Old runway might hold solution to F-35 noise issue

Using an abandoned runway at McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Columbia as an auxiliary landing field could help quiet the roar of new fighters in the skies over Beaufort, local officials say.

During a meeting of the state's military commanders in Beaufort last month, Col. Ronald Williams, McEntire's installation commander, said his base would consider letting air station pilots use an old 4,500-foot concrete runway when the Joint Strike Fighter arrives in 2014 or 2015.

"Using the runway might help unload some of the sound impacts over Beaufort and would also provide the taxpayer a huge bang for their buck," Williams said Friday. "From our preliminary look at this idea, it seems like a win-win. We are certainly open to leveraging our base for the joint fighter."

The runway, about 25 miles southeast of Columbia, has been closed for several decades and would need $5 million to $10 million in improvements to accommodate the Marine Corps' version of the jet, which has vertical take-off and landing capabilities, said Capt. Gareth Fleischer, a civil engineer at McEntire.

The project would have to be funded by the Marine Corps or the Navy and approved by the Defense Department, Fleischer said.

The McEntire base in Eastover can be reached by air in 15 to 20 minutes from MCAS Beaufort, or about as long as it takes pilots to fly to Townsend Bombing Range near Darien, Ga., according to air station officials.

Williams said air station pilots could use the runway to practice vertical take-offs and landings and simulate aircraft-carrier landings. Training exercises require pilots to perform repeated touch-and-go landings on a small segment of runway during half-hour or hourlong training sessions that simulate landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The benefit to McEntire, Williams said, would be the experience the base's air traffic controllers gain working with Marine pilots from MCAS Beaufort. McEntire and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter are in the running to receive some portion of the 1,736 new fighter jets the Air Force is expected to purchase.

The benefit to Beaufort, Mayor Billy Keyserling said, is that an auxiliary landing field would help reduce noisy training in Beaufort.

"Establishing another landing field would make a lot of that noise go away because those (carrier practices) and vertical landing practices would not be done here," Keyserling said.

Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, air station spokesman, said air station pilots fly about 6,000 carrier training flights a year.

However, a Navy report released last month detailing how 13 new Joint Strike Fighter Squadrons will be divided between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point stated that an auxiliary field was not essential to operating the jet in Beaufort.

Persuading Navy and Pentagon officials to spend millions of dollars on something deemed unnecessary could be a tough sell, said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Garry Parks, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee.

"The (report) is based on making everything happen within the fence line of MCAS Beaufort," Parks said. "What has been advocated seems to be best for both bodies -- the air station and our neighbors that live outside its gate. It's the right thing to do, but the Defense Department doesn't see it as a requirement. Should we explore it? Sure, but we need to realize that challenges facing the Defense Department budget could prevent it from happening."

The report's final draft will be published in the Federal Register in November, and a final decision on the squadrons is expected in early December, according to Corps officials.