PALMDALE, Calif., Dec. 19, 2006 (PRIME NEWSWIRE) -- Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) today reached two major milestones on the F-35 Lightning II aircraft program: the delivery of the center fuselage for the first U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) variant and the start of assembly of the center fuselage for the first U.S. Navy variant. The company celebrated the milestones at a ceremony held at the company's F-35 manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif.

The center fuselage delivered today is only the second such unit to be produced under the F-35 program. The first, delivered in April 2005, was integrated on the first aircraft that took its maiden flight Dec. 15. Northrop Grumman plans to ship the USMC variant to Ft. Worth, Texas on Jan. 8 for the beginning of the aircraft's final assembly.

"With the completion of this center fuselage and the start of yet another, the F-35 team continues to usher in a new era for aircraft production," said Scott Seymour, Northrop Grumman corporate vice president and Integrated Systems sector president. "Northrop Grumman has been able to do this by incorporating advanced manufacturing techniques into what will be a unique high rate production program."

The company's assembly line integrates advanced 3-D modeling techniques, state-of-the-art fabrication, quality methods and tooling technologies, and a factory that features characteristics similar to those of automotive plants to support the F-35's rigorous production schedule.

The assembly process on the center fuselage upper subassembly began in Sept. 2005 with the drilling, counter-sinking and assembly of the inlet ducts. New technologies developed by Northrop Grumman allowed each duct, made entirely from composite materials, to be assembled as a single structure instead of from numerous pieces. The ducts were then mated to the upper portion of the center fuselage, the first fuel tanks were sealed, the system components were installed, and pressure and leak tests were successfully accomplished.

The lower subassembly, built of aluminum frames and keel components, was manufactured in parallel. In early July 2006, the two structures were mated and the composite skins drilled using advanced automation processes, completing the center fuselage structural assembly.

Final systems installation and testing of hydraulics, actuated doors, the power thermal management system and wire harnesses completed the assembly.

The naval variant of the F-35 center fuselage will follow a similar build process.

"Innovative design and outstanding craftsmanship, brought together by the thousands of aerospace experts from Northrop Grumman and its suppliers from around the world, were instrumental in the development of this shipset," said Janis Pamiljans, Northrop Grumman vice president and the company's F-35 program manager. "The future of military aircraft design, manufacturing and supportability has been dramatically altered and everyone-the F-35 team and our customers-will benefit from these new processes."

The F-35 is a stealthy, supersonic multi-role fighter designed to replace a wide-range of aging fighter and strike aircraft. Three variants derived from a common design will ensure the F-35 meets the performance needs of allied defense forces worldwide, while staying within strict affordability targets.

The inaugural flight of the first F-35, a preproduction conventional takeoff and landing variant (CTOL), took place on Dec.15. Fifteen F-35s will undergo flight test, six will be used for ground testing and another will validate the aircraft's radar signature. Continuing its march towards low rate initial production, Northrop Grumman currently has ten F-35 center fuselages in various stages of production.

Three versions of the F-35 are under development: the CTOL variant designed for the U.S. Air Force for conventional runways; a short takeoff/vertical landing variant designed for the U.S. Marine Corps for operating off small ships and near front-line combat zones; and a carrier variant for catapult launches and arrested recoveries on board the U.S. Navy's large aircraft carriers.

Currently, U.S. and United Kingdom sales alone account for nearly 2,600 aircraft. The Pentagon expects additional foreign purchases to be in the thousands.

As a principal member of the Lockheed Martin team, Northrop Grumman plays a critical role in the development and demonstration of the F-35. The company's contributions total more than 25 percent of the aircraft and range from integrating a major section of the aircraft's structure to producing key avionics and communications subsystems to developing mission-planning software and training systems.

Northrop Grumman's F-35 work leverages decades of experience producing advanced tactical fighters and long-range strike aircraft, and integrating systems such as the F-14 Tomcat, the F/A-18, the B-2 and Global Hawk.

Northrop Grumman Corporation is a $30 billion global defense and technology company whose 120,000 employees provide innovative systems, products, and solutions in information and services, electronics, aerospace and shipbuilding to government and commercial customers worldwide.

CONTACT:  Louise Muniak
          Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems
          (703) 898-5353
          louise.muniak@ngc.com