Beaufort County got a look into its future last week when the next generation of U.S. Marine Corps fighter jets made a cameo appearance in the skies over Beaufort and a hangar down below.
Invited guests were wowed by the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at the showcase event at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. Two jets performed flyovers, and two were backdrops for a short ceremony on the ground.
Rather, the purpose of the event was not to answer all questions about the plane that will replace the F-18 Hornets at the air station. The F-35's well-documented and long-running technical setbacks and cost overruns were not mentioned. Reporters asked about potential changes in the noise level for residents of the county, and were told that the F-35B's noise level is comparable to the F-18.
The purpose of this event was to introduce the new fighter to one of its host communities. It's an indication that the fighter's arrival is imminent, and the air station's future is bright. Pilots stationed in Florida are learning to fly it and how to teach others to fly it. Two training squadrons are to move to Beaufort next summer. Three combat squadrons are to follow in coming years.
The reception Tuesday was warm and welcoming, as it should have been.
Local and state leaders lobbied hard for five squadrons to be assigned to the air station. As U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford pointed out, "They could have put those planes a lot of different places, and they chose Beaufort." He cited the advantages of air space and ranges that make the Beaufort air station vital to the Marine Corps mission.
As questions come up in the community about the F-35B's impact on noise, quality of life and real-estate values, we urge everyone to take an honest look at where we stand.
The bottom line is that it's a done deal. The jets are coming. And that is a good thing. It is crucial to Beaufort County's future because it makes the air station indispensable.
So, let's be realistic.
There is no Plan B for the F-35. Its three variants for use by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are the Department of Defense's only plan to replace today's aging fighter jets. Beaufort County had to catch that plane, or be left on an empty tarmac with weeds growing in the cracks.
An honest look at where we stand also forces us to accept that we have gotten this far without knowing how loud the F-35B will be. The Marine Corps says noise studies to date have not included the vertical takeoff and landings that are unique to the F-35B model.
The air station's commanding officer said any increase in noise would be tied to the number of jets flying around the air station, which would vary daily.
The Marine Corps has in place a system for warning the public about noisy training times, and taking noise complaints. It also promised to make changes to accommodate residents if they were necessary and did not compromise operational safety.
A Marine Corps officer said "humans tend to fear the unknown" and that as the community gets more exposure to the F-35B it will become more accepting of them. To that end, we urge the Corps to constantly update the public on all that is known about the F-35B and its impact on Beaufort County residents.