Bobby Tamplin was 26 years old in 1977, when he went to work as a parts fabricator on the F-16 fighter jet. At the time, he was told his job would last “maybe five years.”
Forty years later, the 66-year-old recently stood on a windy, cold flight line at Lockheed Martin — just a few weeks before his retirement — to bid goodbye to the last F-16 to be built in Fort Worth. It is a bittersweet moment for Tamplin, who grew up working on the assembly line, to remember a time when the plant built almost one fighter a day.
“It was an aerospace milestone to see that many planes come and go every day,” Tamplin said. “But it was exciting.”
Later, when thinking about all the places the F-16 flies, he also said he felt a great responsibility. “You are producing an aircraft that is not only going to change Fort Worth, but it’s going to change air forces all over the world.”
But it’s the end of the line for Tamplin and the Fort Worth F-16 production line. To make way for growing production of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, Lockheed is moving the F-16’s assembly line to Greenville, South Carolina. While engineering, design and modernization activities will remain in Fort Worth, the last Cowtown jet flew out of town Nov. 14.
Over the life of the program, Lockheed has delivered 4,588 F-16s, including 3,620 built in Fort Worth. Along the way the F-16 program created tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs that helped countless middle-class families buy cars, build houses and send their kids to college.
“It is a remarkable success story from every perspective,” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group. “Decade over decade, nothing rivals the F-16. It helped make Fort Worth the great aerospace industry cluster that it is today. It is more legend than an airplane.”
“It is hard to describe the importance of the F-16,” said Pete Geren, the former Fort Worth congressman and a Pentagon official in two presidential administrations. He said small business suppliers relied on the work done at the plant, which Lockheed bought from General Dynamics in 1993.
“It is important to Fort Worth but it has been an aircraft that has been highly significant in the military history of the world,” said Geren, president of the Sid Richardson Foundation, a nonprofit run by the billionaire Bass family. “It’s a great American success story. It’s a great Fort Worth success story.”
The plant was ‘rockin’
The F-16 had a hard time getting off the ground.
In the early 1970s, a group nicknamed the “fighter mafia” — two rebel Air Force colonels, a Pentagon analyst and a General Dynamics engineer — argued against conventional wisdom for a smaller, relatively simple and inexpensive design that could be produced by the hundreds.
The F-16 was a reaction to the high cost and significant problems with previous fighters, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. General Dynamics eventually won a five-company dogfight to build a fourth-generation fighter for the Pentagon.
“It turned aircraft development in a different direction to simpler aircraft less prone to mechanical and electronic failures,” while also emphasizing mission flexibility, Thompson said. “Up to that point, aircraft had become more complicated and more expensive and it turned that around.”
The first production F-16 rolled off the assembly line in August 1978. It was built for the U.S. Air Force, but orders for the jet from other countries took off when they saw what the jet could do. At its peak in the late 1980s, 30,000 people worked in west Fort Worth, where the plant turned out about one F-16 a day.
Eddie Lynch, a 40-year veteran, can still hear the chatter of the drills echoing through the cavernous plant as three shifts hustled to keep up with orders. Lynch assembled and attached wings for about 30 years. Unlike the F-35, in the beginning the F-16 was largely hand made.
“It was rockin’,” Lynch said. “The place was loud.”
Robin “Robbie” Atkins speaks with great pride about his role in the F-16 story. When he was hired in 1978, the first F-16 was on the flight line, the second one was on the fuel rack and the third was in final assembly. A painter and coater, he has worked alongside every single fighter built in Fort Worth.
Atkins has been on the front lines with the F-16. He supported co-production efforts in Turkey and Israel, sometimes being away from home for up to 11 months.
“I was in Israel one morning arriving at Base One and mortar shells had been fired into northern Israel and the F-16 alert squadron had already taken off and retaliated,” in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Atkins said. “The whole base was rumbling with 20 more F-16s getting pre-flighted to hit the air.”
“You see things like that, you get a bond with an airplane,” Atkins said. “I still think it’s a valuable fourth-generation aircraft. I think they should build some more.”
Flying into the future
Building more F-16s is precisely what Lockheed hopes to do, just not in Fort Worth.
First and foremost, Lockheed needs the room at the plant for the ramp up of its next legacy fighter jet project, the F-35. The company, which employs about 14,500 people in Fort Worth — 8,800 on the F-35 program — plans to hire an additional 1,800 employees by 2020.
This year Lockheed will build 66 F-35s. It plans to produce as many as 160 a year by 2019.
Moving the F-16 to its Greenville plant was logical, since that’s where Lockheed is developing the new T-50A trainer that shares some of the same engineering DNA of the Fighting Falcon’s design.
Lockheed also is on the cusp of selling 19 new F-16 fighters to Bahrain in a deal worth $2.7 billion, a price tag that could grow to $4 billion if an upgrade is included. And earlier this year, the Air Force extended the service life of the F-16, meaning that it will be using the fighter to 2048 and beyond.
Of the 4,588 F-16s built worldwide, about 3,200 are still flying today, said John Losinger, the company’s F-16 spokesman. The last 36 F-16s built in Fort Worth were sold to the Iraqi air force.
“The sun never sets on the F-16,” Losinger said. “Even after Fort Worth’s last production jet departs, the F-16 is not going anywhere.”
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives