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U.S. Rep. Jim Himes gets a look inside the F-35 simulator at Spartan Aerospace in Manchester (jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

MANCHESTER, CT — Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II interactive cockpit demonstrator was the highlight of a Spartan Aerospace press conference Monday to demonstrate the fighter jet’s stealth technology and the positive impact building it has had on Connecticut’s economy.

U.S. Representatives John Larson and Jim Himes, officials from Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, and the host company, Spartan, were in attendance to show off the simulator.

The message Monday was that with stealth technology and advanced sensors, weapons capacity, and range, the $80-million-per-plane F-35 is the most lethal, survivable, and connected fighter aircraft ever built.

More than a fighter jet, developers said the F-35’s ability to collect, analyze, and share data is a powerful force multiplier that enhances all airborne, surface, and ground-based assets in battle and enables military personnel to execute their missions and return home safe.

The F-35 cockpit demonstrator simulates the fighter aircraft’s advanced technologies and combat capabilities in an interactive environment.

“Every F-35 in the sky, no matter what flag it flies under, is produced in the state of Connecticut,” Spartan President Allan Lehrer said. He said their workforce is up to 102 employees but added “we are working hard to fill up this empty, 70,000 square feet of space” with more employees.

The F-35 currently serves the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Norway, among other nations.

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U.S. Rep. John Larson speaks to reporters about the F-35 program at Spartan Aerospace in Manchester (jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

Larson picked up on the same theme, stating Connecticut has an opportunity “to become a national and international hub for the aerospace industry.”

The F-35 program last year found itself a target of President Donald Trump’s criticism over costs in his tweets.

The fighter jets are being manufactured to replace older F-16/F-18 and AV-8B’s.  The program has continued despite criticism over design and production problems.

Delivery of the more than 2,400 jets that were ordered will cost the United States government nearly $400 billion.

According to Bloomberg and the Dallas Morning News, Lockheed’s F-35 program has about 1,300 suppliers in 45 states and supports 146,000 jobs.

Following Trump’s threats, Larson, whose district includes Pratt & Whitney, helped form and became co-chair of the Congressional Joint Strike Fighter Caucus.

“Nobody wears the label Democrat or Republican when it comes to defense,” Larson said Monday. “That’s why we formed the F-35 caucus.”

The program has remained intact, for now, and Larson made a point Monday of addressing the proficiency of the planes and the costs.

“We have been reducing the cost of these planes while producing a fifth-generation fighting machine,” Larson said. “This is an incredible tool in the arsenal of Democracy.”

The congressman added that while costs are an important issue, the country’s defense can’t be compromised.

“The Russians and Chinese are not lying down,” Larson said. “We need to stay on top of our game from a manufacturing standpoint.”

Himes, who serves as the ranking member of the National Security Agency and Cybersecurity, said the F-35 program is an important economic engine for Connecticut.

He said Connecticut can’t compete in every business sector out there, but he added, “We are going to compete in this (defense) sector with the caliber of Connecticut workers we have.”

He echoed Larson’s point about ensuring that the country’s weaponry remains top-notch.

“The threats out there are real,” Himes said. “Our armed forces and technology are second to none.”

One of the speakers at Monday’s press conference was Arthur Erikson, Vice President for Strategic Sourcing and Contracts at Pratt & Whitney. Pratt makes the engine that powers the F-35.

Erikson spoke about “how we have worked very hard on making this engine affordable. We have a huge focus on the numbers.”

But speaking of numbers, Erikson told the audience that there are other numbers people in Connecticut should remember when it comes to building new weaponry.

He said Pratt added 1,500 new jobs in 2016, another 2,000 in 2017, and is expected to add another 8,000 over the next decade.

“We’re doing a lot of hiring,” Erikson said. “Aerospace is a very hot market and Connecticut is a big part of that.”

While there were a lot of numbers thrown out at the press conference, there also was a little time for some fun — as some took a test drive in the simulator.

One of those was U.S. Air Force Auxiliary cadet Emily Lukowski, 17, of Hebron.

She described operating the plane as an “outstanding experience.”

“All of the different aspects work together as one cohesive package,” she said.

Larson passed up a chance on taking a ride in the simulator but he threw out a challenge to Himes to “Do your Tom Cruise impression,” referring to the actor’s character in the film Top Gun.

Himes took Larson up on the challenge, though he didn’t look quite as comfortable in the cockpit as Lukowski.

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The outside casing on the F-25 simulator (jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie)