MILLVILLE — Boeing celebrated the 100th helicopter that it modified at the Millville Airport facility on Friday morning.
Since 2010, Boeing has used the facility to take helicopters built outside of Philadelphia and makes the final modifications needed to prepare them for service in Iraq and elsewhere. Crews in Millville make 15 different modifications, including masking the heat of the engine, installing missile-sensing detectors and systems, and adding additional guns for the crew.
Friday’s ceremony was held in Hangar 1 of the airport. Two as-yet unmodified helicopters flanked about 150 guests and speakers in the thick heat, while the actual 100th Chinook sat behind a small dais set up for the event. Boeing employees wore blue shirts labeled “Boeing Builds It Better” on the back.
Among them was Brandon Gooch , 31. For years he drove between Vineland and Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York for several years repairing and maintaining automated prescription machines common in many pharmacies.
But this meant leaving behind his boy and a girl, now 13 and 11 years old. So when Boeing began modifying Chinook CH-47F helicopters at the Millville Airport two years ago, he took the opportunity.
Now overseeing a helicopter work crew, “It’s a lot easier,” he said on Friday. “It’s great being at home, being with family, instead of in a hotel somewhere.”
The work has served as a bright spot in a region hit particularly hard in recent years by the closing or downscaling of its glass plants as well as the recent poorer economic conditions. Unemployment in Cumberland County was at 13.2 percent in April, second only to Cape May County’s 13.5 percent in New Jersey, which stood at 9.2 percent.
Joe Derella, a Millville City Commissioner, said the work was a great opportunity for area residents. The jobs are technical and skilled, commanding higher salaries, he said, and while the airport’s ownership by the Delaware River and Bay Authority meant the city did not directly benefit from higher taxes, he said he believed half the work force was based in Cumberland County.
At the celebration Friday, Russell Davis, a Catholic deacon, helped open the ceremony with prayer.
“Lord, we thank you for much needed employment opportunities created these helicopters are modified in this location,” Davis said.
Peri Weidener, a Boeing vice president for rotorcraft support programs, said staff, officials and employees shared in the success of the program.
Officials also said they have embraced Boeing. “We tried every measure possible to cut red tape,” said James N. Hogan, vice chairman for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the Millville Airport. Hogan said he believed the helicopters would continue to be modified in Millville for at least another four to five years.
The Army’s project manager, Lt. Col. Bradley Killen, recalled the 2010 ribbon cutting. Prior to then, the Army had its helicopters modified around the country.
When the military consolidated in Millville, the goal was get the changes made in somewhat more than 20 days. Now, he said, crews can get the helicopters ready in 16 days.
Once they leave Millville, they are flown to Savannah, Ga., before routed to Hawaii. Killen recounted, “I flew one of those aircraft 3,000 miles and you did a great job — no problems.”
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo R-2nd, said that when he heard that the Army was changing how it modified Chinooks, he took steps to see the business went to the district. At one point, he said the business appeared more likely to go to the Atlanta area.
“What this is about is protecting our nation,” LoBiondo said, “fulfilling our promise to those who put on the uniform and put themselves in harm’s way.”
Greg Crisp, 39, was one of a dozen people Boeing relocated from Ft. Campbell in Kentucky to help train new employees on the needed modifications. Now living in Millville, he said, “It’s been great.”
“When I got out of the Army I wanted to work for Boeing,” said Crisp, a trained electrician who helps install the upgrades. “Just to be able to take the aircraft apart, take it apart and then put it back together again, gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Crisp said. “That’s why I do it.”
Contact Derek Harper:
Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper
©2012 The Press of Atlantic City (Pleasantville, N.J.)
Visit The Press of Atlantic City (Pleasantville, N.J.) at www.pressofatlanticcity.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services