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Aging fighter jet gets new lease on life

The F/A-18, a fixture on U.S. carriers for decades, benefits from delays on its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon keeps ordering more F/A-18s, which is good news to workers at Northrop and hundreds of other California firms.

February 04, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • A worker rides past parts for the F/A-18 fuselage sections at a Northrop Grumman plant in El Segundo. Delays in production of its replacement, the F-35, are welcomed by 1,100 Northrop workers.
A worker rides past parts for the F/A-18 fuselage sections at a Northrop… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

The ear-piercing machine-gun-like blasts of an air hammer are a welcome sound to workers on the Northrop Grumman Corp. assembly line in El Segundo.

It means they're busy churning out fuselage sections for the supersonic F/A-18 fighter jet, a fixture on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers since 1983 and still in demand worldwide.

Once slated for replacement, the jet now is in high demand from the Pentagon and foreign governments looking to upgrade their arsenals. The Northrop plant has a backlog that will take at least until 2014 to finish.

The boon for Northrop's 1,100 F/A-18 workers in El Segundo — and the more than 700 parts suppliers in California — is the byproduct of an embarrassment for the Pentagon. By now, the military had hoped to start phasing out the F/A-18 and begin flying the radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But production on the next-generation jet is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Just last month, frustrated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the F-35, which is to be used jointly by the Navy, Marines and Air Force, is still not ready. To bridge the gap, he announced the Navy intended to buy 41 more F/A-18s. The move will "hedge against more delays in the deployment of the Joint Strike Fighter," he said.

This is good news for longtime Northrop workers, such as technician Martin Martinez, 46, of Whittier. He runs a final diagnostic on the plane's hydraulics, electrical, and fuel systems before the fuselage is sent out of the plant on a big rig.

"We've been blessed for jobs in this plant for the last year or so," he said. "We joke that there's a lucky charm buried around here somewhere."

Less than a year ago, the outlook in El Segundo wasn't as rosy. The plant had just enough work to last until this year, and there were fears that it could join the dozens of other Southland airplane manufacturing plants that have either slowed production or closed their doors altogether.

But then the orders picked up. Last March, the Navy ordered 124 additional planes. Then came Gates' announcement about buying still more.

"Until the F-35 is ready, the F/A-18 will keep carrier decks full," said Loren Thompson, a military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "Production lines in El Segundo should be humming for years to come."

The F/A-18 first saw action in the 1980s, but proved its worth in the 1990s in Operation Desert Storm when it shot down Iraqi air force fighters in dogfights and took out key enemy strongholds with laser-guided bombs — sometimes on the same mission. Now, the aircraft is a common sight in Afghanistan running combat patrols.

The criticism of the F/A-18 — and all of its variations such as the Hornet, Super Hornet and Growler — is that it's not stealthy enough, Thompson said. Depending on the variation, prices range from around $30 million to $70 million.

Boeing Co., the plane's primary contractor, has made several changes to the design to improve that, so it doesn't pop up as readily on enemy radar screens. But it still lacks stealth characteristics that modern aircraft such as the F-35 have, Thompson said.

Despite this, Northrop has at least 151 fuselage sections to make — not including Gates' pending order. The company could have hundreds more with countries such as Brazil, India and Kuwait looking to buy fighter jets. When pitching the fighter overseas, it doesn't hurt to mention that the Blue Angels, the Navy's flying aerobatic team, fly F/A-18s.

The fuselage sections are manufactured inside Northrop's 1-million-square-foot facility on Aviation Boulevard, about a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport. A section is delivered every 4 1/2 days. Each is about 28 feet long and 12 feet tall and consists of the center and rear of the fuselage.

The jet's twin vertical tails and installs the electronics and pump systems are also made at the plant.

After technicians finish their work on each section, it's checked for imperfections and then double-checked. After being tightly covered with a tarp, it is sent to Boeing's final assembly plant in St. Louis. Each fuselage is hoisted onto an 18-wheeler for the 1,800-mile trek with a "Wide Load" sign posted on the back.

Aerospace workers have been assembling military aircraft at the sprawling El Segundo plant since World War II. In the 1940s, Douglas Aircraft Co. made the SBD Dauntless, a Navy dive bomber, in the facility. The building is made almost entirely of redwood.

Northrop originally moved into the facility in 1977 to build the F/A-18 and another supersonic fighter, the F-5.

More than 5,000 Northrop employees work in El Segundo in 20 buildings, where the company also has engineering offices.

In September, Northrop said that it was eliminating 500 jobs in its aerospace division, with most of the cuts hitting El Segundo and its nearby Redondo Beach campus, where the company makes satellites and high-energy laser systems.

But F/A-18 workers were spared.

"The aircraft has been a good insurance policy for the Navy," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The F/A-18 will be in demand for as long as there are problems with the F-35 program. And if you look how that program has gone over the last several years, there's no telling how long that will be."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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