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Hundreds show up in Beaufort to talk with Navy, Marines about new fighter jet

Crystal Everson gets some assistance from Kyle McGehee, a cock pit demonstration team member, as she operates the F-35 Lightning II cockpit demonstrator at the Holiday Inn in Beaufort on Tuesday afternoon. The public could use the demonstrator as part  of an event to get comments from the public and answer any questions about the Marine Corps' plans to base new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Crystal Everson gets some assistance from Kyle McGehee, a cock pit demonstration team member, as she operates the F-35 Lightning II cockpit demonstrator at the Holiday Inn in Beaufort on Tuesday afternoon. The public could use the demonstrator as part of an event to get comments from the public and answer any questions about the Marine Corps' plans to base new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. JONATHAN DYER | The Beaufort Gazette

Some came to ask questions. Others came to make their opinions known in no uncertain terms.

More than 670 Beaufort-area residents filed into a conference room Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Beaufort to sound off on a Navy report released last month detailing how 13 new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons will be divided between Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point. Military experts were on hand to discuss the next-generation fighter jet's impact on noise and the Air Installation Compatible Use Zone, or AICUZ.

The report recommended MCAS Beaufort receive two pilot training squadrons and three active-duty squadrons. MCAS Cherry Point would receive eight active-duty squadrons.

The report included three other alternatives -- two assigning more planes and military personnel in Beaufort, another assigning fewer -- but all four plans would assign JSFs to Beaufort.

The Navy will make its final decision on where to place the new squadrons in December, according to Corps officials. The Joint Strike Fighter is expected to arrive in Beaufort in 2014 or 2015.

Mike Glaister of Lady's Island said he did not support the Navy's preferred alternative, which would increase annual takeoffs and landings at the base from 55,000 to 98,000 and expose 8,725 residents living in 2,731 homes near the base to noise levels higher than 65 decibels. More than 7,170 residents living in 1,867 homes near the base are currently exposed to noise levels higher than 65 decibles, the report said.

"My quality of life and the value of my property will be adversely affected by this," Glaister said. "It looks like everyone has made up their mind already, and this whole meeting is just for show."

Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton said concerns about jet noise from those who live near the base are understandable.

"No one is (insensitive about) those noise impacts," Newton said."Those are issues we can work to address, but it is essential that we show unified support for the deployment of these squadrons to Beaufort," Newton said. "The economic impact of the military's presence in Beaufort County, particularly in northern Beaufort Cannot, cannot be overstated."

Many questions remain about how the noise from the Marine Corps' variant of the JSF, known as the F-35B, will compare to the F-18 Hornet currently flown by air station pilots because extensive noise testing on the jet has yet to be done by Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor building the $90 million fighters.

Fred Pierson, a Navy noise expert, said jet noise depend largely on how the jet is being flown.

"It may be louder in some cases, and may be quieter in others," Pierson said. "It's a very high performance aircraft. It gets up off the ground and gets out of the area quicker (than other jets.) It's got the most powerful engine of any jet fighter ... (so) the higher it gets, the less impact it has on the ground and the community."

Lon Hoover of Burton said the sound of fighter jets is part of life in the Lowcountry.

"I've been in Beaufort since 1970, so I'm used to the noise," Hoover said. "If there is a jet flying overhead, you wait a few minutes and it's gone. I think there is a small contingent of people who still want Beaufort to be like it was in 1970."

In addition to hosting Tuesday's meeting in Beaufort and three meetings last week near MCAS Cherry Point, base officials will travel to Georgia on Thursday get comments and field questions from residents who live near Townsend Bombing Range, which is used by air station pilots.

MCAS Beaufort owns the 5,182-acre range in McIntosh County, Ga., and will hold the meeting in nearby Ludowici, Ga.

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