Made in Lancashire - F-35 Lightning II

PUBLISHED: 18:26 21 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:41 21 October 2015

The F-35 in a vertical landing

The F-35 in a vertical landing

Lockheed Martin by Phaedra Loftis

Samlesbury is home to Lancashire’s military plane maker employing 4,000 skilled workers. Martin Pilkington reports

An impression of the new Lightning I and Lightning II aircraft at SamlesburyAn impression of the new Lightning I and Lightning II aircraft at Samlesbury

Guarding the gates of BAE’s huge Samlesbury complex is a newly installed full-size model of the Lightning I aircraft, a proud part of the site’s past. It will soon be joined by a similar tribute to the company’s present and future, the F-35 Lightning II.

‘It is fantastic to see the Lightning back in its rightful place at the entrance to our Samlesbury site where it was manufactured for so many years,’ says site director Ian Wood. ‘It’s an aircraft which is a proud part of our heritage. The F-35 model will be the first of its kind to take up a permanent spot in the UK. For many of the people that live and work here it will be the first time they will see the aircraft in the flesh.’

Since English Electric established the Samlesbury site in 1939 it has produced mainly military aircraft. In the early days, the Handley Page Hampden and Halifax helped win the WWII battle for the skies, then from the mid-1940s jets like the de Havilland Vampire and the English Electric Canberra took centre stage, with the Lightning I arriving on the scene in the late-1950s.

‘The history and continuity here are important to us,’ explains Jon Evans, Head of F-35 Operations at Samlesbury. ‘Sometimes several generations of a family will have worked here. Lightning II follows on from the work done years ago on the Lightning I. A lot of the technology is derived from what we did on Typhoon as well.’

The F-35 pictured takes off at sunsetThe F-35 pictured takes off at sunset

Very tangible links with the early days remain, some of the original ‘sheds’ from 1939 are still in use, but the site has developed hugely over the years. About 4,000 BAE personnel work there on the Typhoon, the Hawk and Goshawk trainers, spares for the Harrier, and the rapidly accelerating F-35 project.

‘We began work on the F-35 in 1999,’ says Jon. ‘We make the aft fuselage and the horizontal and vertical tails. From that start to this summer we’ve made 200 units, but in the next three years we’ll make a further 200, and we’re putting capacity in place to build at the rate of one a working-day, so we’ll be able to build 225 aircraft per annum.

‘We had to take a lot of things from the car industry, and fast-moving consumer goods, and the initial challenge was how to engineer this so it’s simple and quick to put together – it’s engineered for manufacture.’

Like an automotive plant, the product and components are brought to the workers, rather than the other way round which, given the scale of the product, means there has been considerable investment in the gigantic plant and the buildings to house it.

Aerial shot of BAe at SamlesburyAerial shot of BAe at Samlesbury

Jon emphasises that people remain the key to success. ‘There’s a plan for every component, but at the same time you need to look at the skills required, so we’ve invested heavily in an apprentice programme and graduate programmes, which bring people to the organisation and give them a career. Currently we have 249 skilled men and women building the product, in two years that’ll be upwards of 450.’

A further investment of £15.6 million is underway on a training academy at Samlesbury to bring more apprentices through, to train experienced recruits in BAE’s systems, and as a resource for other north west high-tech companies, so many of which provide vital products and services to BAE.

‘The supply chain is critical for us,’ says Jon. ‘We’re proud of our work here with the Northwest Aerospace Alliance which is a government funded group helping supply chain organisations get better at what they do. What we do has significance beyond BAE in the many other companies employing large numbers of people in this region.’

Elliot Fairbairn, who now works at Samlesbury, took an unusual route into BAE – in more ways than one. Passing the Warton factory while training as a bus driver he asked a colleague what was made there. That was the start of another journey.

‘I was 28 when I realised I didn’t want to drive buses all my life,’ he said. ‘My wife suggested I consider engineering – I was always making things at home.’

After initial study at Blackpool College he gained a place on the BAE apprenticeship programme, with reduced earnings but great prospects. ‘I was the first older apprentice that they had taken on. I thought an apprenticeship was just for 16 and 17-year-olds but since I came there have been lots of older apprentices – some even older than me!’

Plane talking

• The F-35 is a single-seater, single-engine stealth jet

• It is expected to cost $85+ million (£55 million) per plane

• The maximum speed is 1200mph (Mach 1.6)

• The range up to 1,575 miles

• Lockheed Martin’s F-35 project worldwide is the largest defence contract in history

• The USA plans to take 2400 plus and ten allied countries another 600 plus

• BAE Samlesbury began F-35 work in 1999

• F-35 work is expected to continue to 2035, with spares and repairs until 2060

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