Repairs to keep workers at Cherry Point for decades.

Workers at Fleet Readiness Center East are celebrating the facility’s confirmation as the future lift fan repair center for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

“It’s a big deal,” said Jeff O’Connell, site lead and depot lead for the F-35 program at FRC East. “A lot of people like the area, like their jobs and they want to see their kids work here just like a lot of these guys. Their families have grown up here so they know the importance of that workload being here. Even people who don’t have people working on this base know the importance of that for sure, so there’s definitely excitement about that work being here.”

FRC East was selected five years ago as the future home of the test facility but the Joint Program Office began looking into the possibility of re-examining that decision this fall and perhaps opening a competitive bid process for the work. In the end, officials decided against such a move, potentially saving current jobs and creating some new ones over the next five decades.

Col. Vincent E. Clark, commanding officer at FRC East, credited the facility’s workers.

“They find a way to accomplish the mission,” he said. “That goes back to the creativity, the ingenuity, the innovation of our people here. The workforce here at FRC East, they just find a way, continually, so that drive to pull up costs from the program, re-sharpening, thinking of other options, that did put us in a better light. That made us more competitive.”

Another factor proved a reduction in new building construction. The lift fan facility was estimated at $43.7 million, but FRC East officials say the end of maintenance on the H-46 helicopter created space for the new lift fan work, meaning $11.5 million would be needed for new construction.

“That’s sharpening the pencil on the actual design of the building as well as creative ways of assuming the workload in the current spaces and working partnerships, whether it be Duke as far as partnering with them for energy or partnering with the station as far as space,” said Stephen Barrow, 6-3 Industrial Operations Management Department at FRC East. “That also has helped quite a bit with reducing the cost of the footprint.”

The new 12,798 square-foot test facility is to be constructed across from Havelock High School off Fontana Boulevard near the MV-22 Osprey engineering facility.

Testing of the lift fans will be conducted at the new building, while the assembly and disassembly of the lift fans and other associated work will be one in existing buildings at the aircraft rework and repair facility.

FRC East officials said the exact number of workers needed for the new facility isn’t yet known. While it’s not likely to produce hundreds of new employees, it will help keep those currently employed working at the facility.

“The majority of the people that will do this work are already here,” said Mary Beth Fennell, head of corporate operations and total force at FRC East.

While the F-35B propulsion system is different from that of the AV-8B Harrier on which FRC East works, there are some similarities.

“It’s heavily involved bearing technology for the most part,” said Mark Meno, senior civilian and research and engineering group head, “I’d say the lift fan is heavily dependent on bearing technologies, so that’s where the similarity kicks in a little bit. We’re used to dealing with rotating and fast moving dynamic components.”

About 450 F-35B aircraft are expected to be built and used in the United States, Italy and England, with the lift fan work on all those aircraft scheduled for Cherry Point.

“If you look at traditional Marine Corps aircraft, it’s probably 50 years’ worth of work,” O’Connell said.

And that may not be all. O’Connell believes the lift fan work may just be the first step in getting more component work on all versions of the F-35.

“There’s 3,000 total in the production run of the F-35,” he said. “If you can get a foot into that massive workload, you can pretty much root yourself success for a long, long time. Traditional Marine Corps programs are a couple of hundred aircraft and Air Force are several hundred. The scope and magnitude of this program is so much larger than anything there ever has been.”

Congress has not authorized any funds for construction of the new lift fan facility, which is expected in 2018. But for now, that FRC East was confirmed as the future site of the work has resonated, Fennell said.

“At the Veterans Day parade, I can’t tell you how many people stopped me and said ‘That was great news. That was great news,’” she said. “It isn’t just our employees either. It’s our employees and it’s the community that I think are excited because it’s a major F-35 component.”