MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. — Questions about the noise and number of flights generated by the Marine Corps new F-35B Lightning II fighter jet dominated a public meeting Thursday at the National Guard Armory.
The meeting came less than two weeks after Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort officials released a new Air Installation Compatible Use Zone plan on March 7.
About 150 people came to listen to air station officials, members of the Joint Strike Fighter readiness team, and squadron pilots talk about the new AICUZ, which is about 4,000 acres larger than its predecessor. It also is much wider and eliminates the long noise corridors to the northeast and southwest found in the current version.
Port Royal resident Charlie Bray said he was worried about the zone reaching into neighborhoods such as Habersham and Pleasant Point.
"The increased noise will make those areas incompatible for residential development," he said. "Who knows what it is going to do for property values?"
Bray said jet noise was the main reason he moved to Port Royal from Beaufort's Walling Grove neighborhood.
However, Pleasant Point resident Tom Videyko, who said he lives near the end of the runway likely to be used for the new jet's short takeoffs, said the noise wouldn't be an issue for him as long as the air station is upfront about the number of flights and the loudness of the jets.
"People are afraid of the unknown, and unfortunately they (air station officials) haven't done a good job of quelling those fears," he said. "It doesn't bother me. We know what it is."
Answers to some residents' concerns, however, are still unclear.
Noise levels in the environmental impact study released by the air station in 2010 were calculated using the noise level of an F-35A, which doesn't have the short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities of the new fighter. No noise study of the F-35B has been released, a Marine Corps spokesman said last month.
The number of flights is also unclear.
The air station is authorized to make 106,000 flights a year, but current numbers don't come close to that, and fall somewhere in the high 20,000s, F-35B program manager Troy Ward said.
He said those numbers would increase over time and be affected by several factors -- particularly the air station's budget, defense policy, and the number of squadrons at the air station.
Current flight levels are low because a number of squadrons are now deployed, Ward said. By the early 2020s, when F-35B squadrons are at full strength, flight levels will likely increase to about 99,000 per year, he said.
Bray said some of the public's concern could be mitigated by an auxiliary landing site away from the air station, adding that there would have to be "an uproar from the community to make it happen."
However, Beaufort Military Enhancement Committee chairman Jim Wegmann said the organization was working on making such a landing strip a reality.
"We have a subcommittee doing just that," he said. "Marine Corps Air Station Yuma just opened an auxiliary airfield in the (Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range) in Arizona, and we hope to replicate it on the East Coast. It would alleviate some of the concerns about the jet, and we hope to work with Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mark Sanford to make it a reality."
Wegmann said he didn't see the new AICUZ as very different from the old one, calling the new version a "little fatter."
"It encompasses a little more acreage," he said. "We lost a couple of corridors, which is good. There's not much change, but there are those who think any change is not going to be good."