PLANE SPEAKING: Vought builds horizontal stabilizers for C-17 cargo jets in West Dallas. photography courtesy of Triumph Aerostructures - Vought Aircraft Division

Big D Stands For Defense

Turning out everything from jet fighters to engine mounts, aircraft companies pump billions into the North Texas economy.

The same cavernous Fort Worth plant that cranked out 29,000 B-24 bombers during World War II at a rate of 200 a month is today crafting the world’s most advanced and stealthy, if controversial, jet fighter—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that in one version is capable of vertical takeoff.

Cost overruns, delays, and Britain’s cancellation of the vertical-takeoff, jump-jet version have plagued Lockheed Martin’s F-35 project, though. Critics have called it sluggish with a pitifully small payload for the cost—as high as $140 million apiece, depending on the variant. But Lockheed, which has invested more than $1 billion in manufacturing, laboratory, and other capabilities for the project, remains confident that the snags will be overcome and the innovative model will become a mainstay for decades, handling ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defense chores.

Next door, Lockheed continues to produce the highly adaptable, and marketable, F-16, a 38-year-old jet fighter so well-respected that Arab nations don’t blanch when ordering a plane with wings fabricated by Israel. A runaway success, 4,465 F-16s have been built, 2,200 of them in Fort Worth.

Beginning with the bomber plant and a seismic instrument transformed for submarine-hunting duty by a firm that would become Texas Instruments, Dallas-Fort Worth’s defense industry has expanded and contracted with postwar geopolitical developments and Washington’s budget priorities. But there’s no denying its continued economic heft—employing more than 40,000 workers by some estimates and delivering $21 billion to Dallas, Collin, and Tarrant counties in 2009, up from $6.5 billion in 2000.

Besides Lockheed, big players in the defense space here include Bell Helicopter Textron, whose Bedford plant employs 6,400 full and part-time workers to make components for many aircraft, including the V-22 Osprey. Vought, another major player that was acquired in June 2010 by Pennsylvania-based Triumph Group, employs 3,800 workers in North Texas. Its West Dallas plant builds tails and engine mounts for C-17 transport planes, cabins for Black Hawk helicopters, and wings for Gulfstream business jets, while its Grand Prairie facility assembles tail sections for Boeing jumbo jetliners. A relative newcomer, L-3 Communications, in 2009 secured a $250 million contract for its Carrollton unit to develop a drone aircraft at about half the cost of the $10 million Predator system.

“What’s really critical for the North Texas economy are the billions [of dollars] that the contractor brings, then turns over to a lot of subcontractors in the region,” says Bernard “Bud” Weinstein, an economics professor at Southern Methodist University.  “And then you have a multiplier effect of all those dollars.”

That said, Weinstein adds, the impact of the defense industry on the regional economy has lessened over time, because the area has “become so much larger and more diversified, particularly on the western side” of DFW. When peace broke out at the end of the Cold War, at least 15,000 jobs were lost here, the professor noted. The upside, he says, is that the sea change created a pool of skilled workers who found other employment in high-tech industries.

Some defense firms, like Raytheon, which acquired TI’s defense work in 1997 for $2.95 billion, have gotten the message and are looking increasingly to the civilian marketplace for work. With 10,000 employees in McKinney and Richardson, 80 percent of Raytheon’s work is still defense-related. But many if its offerings in surveillance and cybersecurity have applications beyond the Pentagon, says Dave Desilets, a spokesman.

“If you have an airport and are trying to make sure no one gets on the grounds who doesn’t belong, we can supply a perimeter intrusion detection system—with the needed sensors, cameras, and radars with the ability to view information in real time so can the response can be as quickly as possible,” Desilets says. “They can be used at an oil refinery, ship channel, nuclear power plant, border, airport, port. There’s no limits. And it’s scalable—as big as you need to get protection.”

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