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Marine Corps Air Station officials were quizzed by area residents during a public meeting Tuesday, when exchanges about the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter became heated.
About 70 people gathered in the cafeteria at Beaufort High School for a community meeting hosted by base officials to help familiarize the community with its operations and the base's current Air Installation Compatible Use Zone. The AICUZ designates areas subject to high noise and potential crashes around the air station and influences the type of development allowed there.
After a 45-minute presentation by the air station's community and planning liaison and director of operations, the audience began bombarding them with questions about the need for noisy training exercises and concerns pilots might intentionally fly low over some residential areas near the base.
Lt. Sharon Hyland, base spokeswoman, said air station pilots would face dire consequences if found to be needlessly flying over residential areas.
"Every single one of our Marines knows how precious every hour of flight time is," Hyland said. "It's very expensive for us to fly, and if they were caught doing something undisciplined, they could lose their wings."
Most of the questions centered around the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35B, which is expected to replace all of the F-18 Hornets now flown at the base. The Navy announced its decision in December 2010 to house three active-duty JSF squadrons and two training squadrons at MCAS Beaufort.
Several residents questioned -- pointedly at times -- how much noise the new jets will make. Base officials said they are unable to answer directly because extensive noise testing on the Marine Corps' variant of the plane has yet to be performed.
Base officials instead directed residents to the final draft of a Navy report published last year on the jet's expected environmental impacts.
"I've read that report many times and the noise of this aircraft is never mentioned in there," said Rob Pollard of Lady's Island. "There is some data out there from the Navy that suggests that this aircraft could be two ... times as loud as the Super Hornet, and we only have the Hornet here, which is a quieter aircraft."
Others took exception to the noise complaints and often squabbled aloud with those near them.
Tammy Cieplowski of Lady's Island chided those who gripe about noise from the air station despite buying homes in housing developments built long after the base was created in the 1940s.
"The air station has been here a very long time," Cieplowski said. "You guys are free to fly over our neighborhood anytime you want."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.