Maryland F-35 contractors look forward to faster production — the anticipated full-out pace is about 200 a year. From their perspective, more jets mean more jobs.
Baltimore-based RESCO Defense, which supplies component electronics parts for the F-35, has two of its 10 employees working on the program.
"But that number could grow considerably over the coming years as the program ramps up," said David Copenhaver, the company's president. "You can see the opportunity."
He and other suppliers were on hand for the Lockheed and Northrop Grumman event Thursday, along with elected officials and camera-toting reporters.
Conroy, speaking to the crowd at the National Electronics Museum, said he was among the first to fly the F-16 for the Air Force in 1979. Thirty-four years later, that's still the Air Force's front-line fighter, he said.
He put the average age of currently flying Air Force fighter aircraft at 24 years.
"These are the aircraft that our young pilots are taking into harm's way every day," he said. "It's time to upgrade. … Probably nobody in this room owns a 24-year-old car. Or a toaster or a lawn mower."
He brought up expenses, saying that the military would be "hard pressed" to buy a current-generation fighter jet and upgrade it with necessary sensors for what the Air Force version of the F-35 will cost per plane in full production. And the F-35 still would be stealthier, he said.
But mostly, officials talked tech.
The jet's 360-degree "situational awareness system," projected onto the helmet's visor to give pilots an unobstructed view of sky, ground and everything else. The radar's anti-jamming capabilities. The stealth.
"We're not invisible, but we are very, very, very difficult to find with a radar," said Gary Hentz, director of tactical aviation programs at Lockheed's Washington operations.
Participants could try on the helmet and see imagery from a flight over the Eastern Shore. But the big draw was the separate "cockpit demonstrator."
It wasn't set up to completely mimic what F-35 pilots experience, even setting aside the lack of movement. Those who jumped in didn't wear the helmet — instead, they could glance up at a screen overhead for a computer simulation of what the helmet would show.
Five other screens gave a partially wraparound view of the battlefield, out on the Chesapeake Bay. "Pilots" could take off and attack either a fighter jet or a ship.
Edwards, first in the cockpit, went after an aircraft.
"You're pulling almost 9 G's," said Tony Stutts, a former Air Force pilot who works at Lockheed's flight simulation lab in Fort Worth, Texas. He pointed her toward the target and said, "Stealth is going to allow us to get in there."
In high school, Edwards had visions of flying for the Air Force. She said she was accepted to the Air Force Academy but was told that women would not be allowed in pilot training. So she opted for a civilian education.
Still, she went up in an F-16 two years ago and got to take over the controls. And now she was shooting down a simulated enemy in a simulated F-35.
That didn't erase Edwards' view of the program as "problematic." But it's the costs, delays and technical issues that concern her, not whether the military needs to upgrade.
"Just in talking to some of the pilots, they know that their fleet is aging out," she said. "And so we want to make sure that they feel safe and that they're in a machine that really performs for them — and that we don't spend a whole bunch of money to do that. … Because we have a lot of other pressing needs."