The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter promises a military future for Cherry Point as it replaces older Marine Corps aircraft, but it already has a growing impact for North Carolina’s civilian economy.
Tom Burbage, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed-Martin, said in an interview that Fleet Readiness Center East has a “field team (that) is doing modifications on one of the operations of the aircraft at Yuma (Ariz.) as we speak.”
Burbage was the guest speaker Friday night at the Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation gala at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center, and he provided a history of the development of the aircraft and where it stands today.
“It will potentially be the biggest economic impact in North Carolina,” he told the sold-out crowd.
He said eight companies in North Carolina are making parts for the new jet with another five smaller contractors in the supply line.
“So we already have a little supply base in North Carolina and as we get more and more volume, that goes into these companies too, depending on the interest in North Carolina to be part of the process,” Burbage said in the interview.
Burbage said FRC East is the Navy aircraft repair depot designated for F-35 early modifications, and then for the mid-life overhaul of the military’s fifth generation airplane projected to be in flight from 50 to 53 years.
Depot engineers and craftsmen will work on “near term structural modifications to the air planes already built but still in testing when we find something in test that we need to go back and change,” he said.
That involvement is destined to increase as production of the Marine Corps short take off vertical landing (STOVL) version of the aircraft’s three F-35 variants progresses.
The F-35B Marine Corps version of the jet is already active with the first Marine squadron activating in Yuma, Ariz.
“The Marines are our strongest advocate and our strongest ally,” he told the crowd Friday night.
Though the Navy projects the first F-35B squadron at Cherry Point to activate in 2021 or 2022, Burbage told those attending the gala that the potential was there for an F-35B to fly in to Cherry Point this year.
“I’m as anxious as you are to see one come across the runway at Cherry Point,” he said.
During his speech, Burbage mentioned the international partnership that is part of the F-35 effort, including England and Italy among the nine partners.
He said in the interview that partners and multi-branch use of essentially the same aircraft are a major advantage for long-term purchase and repair cost, he said, but make the program cost sounds deceptively large. There’s never been a development program of this magnitude projected for so many years.
The plan is to build 2,443 JSFs for the United States, about 750 for the eight partner nations, and probably somewhere around the same for other program members, Burbage said. That would be between 3,500 and 4,500.
He said the cost of the first planes off the line would calculate to about $67 million each but design, uniformity and life of the F-35 trims the per plane cost significantly, and further in time, they are very competitive with the historical lifetime cost of other planes like the F-18 Super Hornet.
And the aircraft itself “changes the whole dynamic of aerial warfare,” he said, providing something you can’t put a dollar value on. “Its ability to network through all U.S. services and allies lets them fly and fight as a joint coalition force.”
Asked about public debate on whether the F-22 Raptor has already made some of the JSF technology obsolete, he said, “The Raptor was first to have some of the fifth generation technology plus some unique features but the F-35 is meant to be much broader. For what it was intended to do, it does it very well.”
Lockheed also developed the Raptor, and beginning in 1997 manufactured the plane many still consider the most advanced tactical fighter in the world. A 700-plane fleet was planned but had assorted unsolved problems and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed that production be stopped in May 2012 after only 187 were built.
“The F-35 is the first airplane to integrate all the features of the next generation airplane and is aerodynamically equivalent and in many ways better,” Burbage said. “It can carry things inside rather than hanging outside, promoting very good performance. But the real magic is the information it can collect and share. By any definition of what’s required for the future, it’s in a class by itself.”
Speaking to the grounding of an F-35B in testing a week ago, Burbage said, the move “was a routine precaution and should be resolved pretty soon.”
Involved was the first U.K. airplane being tested at Eglin Air Force Base, he said. “Before we clear it to go back in flight, we need to find out exactly why the control nozzle on the STOVL — which is controlled with fuel almost as its hydraulic fluid — ruptured a line in the system.”
He said. “The pilot aborted and there was no other issue with the airplane or pilot and it didn’t affect the other two variants, just the F35-B.”
There are about 25 F-35’s flying now, Burbage said.
“There are between 45 and 50 F-35B’s in production and a total of 132 of all three variants in some form of assembly or production,” he said.
In his speech, he mentioned technical innovations of the F-35, such as a unique cockpit configuration that could handle a pilot from 103 pounds to 250 pounds and a specially-designed helmet that allows the pilot instrumentation and a 360-degree horizontal and vertical look outside the aircraft.
“It’s a great ride,” he told the crowd in conclusion. “We’re on a good path on where we need to go.”
Havelock News editor Ken Buday contributed to this story.