Right now, F-16 fighter jets fully armed for combat, stand ready to launch from a military base in Wisconsin.
The jets, stationed with the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, have been on this alert mission since the day after the terror attacks on 9/11.
“We're one of the sites that have fighters on status, 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” said Lt. Colonel Charlie Merkel. “We're available to get airborne at a moment's notice if there's a threat either to one of our cities or if it's something coming over the North Pole that we need to defend against.”
TODAY'S TMJ4 obtained rare access to the base at Truax Field, which shares space with the Dane County Regional Airport. People in the Madison area are used to seeing fighters in the skies. They take off on training flights twice a day. Still, Merkel thinks the Unit should talk more about its mission.
“We want people to be proud of what we do,” Merkel told TODAY’S TMJ4’s Vince Vitrano. “We want people to know what we do. I think for years we were kind of a well kept secret.”
The base is now positioned to gain national prominence in the next several years. In December, Gov. Scott Walker announced it was selected by the Air Force to be among the first in the nation to get the next generation fighter jet, the F-35.
“Getting that airplane puts us on the map for the next 50 years here in Madison,” Merkel said. “We're excited to be on the leading edge of that and to be selected for it.”
It will mean big changes for the airmen and women on base. Sr. Master Sergeant Scott Ebert explained, “It’s a ton of new stuff to learn, but everybody is super excited. It's a 5th generation aircraft and it's going to really solidify a spot for the 115th fighter wing to continue its journey down into the future.”
Officials estimate the change will create an estimated 20-million dollars in construction work on base, most of it contracted out to local companies.
The decision to put the 115th at the front of the line for the new aircraft also reflects well on Wisconsin. Sr. Airman Troy Kiel, of Milwaukee says it’s a big deal to this proud Unit.
“We're all Wisconsin proud. You can see on the tail flashes of most these jets we have Wisconsin nice and bold up there. It's a nice, close-knit Wisconsin family,” Kiel said.
Getting the F-35 is not yet a done deal for the 115th. An environmental impact study is still pending. Congress is expected to give final approval next fall. The new aircraft would be on base by 2023.