On the night of Nov. 16, 2010, U.S. Air Force Capt. Jeffrey Haney, assigned to the 525th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing, went missing over Alaska’s rugged Denali National Park at the controls of his Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. Four days later, search-and-rescue teams located the jet’s wreckage, including the ejection seat, indicating Maj. Haney had perished in the crash.
It was a tragedy for Maj. Haney, his family and friends and the 3rd Wing. And for the U.S. Air Force, it was a stark reminder of just how precious, and delicate, the tiny F-22 force is. The Pentagon has capped the F-22 program at just 187 production-standard airframes plus eight pre-production models. At the time of writing, Lockheed Martin had delivered 171 of the 187 and had begun initial assembly of the last example, tail number 4195. This final Raptor is slated to emerge from Lockheed’s facility in Marietta, Georgia, in late 2011 and complete flightline checks in February 2012. Raptor 4195’s departure from Marietta will bring to close more than a decade of F-22 production.
With November’s crash plus two earlier write-offs of production jets, the Raptor force will now number a maximum of just 184 jets — around 145 of them combat-coded. For years, the Air Force had claimed it needed 381 F-22s to fully replace the Boeing F-15 fleet, but the Raptor’s high unit cost — more than $300 million — and the apparent easing of the world air threat combined to convince Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009 that just half that number was adequate. Several efforts by conservative members of Congress to overrule Gates’ decision have failed.
But the looming end of F-22 production does not mean the Raptor’s story has reached its conclusion. The F-22 is designed for at least 8,000 flight hours, and if other fighter types are any indication, the Air Force will extend that several times. The Raptor will remain in service through 2040, according to the latest Air Force projections — and that means upgrades. The next 30 years could see the jets return to Lockheed Martin for structural and systems repairs and upgrades. To ensure these updates move smoothly, in July 2010, the Air Force ordered Lockheed to preserve the F-22 assembly-line tooling. Lockheed went a step further, voluntarily also making sophisticated records regarding the use of the tools.
Today in Marietta, incomplete Raptors still inch across the factory floor, gradually taking shape as they move from stand to stand over the course of a year. In addition to building the jets, the factory’s roughly 2,000 workers are diligently preserving their hard-won expertise and experience, in anticipation of their last day at work sometime in 2012 — and the new day, sometime in the future, when middle-age F-22s might return to their birthplace for rejuvenation. The Raptor-makers’ skills and knowledge are also winding their way into the potentially much larger F-35 program, currently slated to produce more than 2,400 jets just for the U.S. military. To understand this important, complex and — for workers — bittersweet process, Combat Aircraft spoke to Jeff Babione, a Lockheed vice president and general manager of the F-22 program. He called the Raptor line’s shutdown and preservation an “orchestrated process.”
Raptor production was a complex affair even before the added burden of ending and recording manufacturing processes. No fewer than four major facilities produce F-22 “subassemblies.” Lockheed makes stabilizers in Meridian, Mississippi; mid-bodies in Fort Worth, Texas; and forward fuselages in Marietta. Boeing manufactures the wings and aft fuselage in Seattle, Washington. Marietta receives and mates the sub-assemblies and conducts flightline testing before delivering fully functional Raptors to the Air Force.
In eight years of full-rate production, Lockheed has seen big improvements in quality and efficiency, Babione said. “We’ve been able to demonstrate, since about 2003 … which would have been around ship 10, a 72-percent learning curve. So from that time until now, we’ve lowered the number of hours it takes to build an airplane by 300 percent.”
The “exciting thing” about the Raptor program today is that Lockheed has “got this figured out,” Babione added. “The factory is moving extremely well.” So well that Lockheed has accelerated some workstations at Marietta in order to shutter them early and move the workers onto the expanding F-35 line in Fort Worth. He attributed the Marietta plant’s smooth operations to the high level of experience of the typical line worker. “The workforce is world-class. If you go out there today and stop anyone on the line, there’s a 50-percent chance that person worked on some of the very first airplanes. People who come to the Raptor tend to stay on the Raptor.”
Thanks to transferring workers plus Lockheed’s efforts to institutionalize ideas emerging from the Marietta factory, efficiencies originating in Raptor final assembly have trickled down to other F-22 sub-assembly makers and to the F-35 program — particularly to the F-35 wing assembly line standing up in Marietta. “One of the things you notice is access to assemblies,” Babione said. “When you walk up to work on an airplane, instead having to go up on a ladder or bend over, what you have is an airframe elevated off the floor, so you can have teams of people on the bottom half of the assembly and guys on the upper half at the same time.”
In addition, what you would see is a rail system between the stations,” Babione continued. “Rather than picking up an assembly and moving it by crane, we have a series of rails that connect between the work-stations, so when you’re finished with one assembly, it drops down onto rails and pushes into the next station.” The F-22 was Lockheed’s first fighter program to use this rail system. “The F-35 has taken it farther, with a continuously moving line — or a ‘pulse line,’” Babione said.
As Raptor 4195 moves through assembly in Marietta in coming months, it will render redundant each workstation as it passes through. At that point, workers will break down the workstation, bundle up and palletize the tooling, slap each pallet with a radio ID tag and pack the pallet into a shipping container — either a standard commercial model or a climate-controlled version, depending on the tool’s nature — and ship the container off to the U.S. Army’s Sierra depot in northern California for long-term storage. In all, F-22 tooling breaks down into 30,000 separate items, according to Lockheed.
But there’s more to preserving the F-22 line than just storing the tools. Lockheed must be able to recover the processes developed, often quite organically, over a decade of human labor. For starters, the company is carefully photographing and videotaping workers at their stations and transcribing worker testimony regarding the quirks of tools and their use. The resulting heap of information is programmed into a “smart-book” — a sort of heavy-duty, portable computer that can display text, video and photos. Lockheed estimated it will produce around 80 smart-books to encompass all aspects of Raptor production. The idea is to free Lockheed from the perils of fading institutional memory, a problem that reportedly complicated the company’s efforts to revive C-130 and P-3 production.
Not that Lockheed anticipates ever fully re-opening the Raptor line to build fresh airplanes, as occurred with the C-130 and P-3. A Raptor revival is, of course, theoretically possible — though the think tank RAND estimated in a March 2010 report that restarting production would cost an extra $50 million per jet for a fresh batch of 75. And the Pentagon has expressed zero interest in more F-22s, instead preferring to funnel resources into the potentially much cheaper F-35. To the extent that the F-35 ends up cheaper and easier to build than the F-22, the newer jet in part owes its cost-efficiency in part to the airplane it will replace, in Marietta and in Air Force budgets. A decade of hard work by Lockheed’s Raptor-builders, and the months they’ve spent preserving their expertise ahead of their line’s 2012 termination, is the foundation of America’s continuing ability to build world-beating fighters.