Sometimes, big things come in small packages.
That was the case Monday at Cherry Point when the first F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter was officially inducted for modifications at Fleet Readiness Center East.
At slightly longer than 51 feet and with a wingspan of 35 feet, the sleek, gray jet sat securely behind a rope line in the corner of Hangar I surrounded by an arc of dignitaries and employees.
“This is huge to FRC East. It’s almost beyond description,” said Col. Blayne H. Spratlin, commanding officer for the Cherry Point aircraft maintenance facility. “It’s big for Eastern North Carolina. It’s big for the Marine Corps. It’s really just a super day.”
FRC East is the first Naval Aviation Depot to do the first modifications on the F-35.
“It’s an honor for here at Cherry Point, and we’re just looking forward to it and we’re ready to get to work on it,” Spratlin said.
The fifth-generation aircraft is considered the future of fixed-wing Marine Corps aviation. It will replace the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and EA/6B Prowler.
“This airplane is critical to the Marine Corps,” said Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation. “This is the future of tactical aviation in the Marine Corps, and we’re delighted to have it here at Cherry Point.”
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, referred to the signs around Havelock that say “Pardon Our Noise.”
“Today, that slogan has renewed meaning with the arrival of the F-35,” she said. “There is no better depot to perform these modifications. This is exactly the type of plane that we need to carry out our mission in the Marine Corps. We’re going to be busy here at FRC East for a very, very long time.”
Hagan said the region would continue to see an economic benefit from F-35 work for a long time.
“It is so important for an economic development, but also for national security,” Hagan said.
Harry Blot, a retired Marine general and test pilot who served as deputy commandant for aviation, said the F-35 represented the future of Cherry Point.
“It’s going to replace every airplane at Cherry Point, and with it comes the technology of the future,” he said. “Anytime a new aircraft arrives at an air station, the technology jumps ahead 10 or 20 years, and then you see the contractors come in and that’s money and jobs locally and things like that, so this is a huge day for us. It further protects us from any (Base Realignment and Closure) action that may take place. It is the cutting edge of technology and will be for the next 40 years.”
Havelock Mayor Jimmy Sanders, president of the Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow lobby group, called the arrival of the jet important.
“This is the day that we’ve been waiting for, the day that we’ve been waiting for for years,” he said. “This is the future of Cherry Point and FRC East. It couldn’t get much better unless this hangar was full of aircraft.”
Jim Davis, also a member of the lobby group, noted the importance of FRC East workers.
“We’re proud of the training that the employees have had and look forward to seeing the results of their work on this aircraft so it can go out and serve our country,” he said.
Mary Beth Fennell, integrated product team director at FRC East, said that about a dozen employees would be doing hands-on work on the jet, with a dozen other support personnel and as well personnel from manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
“We are very excited to have this aircraft here,” she said. “It really represents a new era for this facility and for Marine aviation, so we’re excited to be part of it.”
FRC workers will be reinforcing hinges on doors that allow the F-35B model to take off and land vertically as part of the first modification to the jets, Schmidle said.
“It’s very, very common on airplanes when we first bring them into the fleet to fly them that we do those kinds of modifications,” he said.
Eventually, more F-35 work will be coming to FRC East, with six new stalls for the aircraft expected by 2015.
“We’re going to be in this airplane for another 40 or 50 years, so we’re just delighted to be able to start this modification process here at Cherry Point,” Schmidle said.
Lt. Col. Steve C. Gillette, of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, flew the F-35 unescorted from Elgin Air Force Base in Florida to Cherry Point on July 9, landing at 10 a.m. on Runway 23 Right, sneaking into the base from over the Neuse River with the first-ever landing of the new jet at the base.
“It’s a fantastically performing airplane,” Gillette said. “It’s very easy to interpret and fight the airplane. Every time I get out of that airplane, I’m grinning ear to ear.”
Schmidle went one step further.
“It’s the finest airplane of its type on the planet,” he said.
In about ten years, the first of six planned squadrons of F-35s is expected to be based at Cherry Point.
“I cannot wait to see this bird fly,” Hagan said.