An F-35 taxis out of a hangar at the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant and proceeds to the edge of a runway, the view of the Fort Worth skyline shimmering in the August heat.
A smaller sleek F-16, acting as a chase plane, pulls up behind the F-35 and slowly follows the futuristic stealth fighter as it prepares to take off on another test flight.
Soon the two Lockheed Martin jets — representing the Fort Worth plant’s past and future — take off in a loud roar, quickly becoming small specks in the sky.
Over the next few years, the skies around Fort Worth will be filled with even more F-35s on shakedown flights as the Lockheed Martin plant moves toward full production of what, at $391.1 billion, is called the most expensive U.S. weapons system ever made.
The plant has been building 30 to 40 airplanes a year, but that number is expected to triple by 2017 and hit almost 200 by the end of the decade, military and company officials said.
To get ready, the Fort Worth plant is in the midst of a $1.2 billion upgrade — its biggest since the F-16 was developed in the 1970s — to support the aggressive production schedule.
Lockheed will hire incrementally, as production ramps up, starting late this year and early next year, assuming Congress passes a budget providing the funds for increased jet purchases.
Inside the mile-long facility, sections of the production line are draped in heavy plastic as new assembly areas are being installed. Outside, workers dangle from portable lifts as they refurbish nine hangars with plans to possibly build two more.
“We have lots of construction [underway],” said Lorraine Martin, Lockheed’s general manager for the F-35 program. “We’re building more structures on the flight line, more run stations, more engine run locations, the ability to have more aircraft in our paint shop.
“We also need to hire workers. So over the next couple of years, we’ll probably add another 1,000 employees to our production line.”
Martin said that hiring will occur incrementally, as production ramps up, starting late this year and early next year assuming that Congress passes a budget providing money for increased jet purchases.
The expansion will roughly double the number of workers on the production line in west Fort Worth, with more likely in other areas to support the increased activity. Currently, Lockheed Martin employs about 13,000 people in Fort Worth, 8,800 of them assigned to the F-35 program.
The upcoming hiring spree is expected to benefit a local economy hard hit by the tough times in the oil patch. The defense industry giant says there are 73 North Texas suppliers for the F-35 program, which already account for about 10,000 jobs and 28,000 indirect jobs.
“This couldn’t come at a better time for Fort Worth or the state,” said Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. Manufacturing jobs on average pay $25 an hour in wages, far higher than the $14 an hour in the service sector, she said.
Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Bank, agrees.
“You bring in 1,000 well-paid assembly line workers and you will have a positive effect on the economy, not only with suppliers but with restaurants and other places,” Dye said. “This is a very positive development for the North Texas economy.”
But the ongoing budget stalemate in Washington threatens to upset those plans. Last week, Congress passed a stopgap spending measure to avoid a government shutdown that extends spending at current levels until mid-December. If lawmakers cannot reach a new budget deal and this continuing resolution is extended for a full budget year, it would freeze F-35 spending, meaning that 19 additional jets would not be built next year as planned.
If that happens, hiring and expansion at Lockheed in Fort Worth are likely to be delayed.
Back on track
After more than a decade of development, and many stumbles and setbacks, the F-35 appears to have finally arrived.
The program started in 2001 when Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing in a competiton to produce the joint strike fighter. Lockheed teamed with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems on the project.
The United States and eight other countries — Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey — created a global partnership to build and develop the F-35. Japan, Israel and South Korea are also foreign military customers.
Since the F-35 was envisioned as a replacement for several military aircraft — the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, the EQ-6B Prowler, the F-16 and the A-10 — Lockheed was tasked with building three versions of the aircraft, each with unique characteristics.
An F-35 in 2013 cost $112 million, but by 2014 the priced dropped to $108 million and by the time full scale-production is achieved the pricetag is expected to be $80 million to $85 million.
The F-35B, for the Marines, is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings. The F-35A, a shade lighter and sleeker, is being built for the Air Force. The F-35C, with its bigger wings and tail span, is being built for Navy carrier landings.
By July, Lockheed Martin had built 148 copies, but getting to this point has not been easy.
Technical issues with software and other complex systems caused delays and boosted costs. At one time, the F-35 ran so much over budget and fell so far behind schedule that the Pentagon put the program on probation in 2010. Eventually, two years were added to the program, along with $4.5 billion more for development. Since the probation was lifted in 2012, performance has improved and the F-35 program has won praise from its customers.
“We re-baselined the program and since then, we have been able to meet all of our milestones,” Martin said. “We have also been bringing the cost down, not only on the aircraft but on all aspects of the program.”
In July, the progress was rewarded when the Marine Corps declared that the first 10 F-35Bs, the most complicated version, were combat-ready. Analysts said this stamp of approval will lead to the other military branches making the same decision if the fighter continues to perform as expected.
Last month, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon’s program executive officer for the F-35, told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that after years of challenges the program is ready to take off.
“We are beyond slow and steady progress on the F-35 program now. We are in the phase of rapidly accelerating and growing,” Bogdan said, according to a report on BreakingDefense.com.
Laser-guided drills and gee-whiz electronics
Michael Rein, director of F-35 communications for Lockheed, said the program is poised for “18 months of potential greatness” that includes reaching initial operation capability, or combat-ready status, by the Air Force in 2016 and doubling the delivery of its jets to its foreign customers.
Last month, Lockheed delivered its first F-35 to Norway. The first F-35 built in Italy also had its inaugural flight and the first two jets were delivered to Hill Air Force Base in Utah for testing as part of the program to reach combat-ready status for the Air Force.
As we go forward, you will see about 1,000 more hired over the next three or four years.
Michael Rein, director of F-35 communications for Lockheed Martin
But to really get things off the ground, there will have to be changes at what many old-timers still refer to as “the bomber plant.” Now it takes about two years to build a plane, from the time parts come into the plant to when the structure flows completely through the u-shaped assembly line and becomes a plane people recognize. At full rate of production, it will take 14 months.
Since 2010, Lockheed has spent $750 million preparing for the ramping-up and plans to spend $500 million more in the next few years. “We have to get to a point where we’re producing 200 a year. In order to do that, we have to do a lot of changes to this plant,” Rein said.
For example, construction workers have been re-laying about 300,000 cubic feet of old 1940s-era concrete to make way for 11 new assembly stations. Why? Since the rivet holes are burned into the fuselage by laser-guided drills, the floors must be perfectly level.
Hidden beneath the fighter jet’s skin are gee-whiz electronics that allow the pilot to actually see through the bottom of the plane. New electronic mating and assembly stations, or EMAS, are being added to allow workers to crawl in and out of the superstructure. Each new station costs about $6.5 million.
“The F-35 is basically what we call a flying computer. It’s very different from the planes that were built during the Nixon era in the 1970s that have been flying for the last 40 years,” Rein said. “The technology in this plane is like nothing else.”
In the paint shop next door, workers carefully apply tape and paper as they mask an F-35 in preparation to receive its radar-absorbing stealth coating. To keep the assembly line flowing, the number of high-tech paint booths is being doubled to 16.
The program is in a vastly better place than it was a few years ago.
Richard Aboulafia, analyst with the Teal Group
Lockheed is scheduled to build 3,170 F-35s, with the program ending in 2039. But company officials, particularly with the involvement of its foreign partners, say that number may climb.
The ramping-up will help reduce costs for the United States and its international partners. A variation of the F-35 in 2013 cost $112 million, but by 2014 it was $108 million and by the time full-scale production is achieved in 2019 the price tag is expected to be slashed to $80-$85 million, according to military and company officials.
“Our position is that we’ll never pay $108 million again,” said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 program. “Every year that price is going down. That is good for the enterprise and it is good for the taxpayer.”
Concerns about the F-35’s cost still haunt the program, especially as Congress looks at cutting federal spending. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has warned that short-term thinking on funding the program could damage it as it just begins to gain momentum.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said that while the F-35’s cost remains high, the overall program has definitely “turned a corner” and there are “enough orders in the pipeline to support the ramp up over the next five years.”
“The program is in a vastly better place than it was a few years ago,” Aboulafia said.
Matthew Maurer said he is ready for the F-35 program to take flight. Maurer, site general manager for landing systems in Fort Worth for UTC Aerospace Systems, which builds the landing gear for the F-35, said UTC will definitely hire more employees, and it already has. When it set up shop here in 2011 it had 15 employees. Now there are 90.
“We have grown up as the F-35 begins to ramp up,” Maurer said. “We expect to see a lot more F-35s in the sky.”