A fighter on the line

Times Staff Writer

Not since the days of Rosie the Riveter have the nation's military aircraft been built on an assembly line.

For almost as long as anyone can remember, fighters and bombers have been built like houses: one by one, each taking weeks, if not months, to come together.

But if all goes well, the newest jet in the nation's arsenal will be assembled more like a car: on a moving line in a process that the Pentagon hopes will dramatically cut costs and speed production.

"We're going to build one a day, which the industry hasn't seen in a while," said Randy Secor, deputy program manager for the F-35 Lightning II at Northrop Grumman Corp., which is to assemble the fuselage in Palmdale.

"We're going to revolutionize the way aviation is done," Tom Burbage, F-35 program manager for primary contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., said after the first test flight last month in Fort Worth.

The assembly line revives an approach last in vogue during World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the production of 50,000 military aircraft a year.

That required a massive buildup of the civilian workforce and a break with the traditional way of making planes. One aircraft plant operated by Ford Motor Co. used assembly line methods perfected by company founder Henry Ford to churn out bombers at the rate of one an hour.

Assembly line production was feasible back then because aircraft were far less complicated. It was decades before designers could even dream of such features as the F-35's ability to evade radar, get airborne using only 200 yards of runway, fly at supersonic speed and, as in one version, be able to take off and land like a helicopter.

But as planes grew in complexity and production was scaled back from the frenetic wartime pace, the aircraft conveyor belt went the way of the Ford Edsel.

Half a century later, knowing that more than 5,000 F-35 jets could be ordered, Northrop of Century City and Lockheed of Bethesda, Md., are looking at the past to build for the future.

The F-35 would be the only fighter to enter production in the next decade, and could even be the last piloted warplane aircraft bought by a U.S. military that is shifting to robotic planes and other means of delivering weapons to their targets.

The three basic variants of the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, are intended to replace Air Force F-16s, Navy F/A-18s and Marine Corps AV-8Bs.

In the next two decades, the Pentagon plans to spend $276 billion to buy 2,500 F-35s. Several key U.S. allies, which are paying about 10% of the development program's cost, already have proposed buying 700 F-35s. Foreign governments could eventually buy more than 3,000 planes.

Faced with such demand, Northrop has turned a cavernous plant in Palmdale into a state-of-the-art assembly line, with a high-tech rail system serving as the aviation version of a conveyor belt.

Replacing the overhead cranes used in traditional aircraft factories to haul parts to a workstation will be a jig that resembles a scaffold. It will move on rails to workstations where robotic tools will attach parts and install wiring.

The fuselage will travel to the workers doing the assembly, not the other way around. In another first, the line will be capable of producing one complete fuselage for any of the three F-35 versions without interruption or reconfiguration of the process.

"We brought in the auto industry to help us," Secor said. "It's going to boost the quality of work, keep us on schedule and reduce costs."

Other aerospace contractors have experimented with assembly lines in recent years.

Hoping to cut costs and increase efficiency, Boeing Co. in 2001 began testing a moving line at its 717 jetliner plant in Long Beach. But with few orders, the aircraft program was canceled. Boeing recently started using a moving line for part of the assembly of its 777 passenger jet.

One obstacle to the wider use of assembly lines has been the expense of retrofitting factories, particularly when they are still churning out airplanes. Northrop had no such problem, however, because it had a plant that had been idled since the last B-2 stealth bomber rolled out of it in 2000.

Northrop anticipates that it will be able to assemble one complete F-35 fuselage a day in Palmdale. By comparison, a Northrop plant in El Segundo assembles one F/A-18 fighter jet fuselage every nine days on average.

The assembled center fuselage will be shipped to Lockheed's Fort Worth plant to be mated with other sections of the aircraft. The Texas plant also will have a moving assembly line.

Northrop and Lockheed plan to phase in the lines over the next few years as they make test versions of the jet.

Despite employing newer technologies and costlier materials, the F-35 promises to be cheaper than the F/A-18, which it will replace. The Navy version is expected to cost about $55 million, or $5 million less than a comparable new F/A-18.

Not everyone is sold on the assembly line idea.

Hans Weber, president of aerospace and technology consulting firm Tecop International in San Diego, is not convinced that a moving line will be more efficient.

"I don't think it's all that important," Weber said. "How they organize the flow of parts and materials to the airplane is more important than if it is moving slowly or if it is stationary."

In addition, any problems along the moving line could ripple quickly, much as an auto accident backs up traffic on a freeway. (Lockheed representatives, for their part, say that the possibility of holding up an entire line will force engineers and mechanics to react more quickly to problems and to fix them on the first try.)

Other observers are concerned about longer-term budgetary and strategic issues.

The high production rates that Northrop and Lockheed are planning on are contingent on continued funding for the F-35 program, which has had its share of troubles and critics in light of the costly military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"How can we afford it?" asked John Pike, a security policy analyst with GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.

Pike said the program could face its biggest hurdle in about 10 years, when new unmanned-aircraft technologies and precision weapons, coupled with shifting military strategy, could make the F-35 obsolete.

"The whole idea of tactical aviation like the F-35 was predicated on fighting the North Koreans from South Korea, or fighting the Soviets in East Germany from West Germany, where a short-haul aircraft made sense," he said.

"We have to look at a future in which we have no allies to base our planes. That means we need long-range bombers."

The F-35 faces "little cutback risk" in the next year or two, said Cai von Rumohr, an aerospace analyst at Cowen & Co.

"The F-35 represents a major U.S. export potential that could be jeopardized if the program falters, increasing the odds that business would go to European competitors," he wrote in a note to investors.

Long before last month's initial test flight, the fighter had weathered its share of turbulence.

The F-35 program was launched in October 2001. But less than 18 months into development, engineers had to begin redesigning the plane to cut its weight significantly. That delayed the program by a year, and development costs, projected initially at about $33 billion, were pushed up to $40.5 billion.

Satisfying all eight foreign partners has proved difficult. Britain, for example, threatened to walk away after investing $2 billion if it didn't receive access to key technologies. The country, which wants to buy 138 jets over 16 years, signed a memorandum of understanding to stay on just days before the first flight. The governments haven't said whether the dispute has been resolved.

Few dispute the F-35's capabilities.

In addition to evading radar detection, the F-35 is slated to have a new generation of targeting sensors and satellite-guided precision weapons that would allow the fighter to operate at medium altitude, out of harm's way. Fighter jets currently in combat can't evade radar and must fly low to provide support for troops on the ground, and thus are easily visible and vulnerable to ground fire.

"We need this plane right now," said Brig. Gen. (Select) Robert Walsh, the Marine Corps' assistant deputy commandant for aviation, who recently returned from fighting in Iraq.

"It could save a lot of Marines' lives."

peter.pae@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Three in one

Three variants of the F-35 are planned. All are to be single-seat fighters with radar-evading technology, internally carried weapons -- including two air-to-air missiles and two precision bombs -- and a single engine providing for a top speed of Mach 1.6 (about 1,200 mph). A look at each model:

F-35A

Conventional takeoff and landing version for the Air Force. Designed to replace the F-16 and A-10.

* Height: 14.2 ft.

* Length: 51.5 ft.

* Wingspan: 35 ft.

* Wing area: 460 sq. ft.

* Range (internal fuel tanks): 1,200 nautical miles

* Initial operational capability: 2013

* Estimated price: $45 million

F-35B

Short takeoff and vertical landing variant designed for the Marine Corps to replace the F/A-18 and AV-8B. It is the only F-35 model that will have a powerful lift fan embedded in the fuselage, allowing it to be deployed aboard Navy amphibious assault ships and close to battlefields because it will not need runways.

* Height: 14.1 ft.

* Length: 51.3 ft.

* Wingspan: 35 ft.

* Wing area: 460 sq. ft.

* Range (internal fuel tanks): 900 nautical miles

* Initial operational capability: 2012

* Estimated price: $55 million

F-35C

Variant for the Navy that can take off and land on aircraft carriers. It will replace the F/A-18.

* Height: 14.7 ft.

* Length: 51.5 ft.

* Wingspan: 43 ft.

* Wing area: 668 sq. ft.

* Range (internal fuel tanks): 1,400 nautical miles

* Initial operational capability: 2013

* Estimated price: $55 million

Sources: Department of Defense, Teal Group Corp.

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