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.
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."
F-35 over the years
A look at some turning points in the F-35 fighter jet program:
2001: Pentagon picks a team led by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin to build the F-35
2005: The U.S. Government Accountability Office warns of design and weight problems along with rising costs and delays
2006: First F-35 test flight
2010: First vertical landing of the F-35 model for the Marine Corps (at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland)
2013: President Barack Obama's budget request for the fiscal year beginning in October proposes that the country purchase 29 F-35 jets, the same number requested for this year
2019: Federal government's estimate of when the program will ramp up to full production, seven years later than originally expected