F-35 arrival highlights a new beginning for Australian aerospace manufacturing

Not far from where the F-35A will touch down on Friday to make its Australian debut sit a number of forgotten buildings.

These hangars in a back corner at Avalon Airport were once hives of activity in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the then Government Aircraft Factory built Australia’s then ‘new’ frontline fighter – the F/A-18 Hornet (now known as the ‘classic’ Hornet).

And while Australia is no longer in the business of manufacturing complete military aircraft, Australian industry is once again hard at work contributing components and assemblies for the RAAF’s newest fighter.

Manufacturing of the F-35 is a truly global concern involving thousands of faces beyond the single helmet that will occupy the cockpit. In Australia alone, more than 50 companies have contributed to the F-35 program with contracted values in excess of $800 million as of December 2016.

The range of components and support equipment is diverse. Airframe and engine components, avionics, composites, courseware, support equipment, tooling, the list goes on. The CTOL F-35A’s vertical tail (VT) is a prime example. Victoria-based Marand Precision Engineering assembles the aerostructure at its Melbourne factory using Adelaide-based BAE Systems Australia-built titanium frames and composite skins from Sydney’s Quickstep.

Marand boasts operations in both Moorabbin and Geelong and has involvement well beyond the vertical tail. While the Geelong site sits within the old Ford Motor Company plant, Moorabbin is used for assessment, testing and validation of its products. Managing director David Ellul explains that the company’s involvement dates back to 2002 and has grown to also include an Engine Installation and Removal Trailer of which 67 have been built to date and exported. Marand also produces aerospace tooling and since 2002 has been responsible for more than 3,000 tools. Even when the F-35 program is complete and the aircraft is operational, Marand will provide ongoing support to the non-flying equipment.

Marand is just one company in a network of Australian F-35 project partners that have grown the Australian aerospace industry. And while the sound of tools may have gone silent in the Avalon hangars of yesteryear, a new generation can be heard in the roar of the F-35.