SUFFOLK — Fighter jock Randy Forbes, better known as that congressman from Chesapeake, climbed into an F-35 cockpit simulator on Tuesday, descended through clear skies and nailed his landing on an aircraft carrier.
He can only hope that steering the expensive F-35 program through Congress goes as smoothly.
In coming years, the F-35 will be a common sight in the skies over Hampton Roads, based on the program's planned track. It is destined to replace the Navy's workhorse F/A-18 Hornet as the primary carrier-based jet fighter.
Another version used by Marine Corps pilots will take off and land vertically. That will allow it to deploy on amphibious assault ships, also based at Naval Station Norfolk.
Still a third version will go to the Air Force. Langley AFB in Hampton is not slated to get the F-35 because it already has the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. However, it's possible that visiting units flying the F-35 could make an appearance.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor, showcased the jet's capabilities at its Center for Innovation in Suffolk. The high-tech cockpit simulator brought out retired admirals, local officials and Forbes, who chairs the House Armed Services panel on seapower and projection forces.
The Chesapeake Republican has built a reputation as a fierce defender of high-value military assets at a time when defense budgets are shrinking, and in the F-35's case, he must blunt skeptics who point to the program's cost overruns and delays.
Forbes said the momentum is turning in his favor and against a steep drawdown.
"I'm beginning to see more people out in the public realize this is not the right direction," he said.
The Project on Government Oversight has recommended the military do without the F-35 and purchase upgraded versions of existing fighters. Last week, a senior Pentagon official blasted Pratt and Whitney, which builds engines for the fighter, saying the company hasn't met its commitment to cut costs. Pratt and Whitney blamed budget cuts for a lack of program stability, which made it more difficult to meet cost goals.
Lockheed officials said the program is now stable, and Forbes said the nation can't afford to be without the F-35. Not having it will cost the lives of American pilots, because other countries are developing fighters with stealth capabilities.
The U.S. has enjoyed air dominance in conflicts since 1953, but the country is "dangerously close" to losing that edge, said Forbes. He said the country must assess its risks and develop a budget that pays for the right strategy. Instead, the U.S. is doing it backward.
"We pull budget numbers out of the air and say 'this is all we want to spend. . . . now make it work," he said. "No generation of Americans ever have been successful at doing that."
A number of people tried their hand at flying the F-35 simulator, which included realistic cockpit controls and a wrap-around screen that depicted land-and-sea scenarios. Participants were even allowed to shoot down a bogey and do a couple of victory rolls.
The real thing is a bit more complicated, but worth taxpayers' money, Lockheed Martin officials said.
The key advantage of the F-35 is stealth, much like the Raptor.
The Raptor is larger and more maneuverable, said Robert Rubino, director of Lockheed's F-35 Navy program and a former Navy fighter pilot. The F-35 has a better air-to-ground attack capability. The Raptor also has that capability, but its strength is as an air-to-air fighter, Rubino said.
Like other military weapons systems, the F-35 will take a hit if automatic budget cuts under sequestration return in 2016. The Air Force would buy 15 fewer F-35s in fiscal 2016-2017 in that scenario, according to a recent Pentagon report.
But for now, plans call for an ambitious ramp up of F-35 testing and production. The company is producing 35 aircraft per year at its Forth Worth, Texas, facility, Rubino said.
The first Marine Corps F-35 squadron has been staffed and will go operational next year. Later next year, the Navy will go to sea with the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz for its first carrier-based F-35 landing.
When it reaches full production in 2018, the company plans to roll out about 18 fighters every month. Even at the current 35-per-year rate, the program is spread across 44 states and 1,200 suppliers. Virginia has 18 of those suppliers, and Lockheed said the F-35 creates some 700 direct and indirect jobs in the state.
At Lockheed's center in Suffolk, the company analyzes the aircraft through computer modeling and simulation. That can be particularly helpful when determining how the Navy version of the aircraft will hold up in the rough environment at sea. It can simulate a launch, a mission and determine how that affects maintenance needs.
"We can do a day in the life of an F-35 on an aircraft carrier," said Jim McArthur, center vice president. "The airplane will tell you what needs to be done in terms of maintenance, and it will tell you when it needs to occur."
Coincidentally, Lockheed Martin executives lifted the company's profit outlook Tuesday as it issued first quarter 2014 results. The company reported a 23-percent jump in net profit in the first quarter.
However, budget cuts have led to a decrease in revenue, and that has changed expectations of 2014 being a growth year, Chief Financial Officer Bruce Tanner said. The F-35 program accounts for 16 percent of the company's overall revenues.
Rob Stallard of RBC Capital Markets said the company's earnings and operating margins exceeded expectations, but investors are wondering how much longer the company can maintain that performance given declining revenues.
A story from The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.