Northrop Grumman begins assembly of first F-35 production jet

Northrop Grumman has begun assembly of the center fuselage for the first production Lightning II jet, a weight-optimized F-35A conventional take-off and landing variant designated AF-6.

Northrop Grumman Corp. (Palmdale, Calif.) announced on April 1 that it has begun assembling the center fuselage for the first production Lightning II jet, a weight-optimized, U.S. Air Force F-35A conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant designated AF-6. The center fuselage is the core structure around which the F-35 aircraft is built.

The assembly process began March 24 at the company’s Palmdale Manufacturing Center with the loading of an all-composite air inlet duct into a special tooling structure called a jig. This first assembly process, one of approximately 18 major steps in assembling an F-35 center fuselage, consists of attaching metal frames around the duct. The frames serve to brace and position the duct properly within the center fuselage.

“Jig loading the AF-6 center fuselage is significant because it shows the F-35 program is successfully transitioning from the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase into the production phase,” said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and F-35 program manager for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems sector. “Through a disciplined approach to managing costs and engineering changes, we’ve reduced our average center fuselage assembly time by approximately 28 percent since the SDD program began.”

Northrop Grumman is a principal partner and founding member of the F-35 industry team led by Lockheed Martin. To date, the company has delivered eight of 19 SDD center fuselages – three for the Air Force and five for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps – with the remaining 11 currently in the assembly flow in Palmdale. The company has also begun work on three LRIP jets, including AF-6.

Final assembly of all F-35 jets is performed by Lockheed Martin at a facility in Fort Worth, Texas. The process includes mating a Northrop Grumman-built center fuselage to an aft fuselage produced by BAE Systems, and the forward fuselage/cockpit and wings produced by Lockheed Martin.

The F-35 Lightning II is a stealthy, supersonic multi-role fighter designed to replace a wide range of aging fighter and strike aircraft. It is being produced in three variants – CTOL, short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) and a carrier variant (CV) – to meet the performance needs of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy and allied defense forces worldwide. The three variants use a high degree of commonality to meet strict affordability requirements.