I’m not sure how the The OB Rag ended up on the invite list for the F-35 Cockpit Demonstrator event hosted by Lockheed Martin on May 17. But I had that morning free — and as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God” — so I volunteered to check it out.
The event was held at a Kearny Mesa office of Cobham Sensor Systems, a defense contractor with about 1,000 employees in San Diego. The goal was “to celebrate the past success and the strong future of the F-35 aircraft” with community leaders and media, said Eric Forstner, vice president of sales and marketing for Cobham.
About 20 F-35s have been built so far, but thousands will be delivered over the next few decades — if funding keeps coming from governments in the U.S., the U.K., and several other countries.
The U.S. has ordered 2,443 F-35s at an estimated total cost of more than $300 billion.
Forstner said Cobham contributes more than 100 components to the F-35, a next-generation fighter plane just beginning to roll off assembly lines. As F-35 production ramps up, Cobham is “poised for significant growth, creating demand for technical talent” in areas such as engineering, design, and drafting, Forstner said.
Stephen Callaghan, Lockheed’s director of F-35 programs (Washington operations), highlighted the impact of F-35 production on employment.
“It’s not a jobs program, but jobs are important,” Callaghan said. About $4 billion of the $12 billion budgeted for 2011 will be spent in California, creating 26,000 “direct and indirect” jobs for the state, he said.
Callaghan said the Navy, Air Force and Marines will each receive a customized version of the F-35, which is also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. All three versions will feature an array of armaments and a “stealth” design intended to make them hard for enemies to detect.
Callaghan acknowledged that the F-35’s past production delays have been widely reported but said the program is now “hitting stride” and is ahead of its schedule for 2011.
The Cobham demonstration was part of a junket of similar events held across the country.
“It’s really Lockheed’s show,” one of the event organizers told me. And a carefully managed show it was.
Roughly half of the 50 or so people in the room seemed to work for Cobham, Lockheed, or one of their public relations firms. Within five minutes of entering the room, I was greeted three separate times by staffers presenting business cards and making sure I was all set.
As the event was about to start, people whose chatter suggested they were rank-and-file Cobham employees filled some of the empty seats.
The cockpit demonstrator consisted of an artificial cockpit connected to three large flat-screen television screens, which displayed a computerized version of what an F-35 pilot would see.
When a Cobham manager climbed in the cockpit for a “flight,” a fourth TV showed the rest of us what his “plane” was doing. At the same time, a fifth TV played a well-produced video of actual F-35s in production and in flight.
My friend Alan, a video game enthusiast, saw the cockpit demonstrator on the news and was underwhelmed.
“It doesn’t even move or anything,” Alan said. “I’ve seen cooler games at Dave and Buster’s.”
To me, the cockpit demonstrator seemed less about simulating flight than giving the local media a reason to spread the good word about the F-35.
A Cobham official mentioned that San Diego’s Fox affiliate had intended to do a live broadcast for their morning show, though apparently the plan fell through. Still, the local CBS affiliate fielded a reporter and cameraman, who put together a segment called “Top Fun: News 8’s Jeff Zevely takes off in a fighter jet simulator.”
The day before the F-35 event, the San Diego Union-Tribune led off its business section with a story about Lockheed Martin’s local operations. The article didn’t mention the fighter plane but quoted a Lockheed executive who said the company aims to be “a top defense supplier in local markets.”
Congressman Duncan Hunter was even supposed to show up to take the cockpit demonstrator for a presumably photogenic spin.
As the rest of us sat waiting for Hunter, who ended up postponing, I found myself contemplating the age, gender and race dynamics among the people working the event.
Female employees had shown me where to park in the lot and checked me in at the door. Inside, the half-dozen or so people who seemed the highest ranking in the room were white men in probably their 40s or 50s. The handful of people of color appeared to have support roles.
Callaghan, the program director from Lockheed, emphasized a trait he thinks everybody connected to the F-35 has in common.
“Everyone who participates in this program is an American patriot,” Callaghan said. “It’s an honor to be in a room full of American patriots.”