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