Luke Air Force Base has landed the coveted mission of training pilots for the next generation F-35 fighter jets.
Luke was on the Defense Department’s short list, competing with Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, for the F-35. Actually, Luke was shooting for becoming a secondary site for the F-35s that exceed the number of jets already allotted to Eglin.
Luke, which annually pumps $2.17 billion into the Arizona economy, is considered recession-proof and a lifeline for the West Valley. It has been training U.S. fighter pilots since March 1941.
Yet, Luke’s unparalleled record of success — in preserving the nation’s security and enhancing Arizona’s economy — has faced challenges. Most recently, it weathered an encroachment issue that threatened its viability and its very existence.
Luke’s 8,000 active-duty personnel and their 6,700 family members are an important part of the West Valley, plus some 120,000 military retirees in the area who rely on various services provided at Luke. Their value to the area is not lost on Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs.
“We know many of them as residents, neighbors, volunteers and active members in our community, schools and churches,” she says. “Luke personnel and their families buy homes, cars and other big-tickets items, as well as shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants.”
F-35 JetIn stressing Luke’s importance to the West Valley, Scruggs adds, “The new F-35 mission will bring with it decades of sustainable economic benefits and an immediate infusion of $150 million in construction-related projects. In addition, the F-35 will generate additional employment, wages, consumer spending and investments that our region and state desperately need.”
Likewise, Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett recognizes the importance of Luke to the West Valley and the importance of the F-35 to Luke. Barrett and Scruggs were among several local elected officials who made trips to Washington, D.C. to plead Luke’s case with military officials.
Before the announcement that the F-35 training center had been awarded to Luke, Barrett was blunt about the base’s future without it.
“The Air Force doesn’t like me saying this,” Barrett says, “but I believe if we don’t acquire the F-35 for Luke Air Force Base, I believe they will close Luke. In five to eight years, the F-16 is gone. So, if we don’t have the F-35, Luke will follow. There is no reason to keep a base as large as Luke and maintain it if it doesn’t continue to be the world’s largest fighter training base — not just in the U.S., the world’s largest.”
Jack Lunsford, president and CEO of WESTMARC, says his organization strongly supports Luke and for several years has worked to preserve its mission. Lunsford sees Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, as a key advocate for Luke and other military bases throughout the state.
On the issue of residential encroachment, Lunsford says, “We’ve been an advocate of protecting the base from encroachment for many years.”
James “Rusty” Mitchell, director of the Luke Community Initiatives Team, shies away from the term “encroachment.” Mitchell, who retired from the Air Force in 1998 as a lieutenant colonel, prefers “managed growth.” A representative of the Community Initiatives Team attends various city council meetings seeking win-win solutions.
“It’s more a process of managing development in the area so we can continue our flying mission and the cities can continue to be economically viable,” Mitchell says.
Under the terms of a 2004 Arizona law, and accepted earlier this year by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, local governmental entities are required to ensure adequate buffer zones around the state’s military bases.
Steve Yamamori, executive director/CEO of Fighter Country Partnership, a support group for programs and services at Luke, says the F-35 means “sustainability for Luke Air Force Base for the next 50 years — and that’s worth trillions of dollars.”