Hovering Harrier jets have long been a familiar sight at Cherry Point, but this past weekend, a new jet from a new era took center stage with the air station’s first public display of the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
Tens of thousands of spectators witnessed the Marine Corps’ most modern addition to its fleet in brilliant, blue skies at the Cherry Point Air Show.
“It looks sleek and it’s loud,” said Mark Montgomery, of Atlantic Beach, who watched with his family as the new jet went through a series of slow takeoffs, hovers and high speed-passes to show the jet’s versatility.
“It was a nice demonstration,” said Brian Dorn, of Newport. “The hovering part was our favorite part.”
Dorn said he was very familiar with the Harrier and the F-35B was “just as dramatic in noise.”
Harriers are being phased out of the Marine Corps and will be replaced by the F-35B. Several squadrons of the new planes are scheduled to arrive at Cherry Point in 2021 or 2022.
Aryanna Miller, of Havelock, said seeing the plane was good.
“It was loud, but every airplane is loud,” Miller said.
No bother, said Robert Lee, of Havelock, who said the plane was “pretty cool.”
“I’ve lived here all my life, so I’m used to it,” Lee said. “Sounds about as noisy as a Harrier. No worse.”
Maj. E.M. Howell, an F-35B pilot who narrated the flight demonstration for the air show crowd, spent the weekend answering questions about at the ground display of the stealth fighter jet.
Howell said the jet demonstration started with the aircraft flying off using its afterburners, which are louder than what is heard in regular flight.
“Generally, operationally, around the field, afterburners would not be used,” Howell said.
Howell said that most of the people he encountered at the static presentation were impressed with the aircraft, which was roped off and surrounded by armed guards on the flight line.
“All in all, people have expressed to me nothing but positive enthusiasm about how it looks and how it flies,” Howell said.
Brad Spencer, a former general aviation pilot from New Bern, wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“The cost of it was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” Spencer said, noting the jet is the most expensive Department of Defense weapon in history. “This particular model has been a nightmare. It is the same as the Harrier was. It was a mechanic’s nightmare.”
The current cost of an F-35B is about $156 million, but that price is forecast to get lower as more planes are built, according to the defense department.
Still, seeing the plane up close and in the air was an experience for most.
Cpl. Francisco Lopez, a crew master with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, recently saw three of the new planes when they pulled up for gas behind a squadron KC-130J.
“It was pretty sweet. I had never seen those before,” Lopez said. “It was my first time refueling. I was pretty lucky. A lot of our guys have not been able to tank them yet.”
Lopez said the refueler planes, which are based at Cherry Point, have to travel six hours round trip to Florida to fuel the F-35s, which are currently based on the East Coast at Eglin Air Force Base.
Three F-35s came up to Cherry Point for the air show, two of which were kept in the VMGR-252 hangar.
“They have armed guards around them. They have two of them in there right now. The get really, really babied,” Lopez said. “It’s a pretty sweet plane, especially when you get to see it up close. You just think futuristically when you see that plane.”
World War II Army veteran B.F. Lilley, of Williamston, watched the demonstration and was impressed
“Looks great to me. I wonder what the purpose of it is,” Lilley said.
Col. Chris Pappas III, commanding officer at Cherry Point, said the F-35B definitely contributed to drawing spectators to this year’s air show, especially that people could actually see the plane with their own eyes.
“It’s not just a mythical thing anymore,” Pappas said. “They’re real.”
Pappas said the show went off without a hitch.
“We couldn’t have gotten luckier on the weather,” he said. “We prepared for a good five months for this.”
Base personnel practiced for every eventuality, including mass casualties in the event of a crash.
“It’s testimony to a lot of hard work, a lot of practice and a lot of professionalism,” Pappas said.
Not to be ignored were the performances of the Black Diamond Jet Team.
“They were as good as the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels, either one,” said Lilley. “I liked them.”