Beaufort got its first glimpse of the new Joint Strike Fighters in action Tuesday during an invitation-only showcase at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Two of the F-35B Lightning II jets that will be part of the training squadron moving to Beaufort next year flew over an audience gathered at a hangar at the air station.
"The local community seemed very excited about today's event," said Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, who commands the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, which includes the air station. "It's an exciting day to be here. This is Beaufort's introduction to the F-35B."
About 150 people attended the event. Many of them were local elected officials and contractors on the construction projects planned to prepare the base for the new jets. The air station will be the home to three combat squadrons and two training squadrons of the jets, which will replace the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the base.
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U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford called the event "an invigorating reminder of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's contribution to our nation's defense."
"They could have put those planes in a lot of different places, and they chose Beaufort," he said. "It's a reminder of some of the unique attributes that this region has from a lot of other regions in the country -- in terms of airspace, in terms of ranges -- and can't be replicated out West."
Two other jets were parked inside the hangar during the event. The four planes were part of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 that will move to Beaufort next summer from Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle.
The squadron's commanding officer, Lt. Col. David Berke, said the flight from Eglin to Beaufort took just 30 minutes in the F-35B.
"It's an awesome jet," he said. "It's very easy to fly, and it's a great design. I can't wait to come up to the air station. Many of the guys in the squadron are from MCAS Beaufort, so they are eager to come back here, too."
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said the event "symbolized a transformation for MCAS Beaufort" and would make the base a "player in aviation discussion."
"These planes will make the air station a much more integral part of the Marine air wings," he said.
The pilots did not demonstrate vertical landings or takeoffs at the event -- a key feature of the Marine Corps' version of the jet -- only flying over the showcase twice at its onset.
Keyserling said he had fielded calls and messages from skeptical residents about the possible noise from the event, but he found the new jets to be "less intrusive than the F-18s" -- jets the F-35 will replace at the air station -- during their fly-bys.
"I could barely hear them," he said. "The flyover noise was inconsequential when compared to the F-18 and what we're used to."
Col. Brian Murtha, the air station's commanding officer, said Sanford told him the jets weren't as loud as he expected them to be.
Murtha said any increases in noise levels would be tied to the number of jets in the aircraft patterns, which vary daily. Murtha added that the air station regularly sends out public advisories about operations and would continue to do so.
Sanford said he would listen to residents' concerns about the jets, "but I think what I've seen today is an overwhelming embrace of this new plane and the fact that it's going to be here."
Hedelund said an environmental impact study determined the noise from the F-35Bs was comparable to the F-18 Hornets currently operating at the base.
"Those concerns are based on old information," he said. "It's not unlike the concern over the MV-22 (Osprey) when it was unveiled. Humans tend to fear the unknown. As the community gets more exposure to the jets, they will become more accepting to them."
Hedelund added that he and the air station would make changes to accommodate residents, if they were necessary and didn't compromise operational safety.
Construction on a parking ramp and a hangar being built near the event buzzed during the showcase. Troy Ward, the program manager for the F-35 site activation task force, said the parking ramp would be completed in December and the hangar in early fall.
Ward said the hangar the event was held in would soon be torn down and replaced by another new hangar for the fighter jets.
F-35B unveiling at the air station:
Video of the F-35Bs' flyover at MCAS:
Video of the F-35B's first night vertical landing and short take-off:
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
- MCAS Beaufort to showcase Joint Strike Fighter next week, Aug. 13, 2013
- VIDEO: F-35B completes first vertical takeoff, May 22, 2013
- F-35 simulator brought to MCAS Beaufort in lead-up to jet's introduction, April 26, 2013
- VIDEO: F-35B flight simulator visits MCAS Beaufort, April 26, 2013
- Three F-35 fighter jets delivered as work at Marine Corps Air Station continues, May 15, 2012