Residents offer input on MCAS Beaufort new fighter squadron

BEAUFORT -- Paul and Diana Earnst haven't complained about the jet noise across the river from their Lady's Island home -- yet.

The couple were among dozens of people who crowded around posters and prodded experts for information on the Joint Strike Fighter at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on Tuesday at the Holiday Inn on Boundary Street.

"I'm not sure that this new plane isn't going to be louder than what we have now," Paul Earnst said. "We're not against the air station at all, but it seems like all of the business leaders who want this plane here want it for economic reasons."

The couple live on West River Drive, directly across from MCAS Beaufort.

"We just don't want it to ruin what we have," Diane Earnst said. "If we get those pilot training squadrons, those planes are going to be flying seven days a week. We've never complained about the noise at the air station, but we might now."

More than 30 noise, air-quality and environmental experts were on hand Tuesday to discuss residents' concerns about the Joint Strike Fighter's proposed arrival in Beaufort.

Results from noise tests done in October on the F-35B -- the short take-off, vertical-landing version of the jet being designed by defense contractor Lockheed Martin specifically for the Marine Corps -- have yet to be released, according to a company spokesman. The program's executive director said earlier this month the jet would not be louder than the F-18 Hornets flown at the air station.

The Defense Department expects to divide 13 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina. The units include 10 operational squadrons, two pilot training squadrons and one reserve squadron.

The jet has garnered support of leaders at all levels of government, although the Beaufort City Council chose not to pass a formal resolution of support for the Joint Strike Fighter when it met on Tuesday.

The Joint Strike Fighter is the first fighter jet purchased by the Marine Corps in more than a decade and will replace all of the F-18s being used by the Navy and Marine Corps, the average age of which is about 18 years.