Baker, Ahles & Kaskovich

Lockheed CEO confident F-35 on cusp of “major milestone”

Jeff George, CEO of Alcon Labs, spoke at Fort Worth Rotary luncheon on Friday.
Jeff George, CEO of Alcon Labs, spoke at Fort Worth Rotary luncheon on Friday. Star-Telegram

After years of dealing with technical problems and concerns over rising costs, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program may finally be on the verge of moving into high gear.

On Wednesday, Lockheed’s chief executive officer, Marillyn Hewson, said at an investment conference that the program is approaching a “major milestone” this summer when the Marine Corps is expected to declare the fighter jet ready for combat operations.

Then Friday, the Pentagon’s weapons czar Frank Kendall told reporters that the U.S. government and some international partners are considering ordering 450 F-35s over three years starting in 2018, saying officials are “very encouraged” by progress on the program.

This is all great news for Fort Worth, where increased production on the F-35 could add hundreds of jobs at Lockheed’s aeronautics complex in west Fort Worth at a time when the city’s other defense contractor, Bell Helicopter, has been slashing jobs. About 8,800 people work on the F-35 in Fort Worth.

Speaking at the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Decisions investment conference, Hewson said she expects the Marines to put the “IOC” label on the first batch of the advanced fighter jets this summer. That designation, which stands for Initial Operating Capability, would allow its use in combat missions. The Air Force is expected to follow on its version of the F-35 in 2016 and the Navy in 2018, she said.

“We are confident,” she said.

This month, the Marines have been putting the F-35B through the paces with operational tests at sea aboard the USS Wasp. So far, so good.

Just a year ago, the program suffered a big setback when an engine caught fire during a test flight in Florida, prompting the military to ground the fleet and scrub a highly anticipated appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow in Great Britain. Last month, the Government Accountability Office issued a sour report that questioned the reliability of the jet’s engines made by Pratt & Whitney.

But Hewson and Kendall believe that Lockheed and its manufacturing partners are overcoming these problems.

Lockheed is working through software issues, Hewson said, and Pratt & Whitney “got to the root cause” of the engine fire.

“It’s all part of the development process,” Hewson said. “They [Pratt & Whitney] know what they’ve got to do and they’re working with the joint program office of the government to make sure they’re on that path.”

The F-35 remains in its development phase, but work is starting to ramp up. Lockheed expects to build 45 F-35s this year, up from 36 in 2014, Hewson said.

The Lockheed chief also had good news about the F-16. The 40-year-old fighter jet program, which was expected to wind down, may snag more foreign sales with the United Arab Emirates a likely purchaser and upgrades from other countries.

Order backlogs have extended the life of the F-16 line in west Fort Worth to the third quarter of 2017.

Alcon’s vision: a bigger cafeteria

Alcon has been expanding in Fort Worth since it was purchased by Novartis in 2011, including a $35 million data center currently under construction. Next on the agenda: a new cafeteria.

The eye-care company’s chief executive, Jeff George, said at a Fort Worth Rotary Club luncheon on Friday that design planning is underway on enhancements at its headquarters, including an expanded cafeteria with outdoor seating.

Alcon now has about 5,000 employees in Fort Worth. The company, a worldwide leader in surgical equipment and pharmaceuticals to treat eye problems such as glaucoma and cataracts, is the No. 2 division at the Swiss drug giant.

George, 41, took over as CEO a year ago after running some Novartis operations in Europe for about 8 years. He told the gathering that coming to Alcon “feels like full circle to me,” recounting his own vision problems as a child.

“I have really bad vision, extreme myopia in both eyes,” he said. “What was scary to me as a teen-ager was I was going to the optometrist eight to 10 times a year, then five or six times a year to the opthalmologist, because my vision was deteriorating every month.”

Now, he said, he’s grateful to have the opportunity to serve at a company dedicated to improving people’s eyesight.

Fresh Market sets opening in Fort Worth

The Fresh Market will open its specialty grocery store in Fort Worth’s new WestBend shopping center on June 17.

The North Carolina-based grocer, which opened in Southlake in January, feature a broad selection of produce, fish and meats, a well-stocked deli area and up-and-coming brands that aren’t widely available.

WestBend, on University Drive just south of Interstate 30 across from University Park Village, will also be home for a Tyler’s apparel store, Zoe’s Kitchen and Grimaldi’s Brick-Oven Pizzeria.

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631

Twitter: @Sky_Talk

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727

Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST

Steve Kaskovich, 817-390-7773

Twitter: @stevekasko