Happy landings: Navy to assign 5 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to Beaufort

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Happy landings: Navy to assign 5 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to Beaufort

By PATRICK DONOHUE
pdonohue@beaufortgazette.com
843-706-8152
Published Thursday, December 9, 2010   |  851 Words  |  

The Department of Navy delivered no surprises -- but caused plenty of elation -- with its decision Thursday to assign five new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

As recommended in a report last month, two training squadrons and three active-duty squadrons -- 88 new planes in all -- eventually will call Fightertown home, according to a copy of the decision distributed late Thursday by a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC.

The jets are expected to begin arriving in 2014, according to the Navy.

Graham was among the officials pleased by the decision.

"Christmas came early this year," Graham said in a statement. "Beaufort has a long and storied history with the Marine Corps. With the decision today, Beaufort will continue to play an integral role in the future of the Corps."

The decision divides 13 JSF squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C. The North Carolina base will receive eight active-duty squadrons, or 128 jets, according to Thursday's decision.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, called the decision "absolutely huge."

"It's well-known what the air station means to us in Beaufort," Davis said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, called the announcement "a big, big deal."

"It's wonderful news for Beaufort, its economy and the Marine Corps," said Wilson, whose district includes Beaufort County. "This certainly underscores the commitment of the Marine Corps (to Beaufort.)"

'WHAT THE MAJORITY OF THE COMMUNITY WANTS'

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said the decision reflected the wishes of most Beaufort-area residents and helps protect the base against future military base closures. The JSF will replace all of the F-18 Hornets now flown at the air station.

"This helps make us more BRAC-proof," Keyserling said, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission . "It's exciting and it's what the majority of the community wants."

According to the Navy, 71 percent of the public comment officials received about the final environmental report supported housing three active-duty squadrons and two training squadrons at MCAS Beaufort. Fourteen percent supported another of the report's three options, and about 15 percent objected to the entire effort, or disagreed with various aspects of the report.

CONCERNS REMAIN

The decision wasn't universally hailed, however.

North Carolina officials, including Gov. Bev Perdue, had lobbied to get all 11 active-duty squadrons assigned to MCAS Cherry Point.

And Best 4 Beaufort, a group of more than 240 residents of neighborhoods near the air station, has spent months trying to turn public opinion against the Navy's proposal and argued the Navy's decision should not have been made until more is known about the noise the jets will generate.

The group got the attention of Gov. Mark Sanford, who withheld his support for the proposal in a letter earlier this month to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Sanford urged the secretary to send one of the fighter jets undergoing tests at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., to Beaufort for demonstration flights. The flights would help calm local fears over jet noise, Sanford wrote.

Sanford was unavailable for comment late Thursday, according to a spokesman.

Jim Rowe, a Lady's Island resident and one of the group's leaders, said he was disappointed by Thursday's announcement but hardly caught off-guard.

"It looked like it was going to go this way, but there are still so many questions about this that need to be answered," Rowe said. "This decision doesn't surprise me, and it doesn't surprise Best 4 Beaufort. We are still committed to trying to get as much data as we can."

Extensive noise testing on the Marine Corps' variant of the Joint Strike Fighter -- the F-35B, which will have vertical take-off and landing capability -- has yet to be performed, according to Corps officials.

Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Garry Parks, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said he never worried that the group's opposition would derail the Navy's plans.

"You're always going to have your ups-and-downs on an issue like this," Parks said. "This is outstanding news for Beaufort."

THE NEXT STEP

To prepare for the arrival of the jet, the base will to undergo $351.8 million in infrastructure improvements in the next five years, including the construction of a pilot-training center, new hangars and flight simulators, according to the Navy. The base also will need to build special pads to accommodate the jets' vertical take-offs and landings.

Lt. Sharon Hyland, spokeswoman for MCAS Beaufort, said Naval Facilities Engineering Command soon will solicit bids for that work, and base officials are excited about Fightertown's future.

"We're very excited that the Department of the Navy has made this decision," Hyland said. "It ensures that MCAS Beaufort will continue to be an active part of this nation's defense for quite some time."