New Joint Strike Fighters fly high in Beaufort

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comAugust 20, 2013 

— Some who attended Tuesday’s Joint Strike Fighter showcase at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort could manage just one word to describe the F-35B Lightning II in action: “Wow.”

Shouts, smiles and gasps punctuated the reaction of the crowd gathered at an air station hangar as two of the new jets roared overhead at the event.

MCAS Beaufort will become the permanent home to two F-35B training squadrons next year. Three combat squadrons will follow in coming years, MCAS Beaufort public affairs officer Capt. Jordan Cochran said. (JK: Might hear back on exact number of planes and exact arrival dates, but for right now, Cochran didn’t know.)

The F-35B is the Marine Corps’ variant of the next-generation fighter that also is being adapted for other armed forces. The jets will replace the F-18 Hornet fighters currently flown at the air station.

“The local community seemed very excited about today’s event,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, who commands the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing that includes the air station. “It’s an exciting day to be here.”

About 150 people — including elected officials and construction contractors working on projects to prepare the base to accommodate the jets — attended the event.

After the flyover, the event went quickly. A brief history of the jet and the air station and some remarks from Hedelund were offered. There was no mention of concerns that have plagued the development of the jets, like technical setbacks and cost overruns.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford called the event “an invigorating reminder of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort’s contribution to our nation’s defense.”

“They could have put those planes in a lot of different places, and they chose Beaufort,” he said. “It’s a reminder of some of the unique attributes that this region has from a lot of other regions in the country — in terms of airspace, in terms of ranges — and can’t be replicated out West.”

In addition to the two planes making flyovers, two jets were parked inside the hangar Tuesday. The four planes were part of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 that will move to Beaufort next summer from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The squadron’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. David Berke, said the flight from Eglin to Beaufort took just 30 minutes in the F-35B.

“It’s an awesome jet,” he said. “It’s very easy to fly, and it’s a great design. I can’t wait to come up to the air station. Many of the guys in the squadron are from MCAS Beaufort, so they are eager to come back here, too.”

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said the event “symbolized a transformation for MCAS Beaufort” and would make the base a “player in aviation discussion.”

“These planes will make the air station a much more integral part of the Marine air wings,” he said.

Though welcomed by many, others are concerned about the planes’ noise, particularly when their engines are powered up for vertical takeoffs and landings. That capability, unique to the Marine version of the plane, was not demonstrated Tuesday. Cochran said moving a large group from the hangar to the landing area and back would have created logistical problems.

Keyserling said he took phone calls before the event from residents concerned about the noise, but he found the new jets to be “less intrusive than the F-18s.”

“I could barely hear them,” he said. “The flyover noise was inconsequential when compared to the F-18 and what we’re used to.”

Col. Brian Murtha, the air station’s commanding officer, said Sanford told him the jets weren’t as loud as he expected them to be.

Murtha said any increase in noise would be tied to the number of jets flying around the air station, which would vary daily. Murtha added that the air station regularly sends out public advisories about operations and will continue to do so.

Sanford said he would listen to residents’ concerns about the jets, “but I think what I’ve seen today is an overwhelming embrace of this new plane and the fact that it’s going to be here.”

Hedelund said an environmental impact study determined the noise from the F-35Bs was comparable to the F-18 Hornets currently operating at the base.

However, those calculations were part of a study of the F-35A, the U.S. Air Force variant of the fighter that does not have vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, according to an environmental study released in May by Eglin Air Force Base. The report said the Department of Defense program used to calculate the noise levels, called NOISEMAP, wasn’t capable of analyzing the sound of the jet’s nozzle during landings.

No decibel level for the vertical takeoff and landing was included in the report.

That study reported the noise levels of an F-35A to be 121 decibels from 1,000 feet away at 100 percent engine thrust during takeoff, five decibels higher than the F-18 variants. The F-35 was slightly quieter on approach than the F-18.

Hedelund added that he and the air station would make changes to accommodate residents if they were necessary and didn’t compromise operational safety.

“Humans tend to fear the unknown,” he said. “As the community gets more exposure to the jets, they will become more accepting of them.”

Construction on a parking ramp and a hangar being built near the event buzzed during the showcase. Troy Ward, the program manager for the F-35 site activation task force, said the parking ramp would be completed in December and the hangar in early fall.

Ward said the hangar in which the event was held would soon be dismantled and replaced by another new hangar for the fighter jets.

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