Northrop Grumman has started development of the centre fuselage of the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) first F-35 Lightning II conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft at its production facility in Palmdale, California, US.
As part of the Lot 6 low-rate initial production (LRIP) phase, the company has manufactured and jig-loaded the first inlet ducts, the first of two F-35's centre fuselages, in the presence of the RAAF's chief of air force air marshal Geoff Brown in October 2012.
Known as the AU-1 and the AU-2, the fuselages are scheduled to be handed over to the air force in support of the pilot training in 2014.
The company also showed the air marshal its Integrated Assembly Line (IAL) that manufactures the centre fuselage with lowered programme costs and labour requirements.
Northrop Grumman F-35 programme vice president Michelle Scarpella said Brown viewed the advanced facility and manufacturing techniques that will enable delivery of the next-generation stealthy fighter jets to the air force.
Australia, which joined the F-35 development programme as a level three partner in 2002, has so far contributed $144m for the acquisition of two aircraft for initial ground and aircrew training at an undisclosed test and development site in US.
The RAAF had originally planned to purchase a total of 100 F-35 jets for a cost of $16.4bn, to help replace its fleet of Boeing-built F/A-18A/B Hornets, but delayed the order for the first batch of 12 aircraft by two years in May 2012 in wake of budgetary constraints.
The F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) is a fifth generation multirole fighter jet, currently under development with prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, in three variants to carry out a wide range of ground attack, reconnaissance and air defence missions.
Image: RAAF's chief of air force air marshal Geoff Brown signing the first F-35 center fuselage at Northrop Grumman's F-35 production facility in Palmdale, US. Photo: courtesy of Northrop Grumman, 2012 ©.