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The next chapter in the 50-year history of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort will begin this week.
The air station will host a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday to commemorate the start of construction on a hangar and training facility to house and train pilots to fly the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
Navy officials tapped Florida contractor Hensel Phelps to build the new facilities, which will cost about $70 million and are expected to be completed by September 2013.
Air station officials said the project is the first of many changes the base will undergo to house the next-generation fighter jet.
"The landscape of (the air station) will drastically change with the addition of the training facility and training hangar," said Lt. Sharon Hyland, air station spokeswoman. "Not only is it our first stealth fighter, which requires levels of security greater than our current jets, but also our mission shifts from being an operational base to a base with both operational squadrons and training squadrons. We have a lot to do before the jets arrive, but we're looking forward to the coming years."
In December, the Navy announced its decision to base three new active-duty F-35B squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons -- 88 jets total -- at the air station.
The $70 million project is the start of a $351.8 million makeover the air station will undergo over the next five years to house the F-35B, which will replace the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the base.
Navy officials also have said they expect to begin soliciting bids later this year or early next year for a $21 million project to build a vertical landing pad at the air station.
The pad would be used by air station pilots to practice the new jet's vertical take-off and landing capabilities.
The F-35B is expected to arrive in Beaufort in 2014, air station officials said.
Follow staff writer Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/OnBaseBeaufort.