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thedrifter
08-02-09, 08:54 AM
New F-35 jet fighter takes over pilot's seat for Lockheed Martin

11:35 PM CDT on Saturday, August 1, 2009


By ERIC TORBENSON / The Dallas Morning News
etorbenson@dallasnews.com


FORT WORTH – Lockheed Martin Corp. has just seen Congress kill funding for its most expensive jet fighter – but no one here seems worried.

Amid a mile-long manufacturing line framed by lumbering blue cranes, clusters of laser welders and precision drilling tools, Lockheed's next money-maker is taking shape.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stands ready to create thousands of good jobs for the region and serve as the backbone of the military contractor's earnings for decades to come.

"The jobs here are going to grow as our production ramps up," Dan Crowley, general manager of the F-35 program, said at a ceremony last week as Lockheed rolled out the U.S. Navy's version of the plane. "We're very optimistic about where we are."

Lockheed's high-tech F-22 Raptor, which costs between $200 million and $300 million each depending on how you count, appears to be dead, after the House went along with the Senate last week and voted to terminate further production of the fighter jets.

In a rare stance for a contractor, Lockheed had said it would accept whatever Congress decided with the F-22 and didn't lobby to boost the number of planes beyond the 187 already on order.

The contractor's reasoning is simple math: The U.S. military wants 2,443 F-35s, and the plane's foreign partners combined could order just as many. Lockheed expects each plane to cost $40 million to $60 million, far less than the F-22 but enough to make the Joint Strike Fighter the world's costliest weapons program.

"The F-35 should enable Lockheed to continue growing as others around it stagnate or shrink," J.P. Morgan analyst Joseph Nadol said in a recent investor note.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has been a strong backer of the F-35, and, as long as he is in place, the aircraft should enjoy support from the administration," Nadol wrote.

Switching over


About 1,500 Lockheed employees in Fort Worth build the center of the F-22's fuselage – the largest part of the plane – which gets shipped to Marietta, Ga., where the Raptor is put together. With no more funding, they'll have three more years of F-22 work before the program runs out, Crowley said.

"We've already begun to pull some engineers and other workers from F-22 to the F-35 program," he said.

A spokesman for the union that represents about 500 laborers working on the F-22 said the end of the program should not have "any immediate impact on our membership."

Tim Smith, of the International Association of Machinists Local 776, said some members may need to find other Lockheed work as soon as next year, but the F-35 and even the F-16 – still built here by Lockheed – will pick up the slack for union workers.

Ideally, the acceleration of Joint Strike Fighter production will intersect with the last bits of Raptor work and prevent layoffs, but it's too early to project how that might play out.

One thing is clear: The massive scope of the program will mean more jobs when it reaches full production in 2014.

The roughly 4,000 workers there now could grow by thousands more when the F-35 line starts spitting out a new plane every business day, or 240 a year.

"The F-35 is going to be a great aircraft for us," Smith said.

Lockheed has invested about $800 million in the program to prepare for production, including new facilities at its sprawling campus west of downtown Fort Worth.

Another $800 million is set to be invested – most of it here – as the government prepares to spend about $50 billion to see the program through 2014.

Complex job


While Lockheed is automating more of the F-35's production than on past planes, it plans to build three types of jets off one assembly line – an engineering challenge that no military plane builder has previously tackled.

One version will be able to take off and land like a helicopter. One will fly more conventionally, and the third will have to withstand hard landings and corrosive salt air aboard Navy aircraft carriers.

Lockheed has 41 of the planes in various stages of development and has finished nine test planes. The Marines are due to get the first of their planes in 2012, the Air Force in 2013 and the Navy in 2015.

It's a complex aircraft. The F-35 has 7.5 million lines of computer code, and the training, testing and support systems have an additional 15.4 million lines of code.

Lockheed is also combining much of the testing and initial production, adding to a high-wire act that the company says it's managing well.

"We're completing our software testing in a third of the time" of previous jet production programs, Crowley said. While crucial test flights for the F-35 are only 2 percent complete, other test areas such as a stress test on the plane's frame are coming out better than projected and, in some cases, are getting done ahead of schedule.

The aggressive testing and building has made some doubtful that Lockheed will meet its full production target of 2014.

The Defense Department's Joint Estimate Team has projected the program won't reach full production until 2016, in part because of the risk of having to change any of the F-35 versions during production.

Two years of delay would decrease profitability, delay North Texas jobs and anger customers who need the plane to replace aging air forces.

Lockheed disagrees with the timeline, saying the Pentagon estimate is based on how older aircraft programs worked, and was made using year-old data and progress reports. The 2014 target date remains achievable, Crowley said.

Weapon questions


The F-35's performance as a weapon also has its share of critics.

Designed to replace planes that handle bombing, ground support missions and even air-to-air combat, the F-35 tries to be the ultimate military multitasker.

Its critics say it doesn't do any of its missions all that well – it's too fast for ground support missions such as shooting tanks, carries too few bombs to make a good bomber and is not nearly as maneuverable in dogfights as other planes.

But others say that no other plane comes close to matching the F-35's combination of technology, speed and stealth. Because it evades radar, they say, the plane won't get into dogfights.

"You'll never know I'm out there until you've got my missile locked on you," said Jon Beesley, the F-35 chief test pilot. "We've taken a lot of risk out of this plane."

The biggest wow factor in the plane is a set of sensors embedded around the wings and fuselage that create a three-dimensional depiction of the world around the plane. That vision is displayed on the inside of the pilot's visor; it even lets the pilot see through the bottom of the airplane to help land the version that flies like a helicopter.

The radar on the F-35 is more precise and sees farther than anything flying today, and just getting the plane into a conflict will allow it to gather important information the military needs to help identify enemies and verify intelligence.

And, since allies eventually will be flying the same plane, communications in joint operations will improve, Lockheed predicts.

While lacking the glamour of the super-fast twin-engine F-22, the F-35 has a much broader appeal if it can meet its cost targets and timelines.

For North Texas, the F-35 is on track to be the region's highest-profile military contribution for decades to come.
F-35 JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER

Built by: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; final assembly in Fort Worth

Variants: Three. One each for the Marines (vertical takeoff and landing capability), Air Force (conventional takeoff) and Navy (carrier variant)

Maximum speed: Mach 1.6

Dimensions: 35 feet to 43 feet wide depending on version; 51 feet long

Maximum range: 900-1,200 nautical miles

Weapons: Between 15,000 pounds and 18,000 pounds of weapons capacity depending on type

Cost: Lockheed estimates $40 million to $60 million, depending on variant; critics say the plane will be far more expensive.

Advantages: Stealth, supersonic speed, multimission capability, much lower long-term maintenance costs than other jets

Critics say: Its multitasking makes it great at nothing, and its complexity will drive up costs.

Job impact: 4,000 jobs today, with thousands more to be added by full production, estimated by 2014.

SOURCES: Lockheed Martin; Dallas Morning News research

Ellie