WASHINGTON Tom Burbage, a former Navy fighter pilot who ran Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for 13 years, plans to retire at the end of March, Lockheed said on Thursday.
"After 32 years of working with Lockheed Martin and legacy divisions, Tom Burbage has decided to retire. His impact to the F-35 Program and other areas of aeronautics is immeasurable," said Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert.
Siebert said no successor had been announced yet, but Steve O'Bryan, who oversees international programs for the F-35, is widely seen as the likely candidate to take over from Burbage.
Burbage, who had long signaled his plans to retire this year, joined Lockheed in 1980 after 11 years of active duty in the Navy, where he logged more than 3,000 flight hours in 38 types of military aircraft. He retired as a captain in the Naval Reserve in 1994.
Burbage took over as executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program in 2000, and helped lead Lockheed's successful bid to win the biggest weapons program in history. It beat out Boeing Co (BA.N) for the contract -- now valued at $396 billion over the next two decades -- in October 2001.
Before that he ran Lockheed's F-22 fighter program and oversaw Lockheed's operations in Marietta, Georgia.
The change in leadership comes at a critical time for Lockheed, which is building three models of the new warplane for the U.S. military and eight countries helping to fund the plane's development: Britain, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands.
All 25 Marine Corps versions of the F-35, which take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter, are currently grounded after a problem with a fuel line during a training flight. Flights are expected to resume next week or sooner, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
Mounting budget pressures have intensified scrutiny of the F-35 program, which has been restructured three times in recent years to allow more time for technologies to mature before the company ramps up production.
Burbage gave a wide-ranging speech about the history of the F-35 program to the Royal Aeronautical Society at the British embassy in Washington in November, noting that it was 21 percent ahead of schedule with test flights at that point.
After the speech, he told Reuters that he felt positive about the F-35 program after the ups and downs of recent years.
"I'm pretty sanguine about most everything on this program," he said at the time. "It's all going to be fine. The progress that we're making right now is pretty dramatic, and that's in all areas."
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Andrew Hay)