Beaufort will be flying high today, as Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort ceremonially assumes its new role in the future of military flight.
A public celebration this evening downtown will welcome the first Marines to arrive in connection with the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
Earlier in the day, members of the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT)-501 will officially plant their command's flag at the air station in a private ceremony.
The ceremony is in order, but the change will not come quickly. The full scope of what is to come at the Beaufort air station will take another 15 years to unfold.
But as of now, members of the first training squadron are moving to town and the first two fighter jets are to arrive this month. The entire 180-member training squadron should be here by next spring, moving north from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where they have for two years laid the groundwork for this historic shift in aircraft.
Beaufort will be the only location where the Marine Corps will train pilots for the new fighter jets, which by 2030 will replace the F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier II and EA-6B Prowler.
Beaufort is to become home to at least two training squadrons and two operational squadrons.
Local and state government, business and civic leaders lobbied hard for the air station to get this assignment. It is pivotal to the local economy and true to Beaufort's history. Tonight's celebration is to welcome the new mission, new Marine families and new sense of stability.
Col. Peter Buck, commanding officer at the air station, stated in a news release: "I am equally proud to be a member of this incredible community. We have a strong relationship with Beaufort and the surrounding communities that has existed for over 71 years. From our roots of training for anti-submarine patrols during World War II to now as we welcome this squadron that's responsible for flying the nation's fifth-generation, dominant aircraft, we're fortunate to have the support of what we consider to be one of the most military-friendly communities in the nation."
To get ready for this day, nearly $260 million in construction projects have been completed or started at the air station, with another $300 million worth of construction planned. Already in place is one of two new hangars, and a 103,000-square-foot training center where all academic and simulator training will take place. The stealthy Marine Corps version of the F-35 features short takeoff and vertical landing ability. Beaufort could eventually become home to as many as 88 of the new jets.
The Marine Corps sees today's ceremonies as a homecoming for a squadron that assumes the lineage of the air station's VMFA-451 "Warlords," which saw action during World War II and Operation Desert Storm. The squadron was decommissioned in 1997 and reactivated as VMFAT-501 in 2010.
Beaufort sees this day as a time to celebrate. The public is invited to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park from 6 to 9 p.m. Games and entertainment for the whole family are planned, as well as music by the Parris Island Marine Band, and a patriotic ceremony capped by fireworks over the Beaufort River.
The free event is sponsored by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Military Enhancement Committee, the Military Affairs Committee and the city of Beaufort.