Community welcomes F-35B squadron Marines

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The people of Beaufort will help welcome a new era in Marine Corps aviation Friday, July 11 with a public, community-wide celebration at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park from 6 to 9 p.m.

F35-B logoThe focus of the event is on Marines and families of Marine Fight Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT)-501. The approximately 180 Marines in the squadron have spent the past two years at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida developing the standard operating procedures that will herald the new F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter into the Marine Corps.

The celebration will include jump castles for kids, refreshments, corn hole toss with prizes, Tux the clown, entertainment, music by the Parris Island Marine band, a patriotic ceremony and will be topped off with fireworks. It is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Military Enhancement Committee, the Military Affairs Committee and the city of Beaufort.

“The chamber and the community were instrumental in recruitment of the F-35B beginning back in 2008 and 2009,” noted Blakely Williams, president and CEO of the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce. “So it is appropriate that we include the community in the celebration because it is all their work coming to fruition. The intent is for the community to come out and welcome the Marines and their families to their new home.”

The squadron Marines will officially plant their command’s flag earlier in the day during an invitation-only ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

“July 11, 2014, marks the homecoming of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 to the Lowcountry, after spending a couple years located at Eglin Air Force Base,” said Colonel Peter Buck, Commanding Officer of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

He added, “The squadron assumed the lineage of MCAS Beaufort’s VMFA-451 ‘Warlords,’ which saw action during World War II and Operation Desert Storm. The squadron was decommissioned on January 31, 1997 and reactivated as VMFAT-501 in 2010. I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of our team here that enabled us to be ready for operations January 1 of this year. Of those accomplishments — a Pilot Training Center to train Marine Corps aviators, a beautiful hangar for squadron aircraft and personnel, vertical landing pads, a vertical landing deck and numerous security upgrades to support the Joint Strike Fighter. All of these developments will make Beaufort the home of F-35B training in the Marine Corps.”

Col. Buck also commented on the community support that enabled this homecoming.

“I am equally proud to be a member of this incredible community. We have a strong relationship with Beaufort and the surrounding communities that has existed for over 71 years. From our roots of training for anti-submarine patrols during World War II to now as we welcome this squadron that’s responsible for flying the nation’s fifth-generation, dominant aircraft, we’re fortunate to have the support of what we consider to be one of the most military-friendly communities in the nation. Friday we have invited community leaders to join us at the air station in celebrating this historic moment. Additionally, all of us here are very happy to see that the community will be continuing that outstanding support by hosting a homecoming event to help us welcome our VMFAT-501 brothers and sisters home the evening of July 11, in downtown Beaufort at the Waterfront Park.”

It took many years of hard work, networking and nose-to-the-grindstone influence to bring the F-35B and the Pilot Training Center to Beaufort.

The 103,000-square-foot training center is established to conduct all academic and simulator pilot training for F35B STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) Marines and foreign partners who have bought into the program, which includes Britain and Italy.

“This will be the center for STOVL training,” asserted the officer in charge of the center, Lieutenant Colonel Luis E. Villalobos.  “It is the only facility like it in the Marine Corps and the only location where we will have the fleet replacement squadron when VMFAT (Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron)-501 gets here.”

A fleet replacement squadron is responsible for preparing pilots for service in the operating forces.  Beaufort is slated to eventually receive at least two training squadrons and two operational squadrons.

The Marine Corps F-35B variant will eventually replace and perform the roles of three “Legacy” aircraft: the F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier II and EA-6B Prowler.  The F-35B is the only Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter variant that features STOVL capabilities.  The “A” variant is for the Air Force and the “C” model for the Navy.

Marine Corps pilots currently flying these three Legacy aircraft have begun transition training to the F-35 and the only place in the Corps for this training will be Beaufort.

“Between June and September we are scheduled to have all the VMFAT-501 aircraft and squadron personnel relocating, and in October we’ll start training,” stated Villalobos, who is a Harrier pilot.

One of the men who has been closely involved for many years in the effort to bring the F-35 home to Beaufort is local retired businessman Jimmy Boozer, chairman of Beaufort’s Military Affairs Committee and member of the Military Enhancement Committee (MEC).

The MEC works at the state and federal level to encourage protection and enhancement of all three military installations in the Beaufort area. The Military Affairs Committee supports the activities that protect and enhance the military installations in Beaufort County and improve the quality of life for military families in the region.

“We feel that this event is our way of showing appreciation for what Marines and their families do for this community,” Boozer said, adding that businesses in the downtown Beaufort area agreed to extend their business hours for this event and offer “F-35 discounts” to celebrate the occasion.

“We have had a great response of in-kind donations from local businesses and organizations all wanting to be part of this,” Boozer noted.  “The downtown Art Walk organizers adjusted their schedule so they could be involved, and we even have the Sun City Veterans Group coming to carry the colors.”

The night will culminate at dark with fireworks fired from a barge anchored in the Beaufort River near the Waterfront Park.