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Exclusive: spotlight on F-35 production in Italy

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.

An F-35A inflight. (Image © Lockheed Martin)
Related reading: F-35 takes a hit – from Canada. (Image © Lockheed Martin)

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.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
Work in progress on an F-35A for the Italian Air Force. Visible in the background is the first F-35B to be produced in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Assembly

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.

The first F-35 Lightning II from the assembly line in Italy (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)
The first Cameri-built F-35 Lightning II was rolled out in March 2015.  (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)

First F-35B

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.

Dutch jets

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.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
In Cameri, F-35s also receive their stealthy coating. Here, a full scale mock up is used to test the FACO’s associated installation. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Quality

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.”

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
US personnel inspects AL-5 before acceptance. Only then will US DoD hand the aircraft over to its customer, being the Italian Air Force. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Wings

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.

Lifespan
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.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A view of F-35 production in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force takes off from Cameri FACO (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin
The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force took off from Cameri  in September 2015. (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin)

Pentagon: “Another 400 F-35s, to buy at once”

The US Department of Defense is seeking Congressional approval to buy another 400 (!) Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealthy multi-role fighters at once. Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall said this on Friday 29 May during a press conference. Aim is to buy for both the US armed forces and export partners and get a large discount in the process.

Currently orders for the future backbone of many air forces are placed in batches of tens up to 150 a year, but the Pentagon thinks it could get a larger reduction from Lockheed Martin if it orders 400 jets at once, to be produced over the course of three fiscal years: 2018 to 2021. In between the lines: such a block buy would also ensure a fairly quick modernization of many of NATO’s and other allies air forces with a capable 5th generation fighter jet to keep up the pace with Russia and China. Cutting down on the current unit base cost of 98 to 116 million per aircraft will certainly help.

A 61st Fighter Squadron F-35 taxis prior to take off 15 April 2015 at Nellis AFB with the Las Vegas skyline in the background. (Image © Senior Airman Thomas Spangler / US Air Force)
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Three base versions
Lockheed Martin is producing the Lightning II in three base version. The F-35A is the conventional take off and landing (CTOL) variant originally designed for the US Air Force, with more than 1,750 planned.

The F-35B is the short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL) version for the US Marine Corps, which is planning 420 aircraft including some of the C-variant developped for the US Navy. This F-35C is adapted for carrier-based (CV) operations but lacks the vertical landing and hover option of the USMC jets (which can land on carriers as well of course). That should make the C both cheaper and easier to fly, and easier to maintain. The US Navy plans for 260 F-35Cs.

Britain
Britain’s Royal Air Force/Royal Navy are also buying the most advanced version. The UK’s F-35Bs are to operate from the RN’s two new large aircraft carriers: HMS Queen Elizabeth to be commissioned in 2016 (initially without the F-35s, because they are not ready yet) and the HMS Prince of Wales planned for 2020. A total of 48 F-35Bs are ordered, of which 4 are in testing phase, with plans for another 32 or more.

Night carrier testing for the F-35C at the USS Nimitz in 2014 (Image © US Navy)
Night carrier testing for the F-35C at the USS Nimitz in 2014 (Image © US Navy)

Italian
Both the Italian Air Force and Navy are to operate the F-35, with 15 B-versions planned for the Marina Militare – to fly from the aircraft carrier C 550 Cavour – and 60 F-35As for the Aeronautica Militare (with 6 ordered so far). Italy is much involved in the F-35 program, with the Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi being a strategic part of the production. On 26 May the first F-35A wing-set produced by the Italian manufacturer at its plant in Camiri entered the F-35 production line in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. , marking a milestone for the Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT)-Alenia Aermacchi collaboration on the program. Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi has been contracted for 835 full wing assemblies. Italy is even producing entire aircraft.

The somewhat censored image of the construction of the first Italian made F-35 wing section on the assembly line in Texas (Image © Lockheed Martin)
The somewhat censored image of the construction with the first Italian made F-35 wing section on the assembly line in Texas (Image © Lockheed Martin)

Export orders
All other export orders are for the “simplest” F-35A variant: to the Turkish Air Force (100 planned); the Royal Australian Air Force (72 ordered of which 2 in testing; with the Australians making hundreds of tails); the Royal Norwegian Air Force (52 planned of which 16 ordered); the Japan Air-Self Defense Force (42 planned of which 5 ordered); the Republic of Korea Air Force (40 ordered) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force (37 planned of which 8 ordered with 2 in testing).

Modifications
The Israeli Air Force plans for 75 F-35Is, which are F-35As with Israeli modifications such as in the electronics on board. Thirty-three F-35Is are ordered, with the first 2 to be delivered in 2017. The Royal Canadian Air Force is opting for the CF-35, which will be an A-variant with a drag parachute (like the Norwegian jets; handy on short icy runways) and possible a refuelling probe like on the F-35Bs and Cs. Denmark and Belgium are likely to choose for the F-35A as well.

n F-35B Lightning II takes off on the flight deck of USS Wasp (LHD-1) during routine daylight operations, a part of Operational Testing 1 on 22 May 2015 (Image © Cpl. Anne Henry / US Marine Corps)
An F-35B Lightning II takes off on the flight deck of USS Wasp (LHD-1) during routine daylight operations, a part of Operational Testing 1 on 22 May 2015 (Image © Cpl. Anne Henry / US Marine Corps)

Embedding at sea
Just this week the USS Wasp has seen the debut of the first semi combat-ready F-35 unit-style training at sea ever, after the US Air Force put 10 of its jets through a deployment in April. Six F-35Bs flew more than a hundred sorties, clocking 85.5 flight hours during Operational Testing 1 (OT-1) to see how the embedding at sea is going. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel went along as well, to use the experience to incorporate on their vessels once the F-35s are delivered. Meanwhile Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at MCAS Yuma in Arizona is working to reach initial operational capability in Mid-2015, becoming the world’s first F-35 combat unit.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger,
including source information provided by Lockheed Martin, the US DoD and the US Marine Corps
Featured image (top): A F-35A standard variant (Image © Lockheed Martin)

The first F-35 flown by Edwards AFB test pilot Col. Roderick Cregier arriving at Luke AFB on 10 March 2014, escorted by the 56th Operations Group flagship F-16 piloted by Maj. Justin Robinson (Image © Jim Hazeltine / USAF)
The first F-35 flown by Edwards AFB test pilot Col. Roderick Cregier arriving at Luke AFB on 10 March 2014, escorted by the 56th Operations Group flagship F-16 piloted by Maj. Justin Robinson (Image © Jim Hazeltine / USAF)