Building the Jet
It takes a village to build the F-35.
The 3 million ft² facility houses 17,000 employees who work in 3 shifts.
The jet is assembled using 4 main pieces from 3 defense primes: the forward fuselage and wings are from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman creates the mid-fuselage, and the aft fuselage comes from BAE.
There are 200 F-35s on the line at any given time, in various stages of assembly. Speaking of assembly, all F-35s start production sitting vertically on their tail—not flat—to maximize space, ergonomics, and efficiency.
When assembly is complete, 2 robots armed with paint guns precisely spray the stealth coating onto each jet.
We can only show you the section of the production line in the picture above, but one observation that stood out to us isn’t captured in that picture. There are LOTS of tooling, jigs, and machinery that put off a much different vibe than previous production lines.
This is definitely a high-tech setup.
That said, despite the tech and manpower, it still takes 18 months to build an F-35 from start to finish, including long-lead items like engines (12 months if all the parts are on-site). This speaks to the complexities and assembly tolerances of a high-tech fighter aircraft, something that sets the US industrial base apart from China and Russia.
Because of this, the program is forecasted to produce 156 jets per year (13 jets per month) by 2025, with some options to increase capacity from there.
That might not sound like a lot but consider this: At that rate, every 2 months, enough F-35s are built to create a new fighter squadron.
Fun Fact: After the jets are built, they have to get flight tested before they go to the customers. There are so many F-35s at Fort Worth that the post-production flight test section houses enough flyable jets to equip an entire fighter squadron—we counted 18 F-35s in the flight test/acceptance phase during our trip.
Finally, we’ll leave you with 3 F-35 deets you might not be tracking:
- Fuel Tanks: Each F-35 built is already plumbed for external fuel tanks that would increase the jet’s range ~40%, though they have not been developed…yet 😉
- Weapons: Lot 15 jets are on the line now, which unlocks the potential of the Sidekick mod for the F-35A and C, adding 2 extra AIM-120 missiles to the internal weapons bays 😎
- 1K: the 1,000th F-35 is on the line being built as you read this; we saw it, and it will roll off the line later this year 🥳
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