolutely. And the impact from Luke by itself is over $2 billion a year. Think of it as another city. They have to buy services, hire personnel, they have to do everything any other big business does. They are great for the economy.

Ted Simons: Talk about the dynamic between the base and the surrounding communities.

James "Rusty" Mitchell: Thank you, I was hoping you would ask that question. Luke Air Force Base, as the mayor said, we've been out there six decades for the same mission, training America's fighter pilots. We're here because of weather, great infrastructure on the base and the Barry M. Goldwater Range. What made us stand out is the efforts of Mayor Scruggs and the people that live across the Valley showing their support for the enduring mission of Luke Air Force Base. If we hadn't had the leadership of Mayor Scruggs and the other mayors, we might have melted back into what the other bases are doing. It really made a huge difference. We are the envy of the Air Force on our community support.

Ted Simons: With an emphasis on partnership, talk to us about how important it is to partner with others.

Ron Sites: The collaboration is pretty much unparalleled in the country. It's because of our elected officials. The leadership of our elected officials, really, we took guidance from the community initiative team and our elected officials and worked with them. Again, that collaboration is just unparalleled in the country and the envy of a lot of military installations in the community and the country.

Ted Simons: There's been some concern about cuts which could impact what's going on out at Luke. The Arizona Republic said it may not be the best. I think it was called stagnant, dead capital, as opposed to the east side with Willy, the old Williams Air Force Base. Some folks will say this is federal money and the community is dependent on the federal government, and that's not necessarily healthy. How do you respond to that?

Elaine Scruggs: Luke itself has an impact in the state of over $2 billion a year. They need to go out and procure services and contracts. They create businesses and jobs and employment. They fill houses that are being built. So yes, they are government, but they act like a private industry in the way they operate. One thing I wanted to say that doesn't get brought up too much. That's how much they give back. I know this -- Rob doesn't exactly care about this, but the men and women at Luke Air Force Base volunteer over 100,000 hours a year in our communities. They are our neighbors. Their kids go to school with our kids and so forth. They are an absolutely vibrant part of our community. If we're going to have a military it's got to be somewhere, and this is the best place for it to be.

Ted Simons: Are you concerned at all about possible budget cuts at the end of the year -- that Congress can't get its act together?

James "Rusty" Mitchell: As an American citizen I'm concerned, but I think all Americans should be concerned about the budget cuts on the horizon, that the Department of Defense has to look at.

Ted Simons: Last word: Is the West Valley, the area around Luke, too dependent on Luke?

Ron Sites: I don't believe it's too dependent. Everybody works well together. It's a perfect environment.

Ted Simons: We'll stop right there, can't have any better than that. Thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

Elaine Scruggs: Thank you.

Elaine Scruggs:Mayor, Glendale; James "Rusty" Mitchell:Director, Luke AFB Community Initiatives Team; Ron Sites:Fighter Country Partnership;

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