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Future of US Jet Force Displayed in Linthicum

Engineers and elected officials showcased the newest jet technology being introduced to the US military on Thursday.

Rep. Donna Edwards (4th District) sat in the jet cockpit and looked down the long runway surrounded by nothing but desert land and open sky. A few decades ago, she hoped to get paid for this, but alas jet fighting was not in her future.

When Edwards stepped into the cockpit on Thursday, she pressed buttons, handled a control stick and even tried a barrel-roll maneuver—but all in simulation.

Specifically, she was one of dozens of people to experience a simulator of the U.S. military's next generation of jets, the F-35 Lightning II, at the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum.

Edwards said she was accepted into the Air Force Academy's first class of women out of high school, but passed on the opportunity when she found out women could not be pilots. She even flew as a passenger on an F-16 two years ago.

As impressive as those experiences were, she said it is time for the United States to invest in the new generation of jet aircraft.

"As I talk to our armed service members all across the country and around the world, what they say is they need the next generation fighter," Edwards said. "We need to have 21st century technology that enables our pilots to do the best job they can."

The F-35 features a stealth body design, as well as state-of-the-art technology for communication and navigation. Expected to be in full production by 2018, the F-35 will replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon as the frontline fighter, which pilots have deemed outdated since its introduction in 1978.

Danny Conroy, a retired jet pilot and leader of the F-35 programs for Lockheed Martin, said there is no reason the main jet fleet should be the same as when he began flying more than 30 years ago. The average age of a fighter aircraft is 24 years, Conroy said.

"It's time to upgrade," he added.

Conroy said each basic model of the aircraft will cost $85 million, when production is in full swing. He insisted that producing the new stealth fighter is a better option than paying to upgrade the existing fleet.

"Probably no one in this room owns a 24-year-old car, or a toaster or a lawn mower—so it's time," Conroy said.

The F-35 program supports approximately 3,700 jobs in the state of Maryland alone, and will bring $825 million into the local economy in 2013, according to a press release.

With Lockheed Martin manufacturing the aircraft and Northrop Grumman programming the electronics, production will reach approximately 200 aircraft per year within five years. This collaboration and bulk production is expected to make the aircraft more affordable.

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