FORT WORTH, Texas — In 1975, the once-bustling mile-long bomber plant then operated by General Dynamics had the feel of a ghost town. Just under 3,000 employees worked at the west-side plant and a single F-111 attack plane sat in the corner.
“This looked like a tomb, this facility,” said Ralph Heath, a design engineer. “Immediately, on the right of the entrance to the factory, was a plywood wall and everything to the north of that was dark. It was shut down.”
After wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Pentagon had lost interest in pricey jets like the F-15. So Fort Worth aerospace developers and production engineers developed a single-engine, lightweight fighter for the government at a low cost, said Heath, who would later become president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, which took over the plant in 1992.
Heath, now 65, and others were told that the initial contract for about 1,000 jets would last four years. Four decades later, Lockheed Martin has pumped out more than 4,540 F-16s for customers in more than 24 countries. At its peak in 1987, the Fort Worth plant produced 30 aircraft a month and employment at the west-side factory reached about 30,000.
On Thursday, the company celebrated the 40th anniversary of the jet’s first flight on Feb. 2, 1974, an event attended by Heath and other current and former innovators of the program.
“Think about that, 4,500 aircraft and we’re still going strong. It’s just an outstanding performance,” Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, told about 400 employees and others at the anniversary ceremony. “I personally look forward to coming back and celebrating the 80th anniversary of the F-16.”
Though it has been overtaken in size and importance by the F-35 joint strike fighter program, Lockheed continues to turn out about one F-16 a month for foreign buyers such as Iraq. About 400 workers still labor on the F-16 line, which has enough orders to remain open until at least 2017.
Test pilot Phil Oestricher, who manned the first flight of the F-16 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, said the plane was the brainchild of General Dynamics engineers and others who were answering the Pentagon’s call for an agile fighter.
“Basically, they were looking for a dogfighting type of airplane in the traditional sense of it,’’ said the 82-year-old retired pilot.
Over time, the plane evolved into a multirole, all-weather airplane, said Dain Hancock, 72, a propulsion engineer who would become a long-time president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
“It had good bones,” Hancock said. “It had a structure capability that allowed it to grow without a lot of changes in its structure, such as the capability to carry large loads, a high thrust-to-weight ratio.”
Over the decades, the plane’s performance was beefed up with upgrades to avionics and weapons systems. Many foreign nations are now seeking to outfit their existing fleets of F-16s with the latest electronics.
The design of the F-16 also changed much about the way jet fighters are built today, Hancock said. Unlike its predecessors, the F-16 had side-stick control, a reclining seat and a blended wing body, and it was a “fly by wire” aircraft, in which electronic systems are used to replace conventional manual aircraft flight controls.
Lockheed employees at the aircraft’s anniversary event included Barbara McDowgald, 67, of Burleson, an electrical engineer who has been involved with the F-16 program for the last four decades.
“It’s been awesome,’’ she said. “It’s been really a blessing. I’ve been able to put my kids through college and help out my grandkids and go on trips because of this program.”