Production of the F-16 Falcon -- a fighter plane that was the workhorse of the bombing of Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war -- is winding down.
Over the years, more than 3,000 of the small, maneuverable General Dynamics Corp. planes have rolled off the assembly line, and workers at the local Westinghouse plant have had reason to celebrate each one.
Engineers and technicians at the plant in Linthicum build the fire-control radar housed in the nose of each plane, which is used to give pilots information on their heading and altitude. It also serves as the pilots' long-range "eyes," spotting enemy fighters beyond visual range, and guides air-to-air missiles during combat.
It has been the local plant's premier project over the past 16 years, says James E. Pitts, general manager of the Westinghouse's Air Force avionics division. Counting spare units and those made for use in other planes, Westinghouse estimates it has produced about 4,000 of the radars.
The project has accounted for more than $5 billion in revenue since the F-16 was born in 1972. During peak production in the mid- to late-1980s, the jobs of about 1,000 workers at the Westinghouse complex adjacent to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport were linked to the F-16 program. The number of workers involved has dropped to about 300 in recent years, reflecting the decline in production.
The Linthicum plant shipped 380 units in 1988. Output is expect to total 140 this year and drop to 90 next year.
And the F-16 is not the only fighter plane program involving Maryland workers that is coming to an end. The last of more than 700 F-14 Tomcats ordered by the Navy rolled out of the Grumman Corp. plant on Long Island last month. Today, the company is working on the final seven of 18 earlier models of the plane that are being upgraded with new engines, improved radar and electronics.
The F-14 accounted for a big chunk of business at Grumman's machine shop in Glen Arm, where employment has declined to 140 from about 300 over the past four years.
Employment at Grumman's other Maryland plant, which manufactures wiring and harnesses, has dropped to 250 from about 500 in two years because of the end of the F-14 program and reduced orders for the company's other planes.
Joseph Stout, a spokesman for General Dynamics' F-16 program, said the plane first saw combat when it was used by the Israeli air force during an air strike on a nuclear reactor near Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in the early 1980s.
More recently, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney referred to the F-16 as "the backbone of the Air Force bombing effort" during the gulf war.
General Dynamics is building 16 of the planes a month, down from 30 a month in the late 1980s. The production rate is expected drop to 10 a month next year and, "if things go well," to four in 1994, Mr. Stout said.
But the Senate Armed Services Committee has called for an immediate termination of the F-16 program, which would end production at the Texas plant in 1994, he said.
A House plan seeks to buy 24 planes a year over the next two years, and a congressional source said yesterday that though "the House position may prevail, there are no guarantees."
Mr. Pitts concedes that the winding down of the F-16 program will have an impact on Westinghouse's operations but says that is not "a gloom and doom story."
Westinghouse is selling a type of F-16 radar to the Coast Guard and the Customs Service for use in detecting drug-smuggling planes.
The radar is also being used on a New Zealand fighter plane, the British Hawk 200 fighter and a Taiwanese trainer plane.
Mr. Stout said General Dynamics is also using the F-16 radar on its Phalanx computer-guided, high-speed Gatling gun, which is designed for use on ships to shoot down incoming missiles.
"The program is alive and well," Mr. Pitts said. "We have a backlog of orders for the next couple of years."
But he agreed that the F-16 program will end eventually. Westinghouse hopes, however, that its work on radar and infrared systems for the Air Force's new F-22 fighter will be gearing up and that its diversification program will stabilize employment.