FORT WORTH — Louis Gonzalez was 20 years old when he was hired as a machinist at the Air Force plant that's now the home of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.On Friday, the Benbrook resident, now 55 and a manufacturing specialist at the huge factory, watched the 100th F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter roll off the line. Its the product of years of development by thousands of workers at the west Fort Worth facility.Its exciting to see an airplane flying and we had a part in it, Gonzalez said. Its building up steam, the more planes we put out.At noon, Gonzalez and thousands of production workers looked on during a special inauguration ceremony to commemorate the milestone. The $400 billion F-35 program is the largest defense weapons system in U.S. history. Another 90 copies of the jet fighter are in various stages of production at the plant, and about 87 aircraft have been delivered to the Defense Department so far. Early in 2014, the F-35 unveiled Friday is expected to be delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Its also the 7,000 jet built at the Air Force plant since the it opened in the 1940s, Lockheed officials said.Its an accomplishment, said Hazel McCloskey, an 11-year employee at the plant.The 45-minute inauguration ceremony drew numerous dignitaries, including military personnel and local elected officials, including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. Representatives of numerous Texas congressional leaders and senators also attended the event. Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the air education and training command at Randolph Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, congratulated the thousands of Lockheed production workers who stood by.We get the nice wine, the great meals and all the accolades, Rand told them. But you are the folks 24/7 making it happen. Its those patriots who are doing that.The F-35 aircraft is expected to keep our kids and our grandkids safe and to protect the nation from enemy aggression, Rand said. We are going to use this aircraft in anger.Executive Vice President Orlando Carvalho and other top Lockheed officials described the program as being on stronger footing than ever before. While workers have read reports and headlines that the F-35 program isnt good enough, it cost too much, it doesnt work, employees have stuck to a single-minded conviction to deliver, Carvalho told his audience.Prior to the ceremony, Executive Vice President and General Manager Lorraine Martin provided a quick briefing to reporters.Its been a transformative year for the program, Martin said.The company is touting the cost of the aircraft, which had spun out of control in recent years, saying its now just under $100 million a copy.After years of setbacks, cost overruns and design issues, the $400 billion jet fighter program appears to have stabilized this year, according to industry analysts and others. Several Pentagon officials visited Lockheeds plant in June to voice stronger support and optimism for the program, saying they were cautiously optimistic about production efforts.A major turning point was the declining cost for more recent versions of the aircraft, Pentagon officials have said. Contracts for Lots 6 and 7 showed a cost reduction from previous lots, Martin said. The company submitted its Lot 8 proposal to the Pengaton and hopes to settle a contract in the spring, Martin said.We do expect the price to come down lot after lot, Martin said. The uncertainty regarding any of our customers budgets depends on how much money they will have.Budgets for the Defense Department have been hampered by the threat of sequestration cuts. In addition, as wars wrap up in Afghanistan and Iraq, the expectation is that there will be greater call for tighter military budgets.Adding to the optimism, Martin said, are improved relationships between Lockheed and Pentagon officials. In past years, Pentagon officials expressed frustration with Lockheeds former leadership team. This year, Lockheed named new leadership, including Martin and Carvalho.He and I on our teams dont let things sit, Martin said, referring to Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagons program manager on the F-35 program.Lockheed expects to build about 30 of the aircraft this year. Martin said the company is about 60 days behind schedule in flight hours and test points on the aircraft, and told told reporters she would have more specifics by the end of the year.We will make sure were sharing those as we have in the past, she told reporters.Martin also spoke about F-35 pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. To date, 944 maintenance personnel have been trained to work on the aircraft, and 92 pilots have completed training on flying the jet, she said.The goal is that by 2019, an F-35 fifth-generation fighter will cost less than the fourth-generation fighter, she said. That will include weapons capability, radar and other equipment.On cost, the latest lot of aircraft was a 55 percent reduction in cost from lots 1-7, she said. The latest lot of aircraft, Lot 7, came under $100 million, which includes the airframe only, she said.The learning curve is still important, she said. The silly stuff you learn fast, and as you go forward, you start to refine how you start building the aircraft and yes, if you buy more, it will be cheaper.Why should the government buy more jets?Martin said the U.S. and most nations need the aircraft because its going to bring someone home safely and be able to be in theater [to face] not only the threats today but in the future, Martin said. The U.S. and other nations are all focused on what are their defense posture, how are their current fleets aging and when do they make decision to add this to their inventory.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard