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Clearfield • For a decade, Alliant Techsystems in Utah has been providing Lockheed Martin with critical components for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which is America's newest warplane.

ATK on Wednesday celebrated the completion of what it described as a significant milestone in its work on the F-35 — the completion of its 150th set of wing skins that encase the aircraft's wings in a carbon-composite material that is lighter than aluminium and stronger than steel.

"Reaching the 150th wing skin is symbolic of the progress our production team has made," said Blake Larson, president of ATK's Aerospace Group that is headquartered in Utah. "More importantly, it also demonstrates that we are capable of handling any ramp-up in the production of F-35s in the future."

Some 800 Utahns work at ATK in the Clearfield factory, producing wing skins and other components for the F-35. They also produce a variety of components for commercial aircraft.

The celebration Wednesday gave many of those employees an opportunity to "fly" an F-35 cockpit demonstrator developed by Lockheed Martin that simulates the fighter aircraft's advanced technologies and combat capabilities. And that simulator offered those ATK personnel a greater insight into how the parts they make for the fighter jets play a critical role in the nation's security in the future.

Bob DuLaney, senior manager of customer engagement for Lockheed Martin, said there are 75 of the F-35s in service, with another 81 under contract to be delivered. Long-range plans call for some 2,443 of the aircraft to be put into service for use by the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force. Additional aircraft are expected to eventually be built for U.S. allies.

"Our program is on track and gaining momentum," DuLaney said, indicating that there are approximately 1,000 Utahns actively engaged in F-35 work in the state.

The planes cost about $85 million each to build but DuLaney said as production ramps up in the future he anticipates the cost will decline.

He said by the end of the year, Lockheed Martin will have produced 36 of the jet fighters. "When we reach full production ­— and that will depend upon funding from Congress — we expect our production rate to rise to 180 to 200 per year."

Also on hand for the celebration were Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, who took turns in the simulator and lauded the efforts of Lockheed Martin and ATK in producing an aircraft that will be key to the nation's future security.

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