The West Valley’s dogged fight to keep Luke Air Force Base open for generations to come ended in victory Wednesday when the Department of Defense chose the Glendale facility as the home to the new pilot training center for the F-35 fighter jets.
And Jim Stark was among the thousands of community leaders, former members of the military and concerned citizens breathing a sigh of relief.
“It’s a cause for celebration,” said Stark, Sun City Home Owners Association president and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
“It makes you feel good, it makes you relax a bit,” Stark said of himself and other military veterans in the West Valley. “An Air Force base being near is ultimately important to me.”
The 71-year-old base was competing with bases in Tucson, New Mexico and Idaho for the F-35 mission.
“This is a great day for Luke,” said Brig. Gen. JD Harris, 56th Fighter Wing commander. “Our selection for F-35 training ensures the long-term viability of our mission of training the world’s greatest fighter pilots, which we’ve been doing at Luke for seven decades.”
Air Force officials said in a statement that Luke was chosen because of facility and ramp capacity, range access, weather, as well as capacity for future growth.
Gov. Jan Brewer said the base will initially receive three squadrons totaling 72 next-generation aircraft. The defense department’s announcement also allows for Luke to receive up to three additional squadrons of F-35s over time as F-16s are gradually retired from the Air Force, she said.
“Today’s announcement not only ensures Arizona will continue to play a leading role in our nation’s security and defense, it also helps assure the long-term viability of Luke AFB and its status as a critical driver of jobs and local economic development,” the governor said. “The base alone generates more than $2 billion in statewide economic impact every year, and its designation as a training center for the F-35 is expected to create more than $100 million in immediate federal investment.”
Leading the charge to bring the F-35s to the base was Luke Forward whose partners included officials from throughout the West Valley.
“The goal of our statewide initiative was to send a clear message to the decision makers in Washington, D.C., that Arizona strongly supports Luke Air Force Base continuing to serve as our nation’s premier fighter pilot training facility,” said Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs, co-chair of the Luke Forward campaign. “Arizona’s military industry is one of the largest industries in our state, and Luke serves as the anchor.”
Added Surprise Mayor Sharon Wolcott: “Knowing the future of Luke is secured for the foreseeable future is a huge win for Arizona and the West Valley. Hundreds if not thousands of Surprise residents signed on to the Luke Forward campaign.”
A veteran, Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett said, “Landing this agreement has been a top priority for me and our community. Congratulations to all of us.”
Pentagon officials say the F-35 is the most advanced aircraft being added to America’s military arsenal.
Glendale officials said Luke could receive up to $125 million in federal funds for construction-related projects and the F-35s could arrive as early as fall 2013.
The mission also would bring an estimated 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs and $17 million annually in local, state and federal tax revenues.