The sight of it is daunting.
The Navy's preliminary draft of a report detailing ways 13 squadrons of new Joint Strike Fighter jet squadrons might be distributed between Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is nearly two inches thick and more than 500 pages long.
The report examines the effect of one "preferred" and three other options would have on noise, safety, airfield operations, traffic and the economy near the two bases. The report recommends MCAS Beaufort receive two pilot training squadrons and three active-duty squadrons.
What follows is an examination of key questions raised and answered by the report.
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If no F-35s are stationed at MCAS Beaufort, what would that mean for the station's future, and how likely is such an outcome?: The Marine Corps' short take-off, vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35B, will replace by 2023 all of the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the air station.
If no Joint Strike Fighter squadrons are assigned to MCAS Beaufort, the base's future is bleak, said Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"The base may continue to operate as they phase out the F-18 over the next 10 years or so, but the F-35 is the future," Ungaro said. "The F-35 is it. It's this or nothing."
However, this seems unlikely. All four alternatives in the draft assign at least some of the fighters to the air station, and although the report includes a fifth, "no action" alternative to provide baseline comparisons, the report deems this option incompatible with objectives of the Department of Defense and Congress.
Will there be more or fewer flights out of MCAS Beaufort under the preferred option?: Flights out of MCAS Beaufort will increase if the preferred option is selected. The report said the annual number of takeoffs and landings at the air station would nearly double, from 55,000 to 99,880,
Maj. Scott Schoeman, a member of the Corps' EIS basing team from Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia, said the spike would be attributed to the base housing two pilot training squadrons, which fly more often than operational squadrons.
How much more "sound of freedom" will the F-35s entail, compared to the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the air station?: According to the report, increased flights at the air station will expose 8,725 residents living in 2,371 homes near the base to noise levels greater than 65 decibels. More than 7,170 residents living in 1,867 homes near the base currently are exposed to noise levels higher than 65 decibels, the report said.
However, Lockheed Martin, which is building the $90 million jets, has yet to do extensive noise testing on the jet.
Fred Pierson, a Navy noise expert, said jet noise depend largely on how the jet is being flown. It is designed to fly at high altitudes, which might mitigate noise, even if the jets' single engines are measurably louder than the Hornets' twin engines, the report suggests.
Will the F-35B's arrival require changes to land-use patterns around the air station?: None is expected under the preferred alternative, according to the report.
Will the likelihood of a crash increase or decrease if F-35s are stationed here?: Though the number of daily flights at the base would increase, the report said the chances of an air station F-35 crashing will remain unchanged.
The report said the "mishap rate" of the F-35 will be similar to the F-18. According to the Naval Safety Center, the Marine Corps F-18 has been involved in 2.98 crashes involving fatalities or $2 million in property damage for every 100,000 flight hours from 2001 to 2009.
The annual mishap rate at MCAS Beaufort is .01, according to the report.
All of the alternatives described in the environmental impact statement entail some new construction at the air station. What is the expected environmental impact of this construction?: According to the report, between 78 and 116 acres of land near the air station would be disturbed to make way for new hangars, flight simulators, vertical landing pads and other new buildings needed to house the new fighter jets.
The report said most of the construction would occur on land already cleared and is not expected to threaten nearby wildlife or migratory birds.
What is the expected economic impact of this construction?: According to the report, to prepare for the arrival the new jet, the base would need $351.8 million in infrastructure improvements in the next five years, including a pilot-training center, new hangars and flight simulators. The base also will need to build special pads to accommodate the jets' vertical landing and take-off capabilities.
Expected to begin late this year or early 2011, the construction work would create nearly 4,400 temporary construction jobs over five years, the report said. During the peak of the construction, 1,345 temporary construction jobs would be created, which would result in $57.7 million in labor income. The work also is expected to generate at least $30 million in taxes to state and local governments over five years.
Is automobile traffic near the air station expected to increase or decrease as a result of the preferred option? About 580 fewer vehicles will pass through the gates of MCAS Beaufort every day, according to the report. The decrease in daily traffic is attributed to the decrease in permanent military personnel stationed at the base under the Navy's preferred option. About 290 fewer Marines will be stationed at MCAS Beaufort under that alternative, the report said.
The report also said construction at the base could cause temporary traffic delays at the air station's main gate on U.S. 21.
Will there be more or fewer military personnel stationed at MCAS Beaufort under the preferred option? MCAS Beaufort would be home to 294 fewer Marines -- 92 fewer officers and 202 fewer enlisted Marines. This 6 percent reduction in the air station's workforce would result in the loss of $12.7 million in annual payroll income, the report said.
The report said those job losses probably would be offset by construction jobs, civilian contractor jobs and student pilots training and living in Beaufort for eight to 12 months.
Will there be more or fewer civilian contractors stationed at MCAS Beaufort under the preferred option? The report does not predict how the arrival of Joint Strike Fighter squadrons would affect the air station's 580 civilian workers.
According to the report, "changes in civilian and contractor personnel associated with the introduction of the F-35B are anticipated under this alternative; however, the number of these non-military personnel is continually changing as the aircraft and its systems evolve."
Will the base's local economic impact increase or decrease under the preferred option?: The report does not address the overall economic impact of the base. The report only contains statistics associated with increases or decreases in full-time military personnel and the jobs and taxes created by military construction. The economic impact associated with changes in civilian contractor positions, as well as that of student pilots training at the base were not included in this report.
What do the other three alternatives for Beaufort entail?:
What is the likelihood one of these other three alternatives will eventually will be adopted?: Until a final decision is rendered by Marine Corps and Navy officials later this year, anything is possible, said Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, air station spokesman.
"We really won't know anything until December," McMeen said. "Once this process is over, it's really a waiting game until the Secretary of the Navy makes his decision."
The preferred alternative seems to have the greatest noise impact of the four options presented and, with the exception of alternative 2, the largest reduction in the air station's military workforce. Are the groups who have come out in favor of the having the F-35s here -- the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and Beaufort City Council, for example -- content with the preferred alternative, or will they lobby for a better deal?: Ungaro said local leaders consider the preferred alternative to be the best fit for the base and Beaufort and likely wouldn't lobby for one of the other three options.
"The pilot training squadrons are the piece that really make this interesting," Ungaro said. "We feel that they will come with an economic development opportunity. Those squadrons would really help make this base special."
What comes next in the Pentagon's decision-making process?: Once the public comment period on the first draft of the report ends July 12, the Navy and Marine Corps will begin work on the final draft, which is expected to be published in the Federal Register in November. A final decision on where the squadrons will be placed is expected in December.