The Air Force settled a high-stakes competition between two military aircraft giants by selecting a group led by Lockheed Corp. to build America's next generation of jet fighters.

The $60 billion Advanced Tactical Fighter project - $13 billion for full-scale development and $47 billion for production - is heralded as the most lucrative and prestigious aviation contract of the 1990s. The decision Tuesday establishes Lockheed and its team as leaders in the aviation industry and could deal financial setbacks to the group led by Northrop Corp., which lost the competition. The Northrop team included McDonnell Douglas.The Salt Lake operation of McDonnell Douglas is solely involved in production of commercial airline components and will not be affected by the Lockheed contract, said spokesman Don Hanson from Long Beach, Calif.

The ATF is to replace the F-15 Eagle, master of the skies during the Persian Gulf war.

Both competing prototypes, produced by the companies with a combined $1.4 billion of their own money, blended high performance, including cruising speeds well above the speed of sound, and stealth technology, the ability to elude radar detection.

In announcing the decision at a packed Pentagon news conference, Air Force Secretary Donald Rice said Lockheed produced a lower-cost proposal and its fighter appeared to have greater capability and ease of maintenance.

He also said the Air Force weighed the competing companies' past record in "controlling costs and meeting schedules" as contractors, meaning Northrop's recent financial scandals and its criticized performance with the B-2 Stealth bomber was considered.

"On balance, across the whole range of factors, we believe that this team offers the best value to the government," Rice said.

"We believe it was a sound judgment, and we don't have any second thoughts whatsoever," he added.

Both Lockheed and Northrop are based in Los Angeles. The Lockheed team included Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp.

In addition, United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney unit was selected to produce the ATF engines, beating out General Electric Co.

In awarding the contract, military leaders opted for the Lockheed group's angular design and airborne agility over the Northrop's smoothly curved design and raw speed.

Lockheed's YF-22 prototype, dubbed the Lightning 2, features almost unimagined maneuverability, including the ability to fly straight and level with its belly to the wind at an angle nearly perpendicular to the ground. The YF-22's maximum altitude is 50,000 feet, its maximum speed Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound).


GRAPHIC: Advanced Tactical Fighter\ $12.1 billion contract to develop the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) was awarded Tuesday to Lockheed, General Dynamics ande Boeing. The ATF is intended to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. A separate contract was awarded to Pratt & Whitney to develop an advanced technology engine for the aircraft.

Winning design: YF-22

Wingspan: 43 ft.

Length: 64 ft. 2 inc.

Height: 17 ft. 8 in.

Developed by Lockheed, General Dynamics and Boeing.

Competing design: YF-23

Developed by Northrup and McDonnell Douglas.

Wingspan: 43 ft. 7 inc.

Length: 67 ft. 5 in.

Height: 13 ft. 11 in.

Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology; Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company, Jane's All the World's Aircraft 1990-91.