Lockheed employees are getting ready for the day when the F-35, the eagerly awaited next-generation fighter, is ready to go . . .WHEELS UP


About three weeks from now, if all goes according to plan, test pilot Jon Beesley will push the throttle forward and send the first F-35 Lightning II test aircraft hurtling down the runway and into the sky on its inaugural flight.

Officials overseeing the development of the next-generation fighter and attack aircraft in west Fort Worth say they are making steady progress toward the first flight, the timetable for which has slipped several times. The flight was originally scheduled for August.

Although the contractor team headed by Lockheed Martin and military officials overseeing the program are eager to see the aircraft fly, they say it won't happen until every item on their safety and performance lists has been checked off.

"First-of-type vehicles fly when they're ready," said Dan Crowley, Lockheed's executive vice president and general manager overseeing production and testing of the F-35.

In recent weeks the test aircraft -- AA1 to the F-35 development team -- has been moved to a hangar on the Lockheed side of the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.

With the airplane firmly anchored to the reinforced concrete floor, engineers have repeatedly fired up the Pratt & Whitney engine, which is designed to produce up to 25,000 pounds of thrust. The landing gear has been raised and lowered dozens of times; the hydraulic and electronic systems have been checked and rechecked.

Before the plane flies, more than 800 parts and systems are being subjected to hazard analysis by military and civilian experts, making sure that all the tests have been completed and that the parts operate as designed. One of the most recent items to be checked off was the ejection seat system, including the explosive device that will blow off the canopy.

At this stage of the laborious process, 75 percent of the items have been certified ready for flight. "Each one enhances the safety," Crowley said.

Brig. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force officer overseeing the program for the government and military, said he's pleased with the progress. "The plane seems to be coming together real well," he said.

Davis said the delays in reaching the milestone flight haven't concerned him. "What I'd be concerned about is if we'd flown at the end of September and then have it sit on the ground for weeks and weeks before we flew it again," he said. The goal, Davis said, is to fly the F-35 twice in a three-day period and then begin regular test flights.

"If we can do that," Davis said, "it will be pretty amazing."

The F-35 will be the first all-new airplane produced at the Fort Worth factory since the F-16 more than three decades ago.

Unlike the F-16, which was carried aboard a C-5 cargo plane to Edwards Air Force Base in California for its first flight, much of the initial F-35 flight testing will be in Fort Worth.

"This phase of the program, the next 12 to 18 months, is going to be an exciting time for this corporation," Crowley said.

Many of the engineers working on the F-35 weren't even born when the F-16 first flew.

The F-35 is designed to replace a number of aging aircraft flown by the U.S. and partner countries, including the F-16, the F-18 and the A-10. If it performs as expected, it will in most cases be able to fly farther, carry more weapons, maneuver as well and cost less to keep flying than existing models.

One major attribute the F-35 will have that its predecessors don't is stealth capability, lessening its visibility to radar.

Beyond the important first flight, Davis and Crowley said good progress is being made on completing designs for the three versions of the F-35 and work is under way at various locations on nine test aircraft.

Thirteen design teams around the world are working on portions of the aircraft structure, producing about 1,500 final parts designs each month. Over the past six months, Crowley said, the number of final design drawings released for production has gone from 18,000 to 27,000.

In the spring, the first test will be done on the full propulsion system for the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version, destined for the U.S. Marines, Britain's Royal Navy and Italy's armed forces.

Mating of the major assemblies for the first STOVL test aircraft will occur in mid-2007. Soon thereafter, Crowley said, one airplane a month will begin final assembly. The second test airplane is scheduled to fly in early 2008.

Pentagon and Marine officials recently met with Lockheed and other contractors to review the design work on the STOVL aircraft, the most technologically and aerodynamically challenging of the three versions.

"They left that meeting saying they thought we had a viable STOVL design," Crowley said.

Last week, according to reports in defense publications, the Marines reversed an earlier decision to delay production of the F-35B by at least a year because they're now convinced that the airplane can be built, tested and fielded by 2011 as originally planned.

As assembly work begins on each new aircraft -- Lockheed has five forward fuselages under construction and Northrop Grumman nine mid-fuselage assemblies -- the benefits of modern computer-aided design and manufacturing technology become more evident.

Davis says he's impressed by how much the contractors have learned from past programs like the F-16, B-2 and F-117 about how to design not only a good airplane, but one that is simpler to build.

"The quality is much better than anything they've ever built," Davis said, while insisting that there's lots of room for Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems to continue to improve.

About 4,000 workers at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant are involved in F-35 design, production and development, out of 14,400 employees on the Lockheed payroll. F-35 employment is not expected to increase substantially until production ramps up later in the decade.

The program faces several hurdles involving the development of vast amounts of software that will control not only the airplane but the wide array of weapons, communications and other electronic systems necessary for the F-35 to fulfill its combat and intelligence-gathering roles.

About 38 percent of the software has been written, Crowley said, and is being tested in simulators. Early next year, Lockheed will begin flying a heavily modified Boeing 737 equipped with various F-35 radar, targeting and communications systems. Operators at 20 workstations aboard the aircraft will test and monitor how those systems work and how well they work together.

Now that much of the design work on the F-35B and the F-35A, the conventional-takeoff version -- and the simplest of the three models -- is pretty well done, Davis said, the program must turn its attention to the detailed design of the carrier version for the U.S. Navy.

That plane will have larger wings, a heavier structure in some cases and other components to allow it to withstand the rigors of carrier takeoffs and landings. But the weight must still be held to precise levels in order to maintain performance and combat capabilities.

"If we don't pay attention to that every day," Davis said, "we'll get ourselves in another situation like we did with STOVL."

By mid-2003, less than two years into the program, the design teams realized that the STOVL aircraft was overweight by at least 10 percent -- 3,000 pounds -- forcing a costly and time-consuming redesign that affected all three models.

But for now, Davis, Crowley and thousands of engineers, designers and production workers around the world are anxiously awaiting that first flight.

ONLINE: www.jsf.mil



F-35A - Conventional takeoff and landing

Customers: U.S. Air Force, most foreign nations

F-35B - Short takeoff and vertical landing

Customers: U.S. Marines, British Royal Navy, Italy

F-35C - Carrier-based.

Customer: U.S. Navy


Lockheed Martin Aeronautics,

Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems


U.S. military: 2,458 planes

Foreign partners: 600 to 700 planes


$276.5 billion for design, development and acquisition

SOURCE: Joint Strike Fighter Program Office



Executive vice president, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; general manager, F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, since May 2005.

Responsible for design, development, testing and transition to production of all F-35 variants.


1985 graduate of University of Texas at Austin

Bachelor of science, mechanical engineering

Master of science, manufacturing systems engineering

Sloan Fellow, Stanford University

Master of science, management

Previous positions

President, Lockheed Martin Simulation, Training & Support

Vice president, business development and advanced programs, Lockheed Martin Space and Strategic Missiles

Director and vice president, Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems

Plant manager, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, San Diego

Management positions at Lockheed's headquarters in Calabasas, Calif., and Lockheed Martin's headquarters in Bethesda, Md.


F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter program executive officer, since July 2006.


1979 graduate of U.S. Air Force Academy

Bachelor of science, chemistry

1991, Master of science, mechanical engineering, California State University, Fresno

1988 Graduate of experimental test pilot school

Attended Air Command and Staff College, Marine Corps Command and Staff College


Flying assignments include T-38, F-15, A-7, F-117A and F-16

Experimental test pilot with 3,300 hours flight time

Previous positions

Served on Air Staff; program director, Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (T-6A aircraft) commander, 410th Flight Test Squadron; F-117A Combined Test Squadron; 412th Test Wing
Bob Cox, 817-390-7723 rcox@star-telegram.com