It was an ordinary flight check in preparation for an extraordinary flight.
Before climbing into the cockpit Wednesday of one of four F-18 Hornets tasked with escorting the first F-35B from defense contractor Lockheed Martin's testing grounds in Fort Worth, Texas, to its new home at Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida, Marine Col. Michael Cederholm gave the new jet a "fighter pilot look-over."
To say he was impressed would be an understatement.
"I've been a pilot for 18 years ... so I have a high expectation for the jets that I fly and how they support Marines on the ground," said Cederholm, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 31 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. "I was awestruck by this plane .. and it hit me, as I was flying, the historical significance of this flight, not only for the Marine Corps but also for the country."
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Two F-35Bs -- the version of the new Joint Strike Fighter designed specifically for the Corps -- arrived this week at the Florida base where they will be used by Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 for pilot and maintenance training.
VMFAT-501, like the F-18 squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, are part of MAG 31 and report to Cederholm.
Excitement over the new jet wasn't limited to the pilots flying alongside it or the Marine pilot at the F-35's controls.
Cederholm said hundreds were waiting on the ground to welcome the jet to its new home.
"Our arrival into Eglin was emotional," he said. "There were hundreds of people waiting to see us land. As a pilot, to pull up alongside the JSF once we touched down, I couldn't help but think what a thoroughbred this jet is. I'm humbled to be the commanding officer of the air group under which VMFAT-501 falls and to be entrusted with the first Marine Corps Joint Strike Fighters."
The F-35B will replace all of the F-18s now flown at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Construction began in September on a new training and flight simulator facility, which marked the beginning of a $351.8 million makeover the air station must undergo prior to the jet's expected arrival in 2013 or 2014.
Cederholm said the jet's arrival in Florida was an important milestone for the Corps, the country and the Beaufort area.
"This is not just about a jet," he said. "This is a paradigm shift that only makes the Marine Corps, and the United States, stronger. This is a big step, and one that brings us closer to receiving the jet in Beaufort."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/OnBaseBeaufort.