EASTFORD — The pilot kept a steady right thumb on the red button as his target grew larger on the cockpit screen.
“We’re 30 miles away, everything is still under control,” his guide said.
It was a tiny building, but clearly visible from the seat of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with crosshairs and LED numbers indicating distance and precise vector. The guide told the pilot to flick a switch with his left thumb, all without moving a hand from the jet’s controls.
“That quickly, you can go from shooting an airplane down to bombing a target,” the guide told the pilot.
Then the pilot — Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District — pressed the red button twice, firmly. Two bombs slipped out of the airplane’s hold. “These are GPS-guided bombs, we told them where to go,” the guide told Courtney.
A plume of dark smoke rises from the building’s image on the screen. “There it goes,” Courtney marveled.
Courtney was sitting in a Lockheed Martin demonstrator cockpit at Whitcraft LLC, a company that makes hundreds of parts for the f135 engine on the F-35. He and other visitors and employees had a chance Thursday to see a sampling of the whizbang technology that makes the Joint Strike Fighter the most advanced jet fighter ever made, amid controversy over its cost and development.
The demonstrator, with large, interactive screens simulating what actual pilots would see in a Star Wars-style helmet visor, is the fun side of the F-35, which will become the largest military hardware program in U.S. history if Lockheed builds all 2,443 airplanes as planned over the next two decades. The current cost of the regular Air Force model: $108 million apiece.
Whitcraft, with 500 Connecticut employees at three locations, including 350 at its headquarters plant in Eastford, makes hundreds of parts for the f135, the Pratt & Whitney jet engine that exclusively powers the F-35.
Thursday’s visit by Lockheed showed a Joint Strike Fighter program deeply enmeshed in the Connecticut economy, where it supports thousands of jobs at Pratt and more than 100 suppliers.
For now, the Air Force relies on F-16 jets designed and in some cases built in the late ’70s. “Unfortunately the young men and women who are protecting our country are still flying that airplane,” said Danny Conroy, a Lockheed executive in the F-35 program, and retired Air Force fighter pilot who flew the F-16.
It was a homecoming for Conroy, who grew up in Higganum and graduated from Xavier High School in Middletown, where the current UConn chairman and legendary football coach Larry McHugh was his driver education teacher, before setting off to the Air Force Academy in Colorado. As a former military officer who worked on the F-35 program in development, he’s thrilled to talk about what the plane can do.
Inside the cockpit, one display shows enemy aircraft, with uneven, gray shading around each — showing where the stealthy F-35 is visible to those aircraft. A flick of a switch shows the much larger area where the F-16 is visible to enemies.
“When the F-35 is finally seen and picked up, it’s too late, he’s probably on the way home,” Conroy said. “There’s a lot of Star Wars technology and people will say ‘Wow, that’s like a video game,’ but don’t forget, this is not a game.”
Nor is the political fight over the F-35. At least until recently, the Pentagon was harshly critical of the pace of development, with significant technical issues arising. Some in Congress want to cut back on the purchases.
But with 180 of the planes now in service, “The Air Force is very happy with it,” Conroy said, adding, “They find it surprisingly easy to maintain.
Pratt expects to deliver 88 engines this year for the single-engine F-35, up from 42 last year. By 2020, Pratt, with assembly in Middletown and West Palm Beach, Fla., expects to deliver 200 a year.
For the next fiscal year, Courtney, said, the House Armed Services Committee upped the allotment of orders for finished planes to 74, from 63 in the Department of Defense budget. He said that reflects the real needs of the Air Force and Navy, not economic interests.
“It’s obvious that this thing has taken its hits from critics but we’re at a point now where we’re in a virtuous cycle,” Courtney said. “I would challenge anyone to point to a single new program that hasn’t had development problems.”
Connecticut needs that cycle to cycle up. As I took a turn in the cockpit, where Brad “Opie” Kearney guided me to an easy landing on an aircraft carrier, it was clear the amazing programming technology makes actual flying less complicated than in the past.
It’s full speed ahead for Whitcraft, which mostly makes fabricated sheet metal parts, many for the critical, hot sections of the engine, at the Eastford plant. In all, co-owner Jeff Paul said, the f135 accounts for about $7 million a year, or 5 percent of annual sales. Paul and co-owner Colin Cooper, who became fast friends as Pratt engineers before attending business school at Columbia University together, talked about the employees advancing their careers in the program.
Among the Whitcraft workers who took a turn at the controls was Michael Giroux, who operates an advanced “hydroform” machine. He said it was “neat” to think about the work he does, then see it in action, if only on a demonstrator. “I bombed a couple of carriers and did a landing,” he said. “I did a victory spin.”