NORTH BERWICK, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage used a celebration of employees at jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney’s North Berwick facility Friday morning to remind the airplane manufacturers and corporate executives in attendance that there are more workers available elsewhere in Maine as well.
Pratt & Whitney is producing in the York County town the engines found in Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning II jet fighters. LePage was joined by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and state House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, for the facility’s annual employee appreciation day, this time featuring an F-35 cockpit flight simulator for attendees to try out.
Following Lockheed Martin Corp. executive Daniel Conroy at the podium, LePage made his pitch.
“Just a few miles up, we have a Navy station waiting for occupants,” the governor said of the 1,400-acre former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now being redeveloped for civilian uses under the name Brunswick Landing. “Lockheed could come up and cut down on the distance [in the supply chain].”
The controversial $392 billion fighter jet program, which has been in development for more than 15 years and has narrowly survived termination attempts by lawmakers and Pentagon officials, involves 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. Final assembly of the fighters takes place at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
LePage told the defense contractor officials he wants Maine workers to make more than the engines.
“If you’d like to call my office, we can have some people give you a tour of the base,” he said, adding, “We’ve talked to jet manufacturers in Canada and South America. We’ve even gone to China to try and steal some of their Chinese jet manufacturers.”
Collins told a standing-room-only crowd under a large event tent Friday that 845 Maine jobs are “directly or indirectly” associated with the F-35 program. Bennett Croswell, president of the Pratt & Whitney’s military engine division, said those jobs represent $70 million in annual economic impact to the state.
Pratt & Whitney’s corporate headquarters is in Hartford, Conn.
Collins joined LePage in pushing for more of the defense work to come to the Pine Tree State. Maine is also home to Bath Iron Works, which employs approximately 5,700 people and builds destroyers for the U.S. Navy.
“I told my Connecticut colleagues in the Senate that we have the best Pratt & Whitney facility and they should move all their work to Maine,” she said to applause.
Eves highlighted the Legislature’s creation this session of a Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, as well as $1.1 million in state funds allocated to developing new worker training programs, as critical steps toward ensuring that new and current Maine employers have immediate access to the skilled workforce they need. Among the programs to benefit from the new funding, Eves said, is a precision machining technology program at nearby York County Community College, which he said should directly benefit Pratt & Whitney by providing a supply of trained workers as it increases production.
Croswell said the 877,000-square-foot North Berwick facility is on pace to produce 50 of the F-35 engines this year, a slight increase compared to the 46 built there in 2012. But he said the plant will be ramping up to a production of more than 240 per year by 2020, at which point the F-35 engines will represent 20 percent of the facility’s workload.
The Pentagon is slated to buy more than 2,400 of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft, using its combination of abilities — to reach supersonic speed as well as complete short takeoffs and vertical landings — to replace its aging F-16, F-18 and Harrier jump jet programs.
Conroy, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, said he was among the first to fly the F-16s when they were newly introduced in 1979. Now, he said, the average Air Force jet is 23 years old, and the new F-35s are necessary.
“I don’t think there are many of us who would send our kids to the grocery store in a 23-year-old car,” he told those in attendance Friday. “And yet we’ve got them in combat.”
The F-35 cockpit flight simulator was ceremonially tried out by LePage, Collins and Eves Friday.
“The last time the simulator was brought here, I felt so woozy — it’s a good thing I didn’t want to be an airplane pilot because I would have flunked out early on,” Collins said before climbing into the machine.