FORT WORTH - Bobby Tamplin was 26 in 1977, when he went to work as a parts fabricator on the F-16 fighter jet. At the time, he was told his job would last "maybe five years."

Forty years later, Tamplin recently stood on a windy, cold flight line at Lockheed Martin - just a few weeks before his retirement - to bid goodbye to the last F-16 to be built in Fort Worth. It is a bittersweet moment for Tamplin, who grew up working on the assembly line, to remember a time when the plant built almost one fighter a day.

"It was an aerospace milestone to see that many planes come and go every day," Tamplin said. "But it was exciting."

Later, when thinking about all the places the F-16 flies, he also said he felt a great responsibility.

"You are producing an aircraft that is not only going to change Fort Worth, but it's going to change air forces all over the world," he said.

But it's the end of the line for Tamplin and the Fort Worth F-16 production line. To make way for growing production of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, Lockheed is moving the F-16's assembly line to Greenville, S.C. While engineering, design and modernization activities will remain in Fort Worth, the last jet flew out of town Nov. 14.

Over the life of the program, Lockheed has delivered 4,588 F-16s, including 3,620 built in Fort Worth. Along the way the F-16 program created tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs.

"It is hard to describe the importance of the F-16," said Pete Geren, a former congressman from Fort Worth and a Pentagon official in two presidential administrations. He said small-business suppliers relied on the work done at the plant, which Lockheed bought from General Dynamics in 1993.

The F-16 had a hard time getting off the ground.

In the early 1970s, a group nicknamed the "fighter mafia" - two rebel Air Force colonels, a Pentagon analyst and a General Dynamics engineer - argued against conventional wisdom for a smaller, relatively simple and inexpensive design that could be produced by the hundreds.

The F-16 was a reaction to the high cost and significant problems with previous fighters, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. General Dynamics eventually won a five-company dogfight to build a fourth-generation fighter for the Pentagon.

The first production F-16 rolled off the assembly line in August 1978. It was built for the U.S. Air Force, but orders for the jet from other countries took off when they saw what the jet could do. At its peak in the late 1980s, 30,000 people worked in west Fort Worth, where the plant turned out about one F-16 a day.

Of the 4,588 F-16s built worldwide, about 3,200 are still flying today, said John Losinger, the company's F-16 spokesman. The last 36 F-16s built in Fort Worth were sold to the Iraqi air force.

"The sun never sets on the F-16," Losinger said. "Even after Fort Worth's last production jet departs, the F-16 is not going anywhere."