On the same day that saw US president-elect Donald Trump take a swing at the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II for being too expensive, Israel took delivery of its very first two jets. Both arrived at Nevatim airbase following a flight that saw stopovers in the Azores and Italy.
Last week, both jets arrived at the FACO after a transatlantic flight that saw a stop over in Lajes on the Azores. The visit to the FACO was a surprise move, especially since the Israelis have said that all future maintenance on the Adir will be done in-country. Nevertheless, the FACO in Italy offers maintenance and upgrade facilities for F-35 jets.
Israeli pilots will fly the new aircraft for the first time this week. In 2018, the Israeli Air Force will put them into service. The country now has 50 jets on order.
The arrival of the advanced jet was overshadowed by Trump’s announcement that the F-35’s program costs are ‘out of control’ just hours before. His tweet – that also vaguely hints at cutting those costs – saw Lockheed Martin stocks take a plunge straightaway. Most recent estimates say the total program costs are now around 376 billion USD.
Trump’s targetting of the F-35 comes only a few weeks after another blow to the program, which was Canada’s postponement of a purchase by selecting the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for now.
In an enormous rectangular building in Cameri, Italy, a group of people swarms over the grey object that among them is known as AL-5. To others, it is known as the fifth Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Italian Air Force. But judging by the language used, it’s not Italians who seem to turn AL-5 inside out. They are Americans, employed by Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense (DoD). And their job at hand is quality inspection of a factory fresh, Italian-made F-35 Lightning II.
Airheadsfly.com’s recently paid a very exclusive visit to the rather secretive F-35’s Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Cameri, which is run by Leonardo Aircraft and which rolled out its first F-35 in March 2015. The FACO is the result of extensive negotiations involving Italy, the US, Lockheed Martin and Leonardo Aircraft prior to 2010.
Development of the site started as soon as the ink was put on the contract. When epxloring the facility, it is hard to image that this 22-building, one million square feet complex was raised from the ground up in just three years. It is one of only three F-35 final assembly lines in the world, the others being Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Forth Worth, Texas, and Mitsubishi’s FACO in Nagoya, Japan.
Cameri sees final assembly of F-35A and B models for Italy, plus F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in the future. Other potential customers may follow as well. “So far, we have completed delivery of four jets to the Italian Air Force, and we’re getting ready to hand over AL-5 as well. The first four were flown to the US for pilot training, but the fifth will stay in Italy. It will be delivered to the 32nd Stormo (wing) at Amendola airbase soon”, says brigadier-general Giuseppe Lupoli, F-35 FACO program manager on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Defense.
Situated in the center of the FACO is the assembly hall. It covers eleven assembly bays, in one of which Leonardo Aircraft employees now crawl under and over AL-8, the final aircraft of an initial order of eight F-35s from Italy. The same hall also covers five bays for future maintenace, repair and overhaul works on the Lightning II.
Whereas in Fort Worth the hugely expensive 5th generation fighter jets are manufactured on a moving production line, in Cameri an F-35 stays in a specific assembly bay for the whole build process, with parts being brought to the jet. “Our bay approach is certified by Lockheed Martin and elements of it have even been introduced in Fort Worth”, says Lupoli. At full speed, the Cameri FACO is said to be capable of delivering two new jets per month.
For now, production rate is not anywhere remotely near that. Most assembly bays remain unused and empty while awaiting a formal procurement decision from Rome. The exact numbers are debated for a considerable time already in Italy, but the country currently is eyeing 52 more F-35As for its air force, plus 30 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants to be used by both navy and air force. Meanwhile, the FACO understandably needs to keep the production flow going. Lupoli: “Because of long lead times, we are indeed moving ahead with production of parts for the next batch of jets.” Indeed, during Airheadsfly.com’s visit the first Italian F-35B was seen in final assembly, along with more A-models for the air force.
Also, 2019 will see production of the first F-35s for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The RNLAF has for several years been performing operational test and evaluation (OT&E) with its first two Lightnings in the US and should initially see delivery of six more from Fort Worth. The remaining 29 out of 37 aircraft ordered are to be assembled in Cameri.
In the Netherlands some concerns were raised over the fact that a 90 million USD aircraft designed and ordered in the US, is to be manufactured in an Italian factory. Those concerns were mainly about quality control…. and that’s were those Americans swarming over AL-5 come in. Not one F-35 leaves this FACO without a US pilot test flying it and without personnel from both Lockheed Martin and US DoD performing an inspection that easily lasts a couple of days. Pieces of blue tape on AL-5’s stealthy coating mark the spots that apparently are not up to standard.
Although their number has been greatly reduced since production got underway, the presence of US personnel in Italy comes as no surprise given the sensitive nature of the F-35. Lupoli: “Even with an aircraft destined for the Italian Air Force, we first hand it over to US DoD personnel for inspection and acceptance. Only then does US DoD hand it back to our own air force. By doing so, quality control here in Cameri is totally in line with the US standard.”
Apart from complete jets, the FACO also produces full wing sets for use in Fort Worth, with a maximum capacity of 72 sets per year. Quality control is equally strict here. Experts check each wing before it is ‘closed’, which means the upper skin is joined with the lower skin, making components inside unreachable without extensive repair jobs. Recently, faulty insulation on piping inside the wing forced Lockheed Martin to do exactly that kind of work on dozens of F-35s. According to the Italians, the problem was not found on Cameri-made wings.
The work done is testimony of the skills acquired by Leonardo Aircraft employees in just a few years’ time. In total, F-35 works in Cameri should generate an estimated 6,000 Italian jobs and add 15.8 billion USD to the Italian economy.
The Cameri site is projected to be in operation for at least forty years, during which focus will shift more and more to maintance, repair and overhaul of European. Lupoli: “Over the next 15 years, we expect to reduce the number of assembly bays and turn those into additional bays for F-35 maintenance.”
That’s no surpise, given the fact that Cameri back in 2014 was appointed as the sole provider of heavy F-35 airframe maintenance in Europe. But to maintain one of the world’s most advanced and expensive military jets, this facility will first have to build them. To a passing visitor such as Airheadsfly.com, it seems the FACO is ready to fill those empty assembly bays and do exactly that. It seems ready to fulfill its projected contribution to the Italian economy as well as European defense needs. All it needs, are more actual F-35s to build.
UPDATED 6 February | The first Italian-made F-35A Lightning II is all set to start the type’s first ever Transatlantic flight to the US on Tuesday 2 February, sources in Italy confirm. A Boeing KC-767 tanker aircraft and a two seater Eurofighter Typhoon accompany the brand new fighter aircraft on its way, which includes a stop over at Lajes airbase in the Azores.
Update | The flight was delayed on 2 February due to weather. The F-35 left Italy on Wednesday 3 February and arrived in Lajes, Portugal, later in the day. A picture of the aircraft in Lajes is here. The F-35 and accompanying aircraft finally arrived at Patuxent River in the US on Friday 5 February.
An Italian Air Force pilot from the test squadron at Pratica di Mare will fly the F-35 on its flight over Atlantic, the very first of this kind for the new generation stealth aircraft. In the backseat of the Typhoon will be another Italian F-35 pilot. The flight to Lajes is expected to take 4.5 hours. Air-to-air refueling with the KC-767 was validated last year in the US.
Tests and training
After the stop over in Lajes, another 6.5 hour flight takes the F-35 and two accompanying aircraft to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in the US. The F-35 will then remain there for six weeks for tests, before finally moving on to Luke Air Force Base. Here, the aircraft wil be used to train Italian pilots.
The second Italian made F-35 is now performing test flights at Cameri and will be among four more Italian aircraft to follow the same route later this year. By the end of 2016, the sixth aircraft produced in Cameri will be the first to remain in Italy. Cameri will also see production of Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) jets.
Italy formally has eight F-35s on order and is still debating the final number of aircraft to be ordered. That number is expected to be 90, after dropping from 131 earlier.
Representatives from F-35 program partners such as the US, UK, Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia and Norway witnessed the delivery ceremony at Cameri. The purposely built Alenia Aermacchi factory accommodates both an F-35 production line and maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade facilities.
The Australian aircraft are at Luke as well, while the two Dutch F-35s are to be found at Edwards airbase for operational test and evalution (OT&E). The British Lightning IIs are at Edwards also for tests.
On monday 7 september, Italy’s first F-35A Lightning II, known as AL-1 and assembled at the Cameri Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility, flew for the first time, marking the program’s first-ever F-35 flight outside the United States. Lockheed Martin F-35 test pilot Bill “Gigs” Gigliotti, lifted off the runway at 1:05 p.m. for a 1:22 hour check flight in AL-1 marking a milestone for the much criticized, 400 billion USD F-35 program.
Today’s first flight for AL-1 went as planned. “As expected, the jet performed exceptionally well and without any surprises,” Gigliotti said. “I’m honored to have flown AL-1 on its maiden flight and grateful to the Cameri team for providing a great jet. We look forward to continued successes leading up to aircraft delivery later this year.”
The Cameri FACO is owned by the Italian government and operated by Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi in association with Lockheed Martin. The Cameri FACO’s F-35 production operations began in July 2013 and ‘rolled out’ Italy’s first F-35A aircraft, AL-1, in March (click here for a report on that event). AL-1’s official delivery to Italy is expected by the end of the year.
The facility will assemble both Italy’s F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant and the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant, and is planned to assemble the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s F-35A aircraft in the future. The F-35A and F-35B will replace Italian Air Force and Italian Navy AV-8 Harriers, Panavia Tornados and AMX fighters.