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Air Show Returns With F-35 to Barnes Air National Guard Base

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The F-35 stole the show.

“That’s why I’m here,” said Leslie Jordan, of Chicopee, while photographing the country’s newest fighter jet at the Westfield International Air Show on Sunday.

Last month, the Pentagon announced the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes will get 18 of the F-35A Lightning fighter jets starting in late 2025 or early 2026 to replace the aging F-15 Eagles flown here since 2007. Officials celebrated the decision, saying it guarantees the future of the Westfield base for 40 years.

“They are awesome, the best fighter in the world. I was thrilled to hear it was coming here,” said Jordan, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives near Westover Air Reserve Base so he expects to see the new jets flying over his house on occasion.

While the show – the first of its kind since 2017 – did not feature some of the high-profile acts of the past it had plenty to make crowds happy, including the 104th’s own F-15 demonstration team and the F-35 Demonstration Team from the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base. The finale showed the F-35 flying with a World War II-era P-51 Mustang, which was the state-of-the-art fighter at the time, said Maj. Anthony Mutti, an inspector general for the 104th.

“We have had a lot of positive feedback on social media,” he said.

As a F-35 roared through the sky, Mutti wanted to put some concerns at ease explaining what people heard at the air show is not what they will hear every day. The typical takeoff of the one-engine jet is quieter when it is not being used to thrill crowds. Sound studies are still being done, but he said it may be a little quieter than the current F-15s people are used to hearing.

In between demonstrations people gathered around the F-35 parked on the tarmac to check out the star of the show. Crews from the Vermont National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing based in Burlington answered questions about the jet they have been flying for several years.

Capt. Alex Nielsen, of Easthampton, allowed small groups of people to duck under the rope that kept crowds too close to the jet, and showed them some features of the new jet.

Nielson, now a pilot with the 158th, started his military career as a mechanic at the 104th and later became an F-15 pilot in Westfield. He’s been flying the F-35s with the Vermont National Guard for a little over a year.

When the news that the F-35s were coming to Westfield hit, Nielson said he was thrilled since that means the two units can train and deploy together.

“I will say the F-15 is my first love but this one is a lot easier to fly,” he said.

Leading small groups beyond the rope so they could get a close look at the jet, Nielson asked them not to stray too far and not to touch the plane because the oil on their hands will impact the sophisticated paint that makes it hard to detect on radar.

“It is not invisible. It is designed to delay detection as long as possible,” he said about the design of the jet.

He pointed to nearly invisible cameras on the jet. Those images are transmitted to the pilot’s helmet allowing them to see a full 360 degrees around the plane, which Neilson said is especially useful at night and replaces the need for night vision goggles.

The plane is operated with 16 different buttons on the stick and throttle. Every time there are systems upgrades those functions change so pilots have to learn them all other again – similar and just as frustrating as receiving upgrades on a smartphone, he said.

Nielson talked about the capability of the single engine and ducked underneath to show people the two (empty) weapon bays.

“I’m excited about it. I’ve lived around here all my life,” said Adam Spath, who now lives in Holyoke, a few miles from the base.

“I’ll admit I’m sad to see the F-15s go,” Spath said as he looked at the line-up of the fighter jets which had flown out of Barnes. First on the tarmac was the A-10, which the Airlift Wing flew for nearly 30 years, followed by the F-15 and now the F-35.

Casey Waldo, of Westfield, said he doesn’t see a downside to Barnes getting a new jet, especially after learning more about the plane from the tour.

“It seems like a cool thing going from the F-15 to the F-35 with newer technology,” he said. “It seems like a lot safer plane.”

Roslyn Scheid drove about an hour from West Hartford to attend the Air Show, saying multiple family members including two brothers and two nephews are all members of the military.

She said she believes the sophisticated technology on the plane can serve as a deterrent to war and will make the country safer.

“My brothers say the best defense is a strong offense and this is as strong an offense as you are going to get,” she said.


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