Given that bombers were the focus in the 1940s and 1950s, the facility earned a nickname among locals that endures today: the bomber plant
Construction was completed in less than a year. Noteworthy the plant required a lot of lights and air conditioning (the bill of which was equivalent to $282,000 per month in today’s dollars) since to satisfy the blackout conditions necessary for wartime, the plant had no windows.
Given that bombers were the focus in the 1940s and 1950s, the facility earned a nickname among locals that endures today: the bomber plant. Production of the B-24 Liberator began in February 1942 while parts of the facility were still under construction. Eventually 2,743 B-24’s were produced in Fort Worth.
Almost 400 B-36 Peacemakers, the world’s first intercontinental bomber, were produced in Fort Worth in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The airplane made its maiden flight in August 1946, and in June 1948 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) received its first operational B-36. Powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines, the B-36J cruised at 230 mph, but for additional bursts of speed its four General Electric J47s increased the maximum speed to 435 mph (hence aircraft’s slogan “six turning, four burning”). The Peacemaker could carry 86,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional bombs. It was eventually phased out in 1958 and although the B-36 was never used in combat, it was a major deterrent to enemy aggression.
In the late 1950s, production of the B-58 Hustler began. The four engine delta winged aircraft, which flew for the first time on Nov. 11, 1956, was the world’s first bomber designed to sustain supersonic speeds during its mission profile. Convair built 116 B-58s: 30 test and pre-production aircraft and 86 for operational service. Hustlers flew in the SAC between 1960 and 1970. Setting 19 world speed and altitude records, the B-58 also won five different aviation trophies. The last B-58 was retired in 1970.
More than 30,000 people worked at the Air Force Plant 4 during the WWII years – about one in five Fort Worth residents.
In the early 1960s, development and production began on the F-111, a supersonic, tactical attack aircraft. A total of 564 were produced in Fort Worth, earning the plant a new nickname: the “fighter factory.” The U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-111A first flew in December 1964, and the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967. In all, 566 F-111s of all series were built. Although the F-111 was unofficially referred to as the Aardvark, it did not receive the name officially until it was retired in 1996.
About 30,000 worked at the AF Plant 4 at the highest employment point in the 1960s, mostly supporting development and production of the F-111 and its variants.
A smaller program developed and built in Fort Worth during the 1960s was the RB-57F Canberra. In fact beginning in 1963, General Dynamics converted 21 B-57 airframes (four of them RB-57Ds) into RB-57Fs. This jet was a specialized strategic reconnaissance aircraft specified for the U.S. Air Force, through the Big Safari program. It was assigned to the Air Weather Service to fly weather reconnaissance and atomic air sampling missions. Three are still in service with NASA.
Development on the F-16 began in the early 1970s. The F-16 was originally developed as a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter designed for high performance and ease of maintenance. The F-16 did just that and proved to be a game-changer among fighter jets with its smooth blended-wing body; fly-by-wire system that kept the design stable, improved response time and increased agility; and an enhanced cockpit. Prior to the mid-1970s, the Fort Worth plant had been a U.S. Air Force-only supplier. The F-16 changed that. The fighter was so innovative and successful that eventually more than 4,500 were produced – 3,630 in Fort Worth – for more than 25 countries. At the peak production level in 1987, the F-16 production team was able to deliver 30 fighters per month. While production continues today, the last F-16 built in Fort Worth has been delivered in September 2017.
During the mid-1970s, the number of employees at the plant had dwindled to about 8,000 – as F-111 production wrapped up and the F-16 was still under development. The number rebounded in the 1980s, however, with more than 30,000 employed by 1986, mostly for F-16.
After the end of the Cold War, the Fort Worth plant had to reinvent itself yet again. In the early 1990s, F-16 production had slowed, new program wins were scarce, and the A-12 development program was cancelled in 1991 – resulting in thousands of jobs lost. It was a difficult time for the plant and the Fort Worth community.
But employees looked for innovative ways to secure new business with existing programs, and that ultimately secured the future of the plant in Fort Worth. F-16 sales expanded into new markets in Asia and the Middle East. Fort Worth earned a contract to build the mid-fuselage for F-22 Raptor before it was shipped to Marietta for final assembly.
The last two decades in Fort Worth have been heavily focused on F-35 development and production, the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter. In 2017, almost 70 F-35s will be built in Fort Worth; that will increase to about 160 a year by 2019 and could exceed 4,000 aircraft over several decades. Nationwide, the F-35 is responsible for more than 170,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Photo credit: Edwards History Office file photo, Airman 1st Class Caleb Worpel U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin and Teddy Techer
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com