Share story

FORT WORTH, Texas — After graduating from college with a mathematics degree, the youngest son of Portuguese immigrants from south New Jersey got a break to go to work on a new combat system for Navy warships.

Orlando Carvalho’s work ultimately led to the development of a combat computer and radar system that is now aboard one-third of all Navy warships, known as the Aegis Weapon System.

“I cut my teeth definitely on that project,” he said.

After that, he moved outside of his engineering expertise and launched a marketing effort that persuaded the Spanish Navy to buy the system that he had helped to develop.

“It was one of those opportunities where, at the beginning of the opportunity, there wasn’t a lot of hope that we would be successful,” he said.

More than three decades later, Carvalho faces another new challenge: overseeing Lockheed Martin’s efforts to improve operations on the nation’s largest weapons program: the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Selected in March as the top executive at Lockheed’s aeronautics division, Carvalho, 54, is charged with wringing success from a program that has been embattled by cost overruns and controversy almost since its inception in 2001.

“The F-35 program is the most significant undertaking that we, as a country, have ever done in the Defense Department,” Carvalho said during a recent interview at his office in Fort Worth.

Carvalho, who previously was the top executive in charge of the F-35 program, was promoted at a critical juncture in the plane’s development, shortly after Pentagon leaders had publicly voiced frustration with rising costs and delays.

He succeeded Larry Lawson, who left Lockheed and took an executive position at a smaller manufacturer.

Last month, Pentagon officials visiting the plant showed the first signs of support for the program in years. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, told a room of reporters and photographers at the Fort Worth factory June 13 that the Pentagon expects to ramp up production of the F-35 in the fall. About 30 airplanes are expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“This is not the program I saw in 2010,” Kendall said. “It’s much more stable. … Issues have been fleshed out, and we have a path to try to resolve them.”

What also became quickly apparent is that Carvalho’s appointment has eased tensions between the Pentagon and Lockheed.

Last fall, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said the relationship between Lockheed and the military was “the worst I’ve seen.”

Recently Bogdan, who heads up the F-35 program for the Pentagon, said that Carvalho is “making a positive difference” in the relationship with Lockheed, describing him as a “customer-focused leader.” He said the new executive is driving people to “be accountable, produce results.”

Carvalho, meanwhile, is hesitant to accept so much adulation, so early.

“It’s not that anything has really changed in the last month or two,” Carvalho said. “No miracles occurred here in the last month or two, and no miracles were planned to occur in the last month or two.”

Carvalho is the youngest of two sons born to Portuguese immigrants in Malaga, N.J. His father, a carpenter by trade, set his sights on a better life in America in the 1920s. He returned to Portugal after World War II but only to claim a bride, Carvalho’s mother.

“He knew my mother from growing up in the same village,” Carvalho said. “He went back and she was still single, and he successfully courted her and married her and brought her back to the U.S.”

Carvalho’s father ran a small general-contracting business in southern New Jersey. At night, he went back to school and obtained a college degree, then a graduate degree, to become a high-school counselor, Carvalho said.

He heard a clear and resounding message while growing up. Be truthful. Play it straight. Work hard.

Carvalho will tell you quite bluntly that he longs for his mother’s ethnic cooking and feels right at home in the effusive culture of his European parents.

It’s obvious in how he tends to people. Walking through Lockheed’s factory in suit and tie, he smiles broadly and waves, then hollers to passers-by in golf carts. Some longtime aerospace workers who still recall the days when one-time chief and Defense Department honcho Gordon England ran the plant say Carvalho’s style reminds them of him.

“It’s more in line with the Gordon England leadership style,” said Paul Black, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local 776, which represents 3,600 workers at the complex. “By that, I mean hands-on, down-to-earth. It’s about asking people how their day is going and ‘Is there anything I can do to help you do your job better?’ ”

In the past year, employee morale at the plant had been at a low point since a 10-week strike by union members last year. Many also have been worried about the uncertainty of looming cuts to military budgets and the possibility that they could lose their jobs.

(The plant has experienced more than 300 layoffs to hourly workers since November, while many other employees have taken advantage of a voluntary retirement package.)

Carvalho’s appointment, however, has triggered an upswing in people’s moods, Black says, because he and his leadership team appear to welcome frank discussion.

“We’re hopeful that we’re on the path of rebuilding the relationship there,” he said.

Now the Pentagon is hoping to ramp up production of the F-35 by the fall, and the hope is to raise production more over several years, Kendall said. The goal is 42 planes by fiscal 2015; 62 in 2016; 76 in 2017; and 100 in 2018, according to an internal Pentagon budget document obtained earlier this year by Bloomberg News.

Once production goes into full swing, it will ensure the demand for a steady and reliable workforce, Carvalho said. In two years, he says, the plant may well be saturated with jet fighters on its milelong production line, and the plant’s 14,000-person workforce could expand.

But before that image becomes a reality, the program must address a looming issue: the jet fighter’s long-term affordability.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that we’re not talking about affordability,” Carvalho said. “And what affordability ultimately translates into is our ability to be highly productive in the work we do.”

Productivity, he says, is “the lifeline, the oxygen of the business.” And Carvalho’s job is to bring teams of engineers, mechanics, painters and others together.

“We want to make the airplane as affordable as possible and of the highest quality possible so that our customers are coming back to buy more airplanes.”