A plan to close one of the Coast Guard stations that provides helicopter search-and-rescue services in Beaufort County and surrounding areas has been delayed.
The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, postponed the Nov. 30 closing of Air Facility Charleston station until Dec. 15.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, R-S.C., said in a news release Friday the delay would give them time to find money to keep the station open permanently. Congress returns to session Nov. 10.
Paul Field, retired chief of Fripp Island Sea Search & Rescue, has argued that closing the station could add time to lifesaving operations for stranded boaters and swimmers because there would be fewer Coast Guard helicopters to serve the area.
He also is concerned a reduction would affect Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, as pilots begin to train with the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters stationed there.
Field said the time it takes for a helicopter to arrive could be the difference in saving a pilot in a crash. Training newer pilots or ones unfamiliar with the area increases that risk, he said.
"I hope they consider the F-35B when they make their decision," he said.
MCAS Beaufort once had its own search-and-rescue helicopter service, called Angel One, but the Marine Corps cut it in 2005. Attempts Friday to reach officials at Marine Corps Installations East and Marine Corps Headquarters for comment were unsuccessful.
Beaufort Military Enhancement Committee chairman Jim Wegman said the committee was monitoring the situation.
"The MEC is always concerned with any situation that may impact the ability of our bases to carry out their assigned operations and missions and we will continue to monitor the situation," Wegman said.
Located on Johns Island, Air Facility Charleston houses one of the five search-and-rescue helicopters assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Savannah. The Charleston facility and one in Newport, Ore., were to be closed because of cuts necessitated by sequestration.
On Tuesday, members of Oregon's congressional delegation also announced that the Newport air station's closure would be delayed until Dec. 15.
If the closing takes place, the helicopter stationed on Johns Island would go to the Savannah station temporarily but eventually be reassigned, and the Savannah station would also lose one of its four helicopters. That would mean at any one time, just one helicopter would be in the air to patrol hundreds of miles, from the North Carolina state line to Melbourne Beach, Fla. The other helicopters would be kept on standby and activated for search-and-rescue operations.
In Friday's release, Sen. Graham said the closest Coast Guard helicopter to Charleston would be 80 miles away. The time it takes to cover the longer distance could become the difference between life and death in a rescue situation, he said.
Field said a petition protesting the closure of the Coast Guard station would start next month.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
Related content:Closure of Charleston Coast Guard facility concerns Beaufort County officials, Oct. 13, 2014