F-35 update: Carrier variant flies, suppliers ramping up

The U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C Lightning II, made its inaugural flight on June 7, taking off from the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base in Texas.

The U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C Lightning II, made its inaugural flight on June 7, taking off from the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base in Texas, at 11:46 a.m. and logging a 57-minute flight. Designed with a larger wing and control surfaces for safe, precise handling and low-approach speeds to the carrier, this variant reportedly has excellent over-the-nose visibility, and features additional structural strength and stealth materials able to withstand harsh at-sea operations conditions with minimal maintenance. Program lead Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.), oversees 900 suppliers in 43 states and in JSF partner countries that include the United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Among them, a number of composites industry notables are making preparations for the ramp-up to production.

Tooling specialist Janicki Industries (Sedro-Woolley, Wash.) will establish a new facility in Utah to support the F-35 program, According to a May 13 announcement by the state Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), Janicki intends to make a $19.5 million capital investment in the plant. Janicki currently employs more than 350 people in Washington State. A decision on a final location for the new Utah facility has not yet been made, but it will add an additional 50 people to the Janicki payroll to help Janicki fulfill its contractual obligations to ATK (Centerville, Utah) and HITCO Carbon Composites (Gardena, Calif.). Based on the capital investment and the number of employees that will be hired, the GOED Board authorized a post-performance refundable tax credit up to $316,275 over 10 years.

“Our strategic alliance with Lockheed Martin, ATK and HITCO Composites encouraged us to consider locating in Utah,” says John Janicki, president of Janicki Industries. “We gratefully accept GOED’s incentive offer, and we look forward to building long-term business relationships within the state of Utah.”

On the same day, the team of Vector Composites Inc. (Dayton, Ohio) and Quickstep Holdings Ltd. (North Coogee, Australia) reported receipt of a U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II research and development program aimed at assessing the use of Quickstep’s patented out-of-autoclave curing technology to manufacture composite structures for the F-35. The $2.6 million (USD) base contract and a potential $1.4 million follow-on option ($4 million total program authorization) is intended to encourage successful transition and implementation of the technology. Material handling, preparation and fabrication of all test articles and prototypes will be conducted by Vector, and the parts will be subsequently cured at Quickstep’s U.S. subsidiary, Quickstep Composites, at a facility adjacent to Vector’s facility in Dayton.

The SBIR will focus on process qualification of bismaleimide (BMI) and epoxy resin composite materials using the Quickstep process. These two materials form the majority of the F-35’s structural composites and have an extensive design database. During the 27-month contract period, the team will develop mechanical properties data for comparison to the baseline autoclave results, and then fabricate and test representative components based on the JSF design, with support from Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems (Arlington, Va.) and ITT Integrated Structures (Amityville, N.Y.). According to the contract, any or all of these companies can elect to pursue full qualification of the process for use in production.

“This grant supports our founding strategy, which is to promote the patented Quickstep Process as a viable new technology for the manufacture of high-performance composites, such as those required for JSF components,” says Quickstep chief executive Philippe Odouard. “We also are targeting specialist manufacturing contracts that can be completed at our manufacturing facility near Fremantle, using traditional composites manufacturing techniques, such as autoclave."

On June 8, MAG Industrial Automation Systems (Erlanger, Ky.) announced an approximately $7 million order from Lockheed Martin for two 6-axis, CNC-controlled AutoDrill systems. Scheduled for delivery in early 2011 to the aerospace manufacturer’s Marietta, Ga. plant, the precision automated drilling and trimming systems will use a surface-detecting pressure foot to ensure accurate drilling and countersinking of thousands of fastener holes through the complex contoured surfaces, made up of the stacked composite materials, aluminum and titanium required for the F-35’s center wing assembly. The machines are the fourth and fifth MAG AutoDrill systems sold to Lockheed Martin. The three previous units were installed at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, manufacturing plant.