Mike Pape was nervous. The administrator of the Idaho Transportation Department Division of Aeronautics attended a Feb. 19 press conference at the Boise Airport, where officials including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Director Bill Connors voiced concerns about the possibility of the U.S. Air Force pulling the Idaho Air National Guard out of Gowen Field. The Idaho Army National Guard would remain at the field, however.
"We could lose the entire [Air National] Guard unit here," Pape told Boise Weekly. "We need the Guard in Boise. It provides thousands of jobs."
According to the city of Boise, Gowen Field accounts for about $210 million a year pumped into the area economy. The Air Force is retiring its fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt jets next year, which would mean taking them out of Gowen Field. The problem is, Gowen doesn't yet have an aircraft to replace the outgoing fleet. Pape said the military is scaling back, "and now we have to stand in line like everybody else," referring to other Guard units in the country.
Gathered in the Boise Airport food court, Otter, Crapo, Risch, Labrador, Bieter and Connors discussed the retirement and the future of Idaho National Guard at Gowen. The Air Force has proposed moving the Idaho Air National Guard from Gowen Field to the Mountain Home Air Force Base—something all six leaders said they don't want to see happen.
The elected officials and a handful of business owners and community members met with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who flew to Boise from the Pentagon for two days of meetings prior to the press conference. Their goal was to show her how important the Gowen Field National Guard Base is to both Boise and to the safety of the United States.
"We are hopeful that the future of Gowen Field is a bright one," Bieter said, explaining that Gowen Field participated in a competitive process to receive the Air Force's next generation of aircraft—the F-35 air superiority fighter—and that Gowen ended up among the top three on that list.
While controversy has dogged the F-35 program for years—the jets make twice as much noise as the F-16 (pushing 105 decibels) and cost around $150 million each to produce—Boise was passed up in favor of Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. for housing the mission in 2012.
According to Col. Tim Marsano, public information officer for the Idaho National Guard, "of course there is a possibility," that F-35s could be stationed in Idaho, "but it would be impossible to know for sure. ... [A]s more come off the assembly line, they need more places to base them."
Still, Idaho officials, from the governor to Bieter and the state's congressional delegation, hold out hope that the high-tech jets will someday be assigned to the Gem State, specifically at Gowen. When that might happen is anybody's guess.
"The Air Force has put out its timeline," Risch said. "It's a timeline we don't agree with as a delegation, and we want to see it adjusted."
He explained that the Air Force plans to retire the A-10s around this time next year, but it may take anywhere from two to six years to receive the F-35s.
"It's the dovetailing of the retirement of the A-10 and the implementation of the F-35 that we think is not on the right time scale," he added.
Members of the delegation said they showed James the benefits of Boise as a location for a National Guard base. The infrastructure is already in place; the experience of the Guard here is strong; and combining the Guard with the Air Force base in Mountain Home may hurt recruitment, as many who live in Boise would not be willing to drive more than an hour to go to work.
Another perk: Boise doesn't have the same encroachment laws around the airport that other cities have, which is good news for planes as loud as the F-35.
"To me, one of the most important things about this visit is that she [James] has now been here on the ground in Idaho," Crapo said. "She sees the commitment we have, she sees the strength of Gowen Field."
After the press conference, Pape told BW he felt encouraged by what he heard from the congressmen.
"We're being a squeaky wheel," Pape said. "Sometimes Idaho gets forgotten about. We're reminding Washington D.C. what we have, which is good airspace and experience and the support from the community."