The F-35 Global Enterprise: The Significance of the First Flight of the Italian Built F-35


2015-10-06 By Robbin Laird

The F-35 is not only not simply a replacement aircraft, but it is a global aircraft.

And with the allies buying around 50% of the aircraft over the next few years, while Washington sorts out its strategy, the innovation driven by the allies will be significant as well.

My recent visits to Australia have highlighted that the RAAF is in the throes of shaping a transformation strategy shaped in part around the coming of the F-35.

But what can be missed are the impacts of other allies and their efforts for transformation associated with the F-35.

For example, the RAF is engaged in a double transition – Typhoon subsuming Tornado with F-35s coming to the force.

This double transition is a compressed version of the broader topic of 4th/5th generation transition similarly to what the Italian Air Force is doing and the interaction between the RAF and the IAF could be a good driver for change.

And notably the European Air Group has set up a Typhoon integration cell at the same as it is tasked to work through the challenges and opportunities associated with the reshaping of airpower under the fifth generation warfare transition.

This means that the Italian and British opportunity for leadership is clear in a challenging period of airpower history.

The clear advantage of a global transformation enterprise associated with the F-35 is that transformation in airpower does not simply depend on the United States, nor weighed down by a number of U.S. legacy discussions, which impede change.

With regard to the Italians, they have proven to be forward leaning in spite of all the fiscal and political challenges, which is an amazing achievement.

And the industrial and technological aspects of the Italian achievements are significant as well.

At the Copenhagen airpower symposium this spring, a senior Dutch Air Force officer, underscored how significant the change on the Italian side was from his point of view.

At the Centre for Military Studies-Williams Foundation Airpower Symposium held in Copenhagen on April 17, 2015, Air Commodore Dré Kraak, from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, discussed the way ahead with regard to training for the Dutch Air Force and highlighted an important evolving coalition relationship with Italy.

 And the Air Commodore went out of his way to praise the Italians, who in his words, “have seen dramatic progress in their aerospace production capabilities over the past twenty years.”

 He started his presentation by highlighting that the Dutch selection of the F-35 was a no brainer.

 It was by far the best aircraft in the competition.

 Without any doubt, without any doubt operationally, the F35 is the best airplane ever.

 And anybody that chooses something else– it’s probably a political choice and not a decision being made by a fighter pilot.

 There’s no fighter pilot in the Dutch Air Force that does not think that the F35 is the best aircraft in the world at this moment.

 Not only will Italy build the bulk of the Dutch F-35s, but they are also emerging as a key partner in possible training solutions as well.

On Sept. 7, the first F-35A assembled outside the US, made its very first flight from Cameri airbase.

The aircraft, designated AL-1, is the first of eight aircraft currently being assembled at the Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility at Cameri, in northwestern Italy. During the flight, that lasted about 1,5 hours, the F-35A was escorted by a Eurofighter Typhoon.

Italy’s first F-35A Lightning II, known as AL-1 and assembled at the Cameri Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility, flew for the first time today marking the program’s first-ever F-35 flight outside the United States.

 Lockheed Martin F-35 test pilot Bill “Gigs” Gigliotti, lifted off the runway at 1:05 p.m. European Standard Time for a 1:22 hour check flight in AL-1 marking a historic milestone for Italy, Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi manufacturing cooperation and Lockheed Martin.

 “The first flight of AL-1 is a monumental achievement thanks to the hard work and dedication of our Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi and Lockheed Martin teammates,” said Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin F-35 Program General Manager. “Italy’s ‘primo volo’ (first flight) sets a firm foundation for Italy’s F-35 program and future opportunities for the Cameri FACO.  My heartfelt congratulations to all who worked tirelessly to bring us to this major international program milestone.”    

 Today’s first flight for AL-1 went as planned. “As expected, the jet performed exceptionally well and without any surprises,” Gigliotti said.  “I’m honored to have flown AL-1 on its maiden flight and grateful to the Cameri team for providing a great jet. 

 We look forward to continued successes leading up to aircraft delivery later this year.”

 The Cameri FACO is owned by the Italian government and operated by Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi in association with Lockheed Martin. The Cameri FACO’s F-35 production operations began in July 2013 and ‘rolled out’ Italy’s first F-35A aircraft, AL-1, in March. AL-1’s official delivery to Italy is expected by the end of the year.

 The facility will assemble both Italy’s F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant and the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant, and is planned to assemble the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s F-35A aircraft in the future.

The F-35A and F-35B will replace Italian Air Force and Italian Navy AV-8 Harriers, Panavia Tornados and AMX fighters.

 In addition to its responsibility in the operations of the FACO, Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi also produces the F-35A’s full wing-sets.

 The work contracted to Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi, a strategic co-supplier of F-35A full wing assemblies, is one of the largest manufacturing projects for the Italian F-35 program, with 835 full wing assemblies planned. Finmeccanica participates in the F-35 program also with Selex ES, responsible for various onboard electronics.

 The F-35 Lightning II, a 5th generation fighter, combines advanced low observable stealth technology with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. More than 130 production F-35s have been delivered to customers and have flown more than 38,700 cumulative fleet flight hours, fleet-wide.

It should be noted as well that the F-35 is being built on three final assembly lines.

The F-35 program has been built around a very different manufacturing model for fighter jets, more modeled on what an Airbus would do than the more traditional station build approach.

The F-35 is to be built on three final assembly lines (FALs)– Fort Worth, Cameri, and next year in Japan.

The line in Fort Worth is a pulse line, meaning the planes move on the line through their full build. Currently, the planes move, about five days through the line during their 20 months on the line.  Three configurations are built on the single line – F-35As, Bs, and Cs – as well as modified allied versions of those aircraft, such as the drop chute on the Norwegian F-35A.

The aircraft is built on a digital thread foundation, meaning that digital systems are crucial to the supply chain and component builds and for the final assembly of the components, as well as for the maintenance of the plane.

As Donald Kinard, a key F-35 manufacturing expert put it in an interview earlier this year:

Question: What is the impact of having two other national approaches to final assembly?

 Kinard: They see things differently.

 The Italians have seen the way we build the airplane and we see how they build the aircraft.

 Technically we build the aircraft the same way but improvement ideas come from all of the participants.

 I’m the collector of those lessons learned from all the sites and so it’s been real interesting to see the feedback we’ve received.

 One of the strengths of the program from inception was the incorporation of technology and knowledge from all of the partners.

Of course, the Italians and Japanese are building a lot different quantities than we are.

 The Italian FACO is going to be two a month, the Japanese FACO is going to be at most one a month.

 With those kind of numbers, they’re not doing it exactly the way we are.  They’re not going to have a pulse final assembly line, for example.  They’re probably going to have a station build line, but those are all things that you would do.

Our line is established for quantity build and if I was building one a month I might not pulse them either as it costs money to move them.

 But overall, we are now in the manufacturing phase, which I might call, taking it to the streets. 

 Meaning we’re taking a digital thread to the workers on the floor.  And moving forward as well we’ll eventually take this right to the maintainers.

 A lot of things we’re doing in a production floor will eventually be a bonus for the maintainers who work on the airplane. 

 For example, we can set up a portable optical projection system, and one can project work instructions directly onto the airplane that he’s working on.

The fidelity of what he sees and can focus his attention on is ramped up.

The interactivity among the suppliers, the FAL and the maintainers is much simpler because we can talk to each other from long distances away using the digital thread too.

 And changes in the production process software are already cross-fertilizing with the maintainers.

 For example, in the transition from LRIP-5 to LRIP-6 software, we introduced more functionality into the Prognostic Health Management (PHM) system.

We then used the PHM improvements in the production process to get what we call network status of for our combat mission systems.

 From a production point of view, we get a lot of information as we’re building the airplane in terms of how well every system is working.

 And the PHM is going to continue to get better as we go through the different software lots as well.

 The software changes have helped the pilot, but it’s also helped us build the airplane because we were historically using very manual techniques to go troubleshoot problems.

 With the software enabled process and airplane, we have significant situational awareness (SA) of the airplane, not just for the pilot flying the airplane but for the supply chain, the FAL and the maintainers.

As Secretary Wynne, the man who started the talks on building the Italian facility with the Italians put it with regard to the importance of the event:

“This flight makes the F-35 truly an international program.”

And having visited the Cameri facility, the sense of excitement in the workforce is clearly  contagious.