All of these phrases were used to describe the F-22 Raptor at a ceremony on Tuesday that Lockheed Martin Aeronautics of Marietta General Manager Shan Cooper called a “graduation, of sorts” for the aircraft as the last F-22 was rolled out of the production line in Marietta and into flight check for final tests and coating.
“On one hand, it represents our transition into a new area,” Cooper said after the ceremony inside the Lockheed plant, which hosted more than 1,000 attendees. “We have done an awesome job producing this awesome aircraft. While we’re saddened to see the production line stop, we’re really excited about the future. We’re really excited about the opportunities to be creative and innovative, and we’ve proven just by looking at this aircraft that we know just how to do that, which is fantastic.”
The F-22 went through a tri-city production, Lockheed spokeswoman Stephanie Stinn said, as the Palmdale, Calif., Lockheed facility was essentially the brains behind the aircraft in terms of engineering, initial development and advanced modernization; the Fort Worth, Texas, facility built the center wing; and the Marietta plant assembled the entire aircraft.
Lockheed built 187 F-22s since production began in 1991, as well as eight test airplanes, Stinn said.
Jeff Babione, vice president of Lockheed and general manager of the F-22 program, said after the ceremony that the F-22’s history reaches all the way back to the early 1980s, when the first requirement for the fighter jet was put out by the U.S. Department of Defense. By the late ’80s, Lockheed’s F-22 was competing against Northrop Corporation’s YF-23 to be the successor aircraft to the F-15 Eagle. The two companies participated in a series of “fly-offs” in the late ’80s, and in 1991, Lockheed won the contract, then worth nearly $11 billion, and began production. The maiden voyage of the F-22 was in Sept. 1997, when the first Raptor was flown out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta by then-51-year-old Marietta resident Paul Metz.
Stinn said that in 2005, at peak production, there were 5,600 employees working on the aircraft, 944 of them in Marietta. As of Tuesday, there were 1,650 employees working on the F-22 across the country, 930 of them in Marietta. Stinn said most of those employees have transitioned to work on production of the F-35 Lightning II or other production needs, while other F-22 employees have retired. Lockheed said that 214 employees were laid off earlier in the year, more than 100 of whom volunteered to take retirement.
Lockheed officials found out in April of 2009 that the 195th F-22 would be the last ordered by the U.S. military, Stinn said, and this final F-22, the 4195, will fly out of Marietta in the spring.
Babione said the company has many concerns with its aging workforce — and the knowledge that leaves the company when they retire — so Lockheed employees have been documenting the process of building the final F-22 through both text and film.
“We wanted to make sure, if we need to build them again, that we could pull a tool out of storage and build a part,” Babione said. “These men and women who have worked on these aircraft are craftsman … Corporate-wide, we see concerns that we would lose decades of skills to retirement, so we have actively been getting the older employees to mentor the younger employees and ensure there is a transfer of that vitally important knowledge.”
Col. Sean Frisbee of the U.S. Air Force, system program manager for the F-22, said 101 of the F-22s were delivered on-time and 55 have had zero defects, which is the highest zero-defect rate ever achieved in military aviation. Frisbee said the tolerances of the F-22 are tighter than the space shuttle and expressed pride in the successful development of an aircraft he said many doubted could be built.
Babione said about 600 employees will continue working on maintenance and enhanced capabilities, such as outfitting the F-22 for more weapons.
“The Raptor is not dead today,” Frisbee said. “This isn’t a funeral; this is a transition. For many of you, you will remain on the program and you’re going to help us sustain and modify the aircraft for the foreseeable future.”
But Frisbee added that a robust modification program is not possible if there are not cost-cutting measures, as the federal government faces mounting fiscal challenges. Still, Frisbee said the military is not expected to meet its aircraft availability rate until 2015.
Frisbee said the F-22 is more optimal than other aircraft at higher altitudes and can reach higher speeds, while the F-35 is optimized for lower altitudes and speeds but can carry more weapons, so the transition of many employees from F-22 production to F-35 production has been a relatively smooth one.
“You should see the view from here,” Frisbee said from his platform at the end of the warehouse, just under a large American flag painted on the wall. Nearby, the words “A mistake covered up may cost the life of a brave pilot” were painted in large black letters and loud, upbeat music played before each speaker took the stand. The South Cobb High School marching band eventually led the way, along with Lockheed employees and visiting dignitaries waving small American flags, as the final F-22 was driven out of the plant and onto the Lockheed roadway.
“We’ve got this beautiful aircraft, I see employees as far as the eye can see, and the line looks lonely. But this line will be filled at some point with other aircraft, and you’re going to go on and you’re going to continue building fighters for America. That is something that needs to be celebrated.”