Marine Corps seeking pilots for new fighter jets

The chance to become one of only six Marine Corps pilots to test fly the next-generation fighter jet has attracted interest from pilots at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

The Corps is accepting applications for six pilots to be the foundation of its Joint Strike Fighter training squadron, a unit tentatively to be located at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Several pilots from various squadrons at MCAS Beaufort have applied for the openings to pilot the F-35B Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, according to the air station's public affairs office.

The exact number of applications from pilots stationed at MCAS Beaufort will not be made available until after the Dec. 5 deadline, said Capt. Carl Redding, a spokesman at Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia.

The new training squadron will present the first opportunity for any of the Corps' pilots to fly the short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the jet being built specifically for the Corps by defense giant Lockheed Martin.

Opting into a three- or four-year commitment, pilots selected for the program can expect to begin training in Florida in the summer of 2010, according to a Marine Corps job posting.

Ideal candidates for the openings will be senior captains and majors who fly the AV-8B Harrier or the F-A/18 Hornet, the fighter jet flown by all squadrons at MCAS Beaufort.

Among other criteria, applicants must have no fewer than 500 flight hours and no more than 14 years of commissioned service.

The Corps has received 20 applications for the six openings so far, Redding said.

The jet ultimately will replace all the Hornets being used by the Navy and Marine Corps, the average age of which is about 18 years old, according to the Navy.

Though the specifics still are unknown, air station officials have said there is no doubt that MCAS Beaufort will host the F-35, which underwent its maiden test flight in June. The jet is expected to begin vertical take-offs and landings by early next year.

Expected to be the costliest arms program in U.S. history, it will cost about $300 billion to develop and buy about 2,440 planes, which include variants of the jet for the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy. The Navy and Marine Corps are scheduled to receive 680 jets.

The Marine Corps will begin receiving its variant of the jets in 2010 and is expected to have enough jets to conduct combat missions in 2012.