Marine Corps Cpl. Travis Williams put his experience in the flight simulator for the F-35 Lightning II plainly: "It was like nothing I've ever experienced before."
Williams, part of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's public affairs office, was on hand for a demonstration Friday by Lockheed Martin for local reporters. The contractor unveiled a cockpit simulator of the military's fifth-generation fighter jets.
"It was pretty awesome," Williams said. "It made me want to be a pilot."
Led by Stormy Boudreaux, an Air Force veteran and systems engineer for Lockheed Martin, the demonstration featured a simulator built with such accuracy that the ejection seat in it was once used in a rocket-sled ejection test. Pilots and base leaders were to use the simulator in a separate demonstration later Friday.
The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, will eventually replace all of the F-18 Hornets now flown at MCAS Beaufort.
Preparations necessary for the new fighter jets' delivery next summer are nearing completion. The pilot training center, five hangars and five landing pads are all expected to be finished by the end of this summer, air station program manager Troy Ward said.
Ward, who leads the preparations, said each hangar cost about $38 million to build.
"The cost is significant because of the age of the base," he said. "We're replacing hangars built in the 1950s."
Capt. Jordan Cochran, base public affairs officer, said the new jets, which are being stored at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, are expected to be delivered next summer.
Beaufort will be the home of three combat squadrons and two training squadrons of the F-35B, a variant of the jet meant for use on the Marine Corps' amphibious assault ships. It is capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
Boudreaux and fellow Lockheed Martin representative Kyle McGehee are among 12 groups that have crisscrossed the country demonstrating the flight simulator to the military, parts suppliers and legislators.
"We affect a lot of jobs in the country and outside of it," McGehee said. "We have over 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. We can show people the aircraft and show them video that the plane is actually flying."
Nine other countries have contributed to the development of the F-35s, a family of multi-role fighter jets meant to incorporate stealth technology and phase out aging fighters like the F-18s. McGehee said they have traveled to Australia and Canada to demonstrate the simulator and are going to Norway and Italy soon.
Boudreaux, a retired Air Force pilot who flew SR-71 Blackbirds and U-2 spy planes, compared the new jet to the F-4 Phantom he flew during the Vietnam War.
"Instead of flying low to the ground to escape radar detection and sweating that I might hit a mountain, I can take the F-35 up above 30,000 feet and be completely invisible to radar and surface-to-air missiles," he said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.