After 17 years away from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the Warlords have come home.
In a ceremony Friday, officials from the air station and Beaufort County welcomed personnel from VMFAT-501, the F-35B training squadron that will begin flying at the air station in October.
Known as the Warlords, VMFAT-501 is a reactivated version of VMFA-451, an attack squadron stationed at MCAS Beaufort from 1963 until its deactivation in 1997. The squadron was reactivated under the VMFAT-501 name in 2010 to begin F-35B training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said Friday's ceremony was "welcoming back an old friend." A Beaufort County native, Sommerville reminisced in his remarks to the audience about the squadron flying F-4 Phantoms over Beaufort.
"The old joke was that you could never hang anything on the wall," he said. "The pilots liked to hit the afterburner flying over town."
A communitywide celebration at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort Friday drew between 2,500 and 3,000 people, said Jaime Dailey-Vergara, spokeswoman for the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce.
"The crowd was a great testament to the support our community has for our military families," she said.
About half of the 300 Marines in the unit were on hand for the welcoming ceremony, while the other half will maintain operations in Florida, said Lt. Col. Joseph Bachmann, the squadron's commanding officer.
Many of them moved to the area in the last two weeks as the school year in Florida ended, including Bachmann and his family. The remaining squadron members will move to Beaufort as training winds down in Florida and ramps up at the air station, a process that will run through next July, Bachmann said.
While many members of the new squadron were present, the F-35Bs haven't yet arrived. Bachmann said the first Joint Strike Fighter is expected to be delivered sometime next week.
The ceremony was in a hangar that VMFAT-501 will use for F-35B maintenance.
Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, of which the air station is a part, presented Bachmann with an artist's rendering of the hangar as the ceremony ended.
Bachmann said after the ceremony that he and his squadron were excited to be back on a Marine base after spending the last four years at an Air Force installation. Asked about noise from the new jets, Bachmann said it would be comparable to the F-18s that now fly at MCAS Beaufort.
"It's no different than the noise from the current jets," he said. "It might be a different sound, but it's not a higher decibel. We plan on being good stewards of the community."
Sommerville said he didn't expect complaints about jet noise to rise after the F-35Bs begin flying.
"There's always going to be some noise, but there's no reason to think noise complaints will go up," he said. "We'll always deal with it, whatever it is."
Bachmann said he expects the squadron to have 25 jets at full strength. Two attack squadrons and one other training squadron will also call the air station home alongside VMFAT-501.
Hedelund said Friday he did not know the total number of F-35Bs to be stationed at MCAS Beaufort for all the squadrons. Col. William Lieblin, Marine Aircraft Group-31 commanding officer, said in March that more than 80 F-35Bs would eventually be at the base.
At one end of the hangar, Lockheed Martin representatives wheeled out an F-35B simulator for guests. Helped by a company representative, 10-year-old Seth Hale dropped bombs on a tank in the simulator, an experience he said was "pretty cool."
Lance Cpl. Kamran Rochon used the simulator while F-18 jets began flight operations at the nearby runway. His takeoff in the simulator coincided with one of the jets taking off in the distance.
"It was perfectly timed," he said. "I loved it."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.