NORTH BERWICK – Pratt & Whitney expects to add 400 jobs at its jet engine manufacturing plant here over the next four years, boosting its work force to 1,700 as it ramps up production for the military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and meets growing demand for engines for commercial airliners.

About 100 employees now work on F-135 engines, which are used in the fighter planes. That number will increase to 400 workers when the plant reaches full production over the next few years.

The North Berwick plant is also hiring to meet increased demand from commercial-aircraft manufacturers, said Mike Papp, the plant’s general manager.

The projected job figure would top the plant’s pre-recession staffing level.

“This is an exciting job,” said Rick LaChance, an electronics technician who has worked at the plant for 16 years. “We feel a sense of pride in the company and the products we produce.”

Last year, a political fight in Washington could have jeopardized Pratt & Whitney’s ability to get future contracts for F-135 engines. Federal lawmakers ultimately voted down a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a rival’s engine.

“Last year we prevailed. The F-135 (engine) is the future,” said William Begert, vice president of business development and aftermarket services for Pratt & Whitney’s military engines division. “There is no more important airplane for the military and the country. There is no Plan B. This engine and this plane have to work.”

Each F-35 costs $70 million. Pratt & Whitney has a contract to build 132 of the engines. So far, the military has received 50 engines, which are in test and production phase.

“You’re building the power plant. It’s honorable work. This is the fighter of the future,” said Stephen Callaghan, director of the F-35 program for Lockheed Martin, which is Pratt & Whitney’s partner on the project, building the planes.

Lockheed Martin officials were at the plant in North Berwick on Friday to discuss the engine program and let local officials and some workers test a flight simulator.

“I have such an appreciation for what pilots go through,” said Peter Morin, a local representative for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who tried out the simulator. “You get a sense of the speed and the timing. It’s really disorienting.”

The North Berwick plant manufactures a half-dozen parts for the F-135 and other engines. The plant, which has traditionally relied heavily on military contracts, is pointedly building its commercial parts business.

Begert said, “The commercial side is very robust. It’s a balance between commercial and military that secures the future of operations like this.”

The North Berwick plant also has started doing engine repair work, he said.

Pratt & Whitney’s capital investment at the plant has increased substantially in recent years, to $20 million a year, from less than $2 million four years ago, Papp said.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com