SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Air Force says it carefully sorted through 83 military bases around the country before deciding where to assign a coveted prize, the first Air National Guard squadron of F-35s, the next fighter jet in America’s arsenal.
In the end, it picked Vermont for the honor, home state of one of the National Guard’s most powerful political allies in Washington, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
But state pride in the award to the “Green Mountain Boys,’’ as the Vermont Air National Guard calls itself, has been clouded by the Air Force’s failure to fully take into account the thunderous noise the F-35s would generate in densely populated communities around its base at Burlington International Airport.
That failure and other flaws in its selection process are raising questions about whether the Air Force deliberately sought to reward a key friend in Congress with a squadron of advanced fighter jets for his state, and whether residents near the airfield might fall victim to Washington’s system of political spoils.
Projected sound levels around the airport are so high with the F-35s that local officials predict several thousand nearby homes would fall within a zone designated “incompatible for residential use,’’ negatively affecting the lives and property values of as many as 7,000 citizens.
A Globe examination of records, and interviews with Pentagon officials directly involved with the review, show the Air Force — in select-ing Vermont over competing locations — relied on inaccurate, excessively low estimates of the impact of the jet blast on the local population.
One of the Pentagon officials said in an interview that the lengthy base-selection process was deliberately “fudged’’ by military brass so that Leahy’s home state would win.
“Unfortunately Burlington was selected even before the scoring process began,” said the official, who asked that he not to be identified for fear of reprisals from his superiors. “I wish it wasn’t true, but unfortunately that is the way it is. The numbers were fudged for Burlington to come out on top. If the scoring had been done correctly Burlington would not have been rated higher.”
Leahy, in an e-mailed statement, reiterated his support for the planes but did not respond to allegations of political influence. The Air Force denied the fix was in for Vermont, even though it now says it is reassessing residential impacts and other factors using updated information — a review that could end in a reversal of its preliminary decision.
Pentagon officials said the first set of sound projections, provided by Burlington International Airport and Vermont National Guard in 2008 to the Federal Aviation Administration, caused the Air Force to underestimate the number of homes that would be affected by replacing the Vermont Guard’s current squadron of F-16s with up to 24 of the more sophisticated, but louder, F-35s.
Updated sound estimates — showing a much wider geographical impact in the vicinity of the airport — were produced by an Air Force survey team that visited the base and surrounding communities in 2011. But the Air Force did not revise its initial assessment of the Vermont base to reflect those new estimates, continuing instead to rely on the older data as the basis of its decision in 2012 to send the jets to Vermont.
The Pentagon officials said the Air Force made other errors in its initial review. It didn’t take proper account of the distance to the nearest weapons depot, in Fort Drum, N.Y., which would require trucking missiles and other arms 200 miles to South Burlington. And the Vermont base wasn’t marked down for being distant from the coast, which means Vermont Air Guard pilots would be required to streak across hundreds of miles of US soil before engaging threats to US airspace.
Judging strictly by the Air Force’s environmental and operational criteria, there were more attractive bases in South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama, the Pentagon officials said.
“It would be more costly to do these missions at Burlington,” one of the officials said. “They came up with this scoring model to be independent and stand up to scrutiny. But political promises were made.”
The Air Force was expected to finalize its selection of Vermont later this year, which could clear the way for preparations to begin for jets’ arrival in Vermont. The earliest the squadron could be flying would be late 2015.
Air Force officials insist its selection of Vermont was based on objective criteria and that there was no intent to reward Leahy with a squadron of state-of-the-art jet fighters. Continued...