In the Low Country with The Marines

Story and photos by Shawn Byers

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort held their bi-annual airshow on April 22 and 23, 2023.  This was my first time visiting the South Carolina base and the longest scheduled road trip for this season.

MCAS Beaufort is the East Coast Fighter Base of The Corps and nicknamed “Fightertown” or “Fightertown East” in reference to Miramar’s claim to the name.  Originally opened in 1943 as a Naval Air Station, it was used for anti-submarine patrol squadrons.  After a ten year period of inactivity after World War II, it reopened for Marine Corps use in 1956. 

The term “Low Country” is both geographical within the state and topographical in reference to elevation.  Marshy areas dot the coastline a short distance from the base.  Beaufort lies between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia and is a stone’s throw from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island and Hilton Head Island. 

In 1975, the Airfield was named for retired Major General Louis G. Merritt, a Citadel graduate, veteran of two World Wars and a Marine Aviation pioneer. There are two runways, the longest of which is 05/23, at an impressive 12,202 feet long and the one used for the show is Runway 14/32, at a respectable 8001 feet.  Both are 200 feet wide.  The sun angle is slightly backlighted in the morning but since flying did not start until 11:30, the sun was not much of a factor to contend with.

Currently, the Air Station is home to four F/A-18 Fighter Squadrons and an F-35B Training Squadron.  Coincidently, those F/A-18s were the reason I really wanted to visit this year.  Their days are numbered, we just do not know how numbered.  As Marine Air modernizes, the F-35Bs and Cs are on their way.  The Marines held off on purchasing F/A-18 Super Hornets in favor of the F-35s.

This is a good Segway to speak of the static displays because four home based Hornets were lined up behind show center, three of which were color birds.  On the East end was a colorful D Model from Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 533, the “Hawks”.  Next, and packed in tight, was a non-flyable airframe painted for Marine Air Logistics Squadron (MALS) 31, the “Stingers”. It was probably towed from the front of their building. 

Finally, ‘MERICA!, the very patriotic C model of the “Silver Eagles” from VMFA 115. There was a gray model from 115 next door but she was shunned by my camera.  What I liked about the squadron tents is that they were directly in front of the nose, keeping the sunny side of the aircraft unobstructed.  Other statics of note were spread across the grounds under canopies and on grassy areas.  There was a DC-3 in American Airlines livery named, “The Spirit of Detroit”, an OV-10 Bronco used for mosquito patrol, two F-16s from Atlantic City, a C-17 from Charleston, a Dauntless Dive Bomber and a Kate replica.  The Marine Corps also had an MV-22, AH-1Z and UH-1Y parked together.  Marine ground vehicles and weapons were also grouped together for a display.  The Army had a Chinook and Apache helicopters on the grass.

The weather was looking bad for Saturday in the days leading up to the show.  As Saturday approached, it was more optimistic.  It ended up being mostly sunny and breezy with only the occasional occlusion of the sun by a cloud.  Late into the Blue Angels show, a nearby lightning strike canceled the rest of the show.

Sunday was a little cooler but severe clear.  The weather worked out, after all for the show.

The opening act started, unofficially, at about 11am when Fat Albert, the Blue Angels support C-130, took off for an 11:30 drop of the SOCOM Para Commandos.  Four jumpers departed Fat Albert and brought in the Flag during the National Anthem, played by the Parris Island Marine Corps Band.

Rob Holland circled the jumpers down to about 1,000 feet.  A short while later, he joined up with Fat Albert again for a dissimilar formation photo pass.  The first of what I think will be many as they perform together at airshows.  Rob then performed a teaser routine including a race along the runway with the Precision Exotics sports cars.  He would fly his full routine in the afternoon.

Civilian acts continued in this first half of the show.

Kyle Fowler flew his yellow Long EZ, the kit plane that appears to be flying backwards.

Patrick McAlee had a brief performance in his Pitts S1 but cut it short due to an engine problem.  He would return for a full routine on Sunday.

Gary Rower performed in his red and white Stearman biplane.  I read, recently that he is retiring and we saw his final flight performance.  Happy Retirement, Gary!

Chris Thomas performed in a T-6 Texan, still in the familiar colors of the Geico Skytypers.

Two F/A-18Cs from VMFA 312 and an F-35B from VMFAT 501 launched to a hold point.  They would return in force in a few minutes.

Kyle Franklin performed with his wife, Liz, in a hilarious drunk, free ride winner scenario who accidentally goes off on his own in a Piper Super Cub.  Liz chases him and he takes off on a taxiway, dragging the wingtip.  At the end of the journey, he bails out of a spinning Cub and throws his ball cap at it.  I have seen many routines with a drunk farmer but Kyle and Liz made this the best of them.

My favorite part of attending a Marine Corps airshow is the Marine Air Ground Task Force Demonstration (MAGTF).  A flurry of aircraft enter and exit the target area in support of a ground scenario.  In this case, a downed and injured pilot is in need of rescue in hostile territory.  Two F/A-18s overfly the area for a look.  Hostiles are present and communication is made with the downed pilot.  An F-35B enters the area using the advanced sensors to “quarterback” the operation.  The F/A-18s return to attack the enemy air or ground forces.  Once the landing zone is safe, an MH-53 Super Stallion touches down, deploying 20, or so, Marines to secure the perimeter and treat the injured pilot.  With more hostiles entering the area, a composite squadron of gunship helicopters arrive.  The UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper lay down fire as they orbit the area.  Each aircraft has an advanced sensor on the nose that can read a name tag from a standoff distance in the dark.  These helos did not appear on the Sunday version of the show but would return later, on Saturday for a brief demonstration.  Once the area was clear, The CH-53 loaded up with all personnel and departed the area.  The jets made one, final fast pass as the pyrotechnic team created the wall of fire.

Chef Pitts, aka, Clemens Kuhlig performed an aerobatic routine in his Pitts S1S.  He completed an inverted ribbon cut on the first try.

Rob Holland performed his full routine before the Marines took over the airspace again by some hovering airframes.

First in an individual performance was the big CH-53.  A short hovering routine was tailored to the crowd line instead of the mission along the runway.

Next, the UH-1Y and AH-1Z returned with more of a synchronized routine.  Another great opportunity to get them nice and close and try to slow that shutter speed down a little more.

Finally, the F-35B launched into some fast passes before slowing down to the hover demonstration.  It is loud and it is there, in front of you, not moving an inch as perceived by your eye.  After some turns from the hover, it landed in a vertical assist, rolling stop.

The legendary, Patty Wagstaff flew in the unofficial final slot before the Blue Angels in her red Extra 300. 

Fat Albert took off again but not for the familiar Blue Angels preshow.  Onboard were the SOCOM Para Commandos for their second jump performance.

Upon landing, Fat Albert remained on the runway.  After a period of engine cooling, he launched again and performed the preshow.

The Blue Angels closed the show, beginning at about 3:05.  Most of the show was completed before weather became a factor.  With a nearby lightning strike, it was decided to knock off the show so the public could return to the vehicles or find adequate cover.  I estimate that it cut the show by only 10 or 15 minutes.

After suffering through an hour and 15 minute wait to exit the base, I had no intention of repeating anything close on Sunday.  I egressed before the Blue Angels got started.

This was my first airshow of the season and media credentials are not a given.  I wish to thank, Staff Sgt. Kayla Rivera for being responsive in the weeks and days leading up to the show and the support of the entire composite Communications Strategy and Operations Team throughout the entire, awesome weekend.