Family of Lockheed workers shares history of plant

Before 42-year-old Kevin Burns was hired at the west-side plant that is now home to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, his father, Jerry, was there. And before that, Jerry’s father, Calvin, was there, too.

In fact, the Burns family’s aerospace legacy in Cowtown is almost as old as the plant itself. Calvin Burns, the patriarch, was hired as a machine tool repairman in 1946 — just five years after the plant opened.

“I [still] meet people at the plant, and they say, ‘Burns, I know a Burns — R.C. Burns.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad,’ ” said Jerry Burns, 63.

The Burns family represents the generations of Fort Worth production workers who have labored over seven decades building the nation’s most technologically advanced war fighters. While Lockheed doesn’t kept statistics on families in its workforce, which totals more than 14,000, the plant has seen its share of fathers and sons work on the line.

Each generation of Burns men has worked on a more advanced model of aircraft than its predecessor, from the heyday of bombers and F-111s to F-16s and the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter.

“The things out here, you can’t see anyplace in the world,” said Kevin Burns, a lead material handler on the F-35. “All these secrets and processes are here, and you have to interface with them because you have to go fix them.”

Calvin Burns, who retired from Lockheed three years before his death in 1988, set the stage for three generations of aircraft assemblers and gadget pioneers. All three generations have spent their lives just a few miles from the giant aerospace complex.

When Calvin Burns was at the plant, workers had to build machinery that would then be used to make parts for fighters and bombers, like the B-36 and the F-111.

“He loved it out here,” Jerry Burns said of his father, who grew up and lived in White Settlement. “He mainly talked about the people. He had fascinating stories about people with names like Shorty and Shotgun.”

Jerry Burns, now mayor of White Settlement, said it made sense to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Growing up with Dad was like that. If anything broke around the house, he could fix it,” Jerry Burns said. “A part of my younger training was watching him fix all kinds of things, and so I went into maintenance.”

By the time the second-generation Burns was hired on April 18, 1977, everything had changed, he said.

The aircraft were faster and sleeker. Specialized machinery was brought in from outside vendors. The work became more skilled and stylized. Those were the days when production of the fourth-generation F-16 was in full swing.

As a stationary engineer, Burns ensures that temperatures are under control for bonding of parts and paint on aircraft. Burns’ power machinery can cool up to 400 homes in one whiff, and he has several copies of the equipment on hand.

“I worked on air-conditioning equipment, and this was the only place they made it,” Burns said.

“This is a fascinating place. You think you’ve seen it all? You can be here 50 years and you haven’t seen it it all.”

Following his grandfather

Kevin Burns has the final say-so on which planes are ready for the flight line. Without his approval, no F-35 can move out the door.

“They are pretty much ready to fly when I leave here,” he said.

As each F-35 is built in stations along a 1 1/4-mile-long assembly line, the third-generation Burns is the guy who ensures that all the pieces are in place: the fuselage, the wings, the cockpit.

If the jet has a secret item, the youngest Burns knows about it and makes sure it stays a secret. He is also the guy who handles “confidential” deliveries of equipment and parts.

“My cellphone rings quite a bit just answering questions,” said Kevin Burns, who lives in Saginaw.

Kevin Burns said he always thought about working at Lockheed. As a kid, he would trail his grandfather to work-related functions and special events.

The youngest Burns, for example, was on a first-name basis with former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright because his grandfather knew Wright.

Now, Kevin Burns’ 15-year-old son, Logan, is asking lots of questions about the F-35, Kevin and Jerry Burns said.

“I can see him coming out here,” Jerry Burns said. “He’s like his daddy. But he will probably come out here as a general.”