Peering into the cockpit of a two-seat F-18 Hornet, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling got an up-close and personal look into the inner workings of the city's largest employer.
Keyserling, Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton, and Brad Samuels, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee, were given an all-access tour of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort by the base's commanding officer, Col. John Snider. The tour Monday included a hands-on look at an F-18 Hornet; briefings on the jet's weapons systems and squadron deployment schedules; and a discussion of the future of the Joint Strike Fighter at MCAS Beaufort.
During a briefing in his squadron's ready room, Lt. Col. James Quinn, commanding officer of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533, told Keyserling, Newton and Samuels that "80 to 85 percent" of the 195 Marines under his command live in the Beaufort area.
Keyserling said the statistics demonstrate the civic and economic importance of Beaufort's Marines.
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"The presence of the Marine Corps in Beaufort was one of the first steps to Beaufort pulling out of the Great Depression, so now that we're in a recession, it becomes equally important that the lines of communication remain open," he said. "They need to know that we're always on the other end of the phone."
Monday marked Keyserling's first visit to the air station as Beaufort's mayor.
Snider said communication between Marines and the community is vital, particularly as the Navy examines the environmental impact of basing the JSF in Beaufort. A draft of the Navy's findings is expected in January.
"Beaufort County and the local area provides the strongest military support as anywhere else in the Marine Corps, so we want to make sure that we're upfront from the get-go about this aircraft," he said. "We really wanted to sit these elected officials down and show them the base and what we do here."
Port Royal Mayor Samuel Murray and Yemassee Mayor J. L. Goodwin were not able to attend the tour, according to the air station.