By: Chan Hardwick – Oldfield resident
As the rather mild Lowcountry winter was blown away by a mid-month Arctic blast, 50 members of the Oldfield Men’s Club gathered in the golf club parking area and boarded a bus for a 20 minute ride over to “Fightertown East,” or Marine Corps Air Station located just outside of Beaufort. An afternoon on the base was our February program.
These are booming times for the Men’s Club (and the MCAS, but that is a different story). Club membership is over a hundred, the monthly programs are interesting and well attended (the air base trip had to be limited in number) and the sense of fellowship and spirit has been robust. As we slid into our seats, perhaps next to a good friend, a casual acquaintance or a new community resident, the members used the bus ride over to the 9,600 acre base as a good chance to catch up with each other since the recent cold weather was keeping many Oldfield residents and members indoors. Indeed, the golf club had an unusual mid-week closure because of freezing temperatures.
After driving slowly by the security gate and through the network of base roads, we arrived and parked outside a non-descript, government standard brick building that housed the pilot training facilities for the base. Bouncing up the bus steps in his green flight overalls, Oldfield resident Lt. Colonel Brian Foster welcomed his fellow Men’s Club members to his place of work, the air base facilities and the airspace in the Lowcountry. Brian outlined our afternoon activities, including the opportunity to have a “trip” in the pilot’s seat of the F-18 flight simulator, on which the real Marine pilots hone the variety of skills necessary to master their calling.
Before the actual challenge of the simulator we had a group briefing in a lecture hall in the training facility. In that time Brian gave us a quick run-down of things about the base, its present activity and projections for the future. Specifically, the air base currently has five F-18 squadrons and one F-35 squadron. The highly publicized F-35 is the new fighter that will eventually replace the military’s use of the F-18, the workhorse of the American and allied fighter forces since the mid-1980s. The Beaufort base has been designated as the primary pilot training facility for the F-35 and for security reasons the F-35 simulator is classified and off-limits to guys like us in the Men’s Club - thank goodness for that!
In short, the MCASB has nearly 5,000 personnel serving the Marine Corps mission, not counting civilian support services. Many of the men and women live in on-base housing facilities, but some like Brian have bought or rent homes in surrounding communities, such as Oldfield.
The two highlights of the afternoon were our experience in the F-18 simulator and our tour of the huge F-18 maintenance hangar, which opened up on an active and busy (and loud) staging area and runway for the steady number of jets taking off. The simulator room was dark except for the seat in the cockpit and the surrounding walls that depicted in live-action style the Lowcountry on a sunny day. As a few guys softly sang “Ground Control to Major Tom,” Tommy Harper was the first to hop in the cockpit! Tommy did pretty well, but other Men’s Club members “crashed” the jet and Bill Hamilton stalled his. One particularly cool move was jetting under the Broad River Bridge. The controls were not complicated but highly sensitive, responding almost intuitively to a Marine Corps pilot and dangerously to a Men’s Club member. Obviously the experience was not real but the simulator was very realistic, we also had the opportunity to fire the plane’s guns and missiles. Frankly, it was hard to hit the preferred targets, and it seems likely that a Walmart or Bi-Lo got taken out by mistake. All of us were very impressed with the technology, the realism and the challenge of the simulator. In the end, the idea of flying an actual F-18 was both understandable and impossible at the same time.
Our tour of the hangar did get us into (though not seated) the cockpit of a real F-18 and a thorough inspection of the actual plane. The fighter was all sharp angles and swept back wings and such but as Brian said, “The computer makes this thing work. The F-18 is not really aerodynamic, like a glider so it would drop like a rock if the computer fails.” The plane suddenly looked very heavy but then we went out to the hangar opening and watched a series of takeoffs. As each F-18 roared overhead, cool and sleek in the light of the sunset, we were able to complete our experience from cockpit wannabes to admiring spectators.
The evening concluded with a round of libations at the Officers Club, followed by the usual Men’s Club dinner and after dinner questions to Brian and Duncan French, another Oldfield member and Marine Corps pilot. Major French had actually flown the new F-35, so hearing about his experience was one of the highlights of the program.
Eventually the questions stopped, the Marine Corps hosts were toasted and applauded and the Men’s Club members boarded the bus for the short ride back to Oldfield. The February night was crisp and cold, the Arctic air finally making its way to us. But packed into the bus we were warm and now free to use our phones again. Some of us checked the Duke-Carolina score, some called home or texted, but mostly we marveled at our day with the few, the brave, the proud, and those who keep us safe – a few of whom are Oldfield Men’s Club members – and we were thankful.