F-35's manufacturers put civilians in 'cockpit'

Rep. Donna F. Edwards slipped into the F-35 cockpit — a stationary demonstration model — and gave the jet a simulated spin, trying out the controls, shooting down enemy aircraft over the Chesapeake Bay and executing a celebratory roll.

"This feels so cool," said Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat. "OK, let's land this thing — give somebody else a chance."

This hands-on version of show and tell, held in Linthicum on Thursday, is part of a public-relations campaign for the most expensive weapons program in the nation's history. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin and its partners want elected officials and the media to see what the new jet can do — a counter to years of stories and congressional hearings about delays, technical problems and massive cost overruns.

"The program has kind of hit its stride," said Daniel P. Conroy, director of the Air Force F-35 program for Lockheed's Washington operations. "We're delivering aircraft; flight test is on a tremendous pace."

The F-35 Lightning II is designed to replace many older tactical jets used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Its variants will perform both air-to-air combat and ground attack, taking the place of the Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter and A-10 Warthog close-air-support aircraft, and the Navy's and Marines' F/A-18 Hornet fighter/attack jet. A variant capable of very short takeoffs and landings will replace the Marines' A/V-8B Harrier. Most of those aircraft were developed in the 1970s.

Maryland has a stake in the program's fate. Lockheed said the F-35 program provides jobs for nearly 1,000 people in the state, including about 240 at Northrop Grumman's sprawling Linthicum complex.

Workers there make radar for the planes. Northrop's locally based electronic systems sector also is responsible for the F-35's "distributed aperture system," which uses sensors to give pilots a 360-degree view of the environment and a heads-up on threats. That system is manufactured in Illinois but managed from Linthicum.

Analysts think the F-35 program isn't likely to be shut down now that the planes are being produced and tested. But they can see why Lockheed, the program's prime contractor, wants to shore up support.

It's a tough budget environment for a big line item, let alone one often described as "troubled." Lockheed doesn't want orders cut back again, as they were early on in the program.

"It's a massive program," said William Loomis, who analyzes the defense industry for Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore and expects the 2,443-plane order will be reduced eventually. "Every year, it's going to get pounded in the budget hearings and be a target because of its size and delays."

Estimated acquisition costs for the F-35 have ballooned from $233 billion nearly a dozen years ago — when Lockheed won the competition for the contract — to nearly $400 billion, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in April.

And that's for about 400 fewer planes than originally anticipated.

The Pentagon originally expected that the jets would be in full production by last year, rather than still in testing. Now the estimate is 2019, the GAO said.

The agency said program performance is improving in some areas, but problems remain. Contractors, for instance, still are working to fix deficiencies in the helmet-mounted display that are so significant, they're also developing a second helmet design in case the first can't be used, the GAO said.

And a Pentagon memo, written in February and acquired by the Project on Government Oversight, identified a list of "serious" problems found in testing, including a potential fire risk in the fuel system and lack of lightning protection.

Competitors see a potential opportunity. Boeing, which lost the race to build the jet, is pitching its cheaper Super Hornet strike fighter to Canada as that country re-evaluates whether to buy the F-35. The company is running its own simulator event next week on Capitol Hill.

Lockheed, which says every flight-test operation has growing pains, insists it is reining in the expense of construction.

"The costs continue to come down because we're learning to build the aircraft better," Conroy said.

Beyond that, he added, "The way you continue to save money and bring costs down … is by building them in quantity. So the single most important thing we can do right now, and we obviously need the help of the government to do this, is to keep that production rate climbing."

So far, funding for purchases is flat, Stifel's Loomis said. President Barack Obama's budget request for the fiscal year beginning in October asks for funding to buy 29 of the jets, the same number he requested for the current year.