Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is bustling with activity as it prepares for the November or December arrival of the first F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets that will be based here.
The first six projects are nearing completion, and work is starting on three more this year, for a total investment of almost $400 million at MCAS. It's an investment that also has been a boon to local businesses, from hotels to subcontractors and suppliers.
While details of the dynamic effort are changing daily, “the future of Yuma is a lot closer than people may believe or hear,” Lt. Col. Dwight De Jong, overseer of the massive effort at MCAS, told those attending the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp.'s quarterly luncheon Tuesday.
“And there are so many zeros behind the dollar value,” he added.
Asked how secure the future of MCAS and the F-35 might be, De Jong responded that he's encouraged by three things.
First, Lockheed Martin, builder of the F-35, is a “savvy” company, he said, and has operations in every state so there would be a lot of support for it. Second, several countries have the same scenario as the U.S.: aging aircraft and nothing to replace them except the F-35. Third is the $400 million investment in MCAS Yuma.
MCAS Yuma is slated to be home to five F-35 squadrons of 16 planes each, along with an operational test and evaluation squadron of eight aircraft. The first squadron will be VMFA 121, expected by December. The total transition from old aircraft to new aircraft and personnel for the F-35 squadrons is scheduled by 2020.
To be ready, construction of new state-of-the-art hangars and replacement of aging infrastructure are on an aggressive schedule.
“Controlled chaos” is how De Jong described the activity. He's the director of the Site Activation Task Force to ensure MCAS is ready for the introduction of the F-35. He's also the officer in charge of the F-35 Fleet Introduction Team responsible for the activation of F-35 squadrons for the Marine Corps.
“We gave the contractors some ridiculous time frames,” he said.
That they're meeting them, with only one minor injury to date, is a tribute to the team effort, he said. “It's been nothing short of impressive.”
Projects totaling nearly $200 million were awarded to contractors in June 2011. One hangar is expected to be completed by mid-May and a second by October. A new simulator facility will be completed in June, while a new utility communications facility is scheduled for completion by August and a new maintenance facility by November. The work also includes demolition of older facilities.
Fiscal year 2012 projects total another $160 million. They include two more hangars, with the contract awarded in April and scheduled for completion by spring of 2014.
An auxiliary landing field is to be built on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, to be awarded in late June with anticipated completion by July 2013. The new facility will simulate the deck of an amphibious assault ship where pilots can practice their carrier landings.
Yet another project, to be awarded this fall for scheduled completion in February 2014, would be an additional hangar that hopefully will attract another squadron to MCAS, De Jong said.
All of this activity is having a positive impact on the community, noted Doug Nicholls, chairman of the GYEDC board.
Evan Fuller, general manager of the Radisson Hotel, told the gathering that he has seen a 30 percent increase in government guests in the first quarter of the year over the previous year. Many of them are with Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors.
Don Peterson, owner of DPE, said his company was awarded $25 million in contracts at MCAS from concrete to electrical work. That has enabled him to nearly double his work force from 95 last year to 189 today, with many of the hirees people he had been forced to lay off with the economic downturn. He also has purchased millions of dollars in materials from other local businesses.
Peterson's grateful for the work he has at MCAS and is “excited to hear about the upcoming work. I hope to be a part of that, too.”
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/YSJoyceLobeck or on Twitter at @YSJoyceLobeck.