NY aerospace companies keep geriatric military planes aloft
By Ken Schachter | Newsday (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 5, 2016
Long Island’s aerospace industry is profiting from maintenance and upgrade contracts worth millions of dollars for military aircraft that are as much as half a century old.
In 1954, Godzilla made his film debut in Tokyo, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” gave voice to rock ’n’ roll rebellion, and the B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew for the first time.
Now, 62 years later, the B-52 remains in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal.
Long Island’s aerospace industry helps keep the Boeing B-52 aloft — along with a slew of other military aircraft that have far surpassed their expected life span — through a deep engineering knowledge base forged when Grumman Corp. and other manufacturers were rolling out planes from Calverton, Bethpage and Farmingdale.
“It all goes back to (Fairchild) Republic and Grumman,” said Mike Kohler, vice president, business development at GSE Dynamics Inc., a Hauppauge-based maker of structural components and assemblies for the C-130 (Lockheed Martin, first flight 1954), T-38 (Northrop, first flight 1959) and B-52. The prime manufacturers “went away, but the skill set remained.”
In the case of GSE (founded in 1971), Edgewood-based CPI Aerostructures Inc. (1980) and many other companies, former “Grummanites” formed companies whose ranks were filled from the engineering talent on Long Island.
CPI Aero officials say about 45 of the firm’s nearly 300 workers had stints at Grumman, Northrop Grumman or Fairchild Republic.
“You had a trained workforce and engineering staff” because of the major manufacturers that once were based on Long Island, said Joshua Stoff, curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
At its peak in 1986, Bethpage-based Grumman Corp. employed 25,000 people on Long Island as the linchpin of the region’s thriving aerospace industry. The head count at Fairchild Republic Co., based in Farmingdale, reached about 6,000 in the early 1980s.
Grumman was acquired by Northrop Corp., based in Los Angeles, for $2.1 billion in 1994 and Fairchild Republic closed in 1987.
The region now has about 450 aerospace and defense companies that employ about 20,000 people, according to ADDAPT, a nonprofit advocacy organization for Long Island manufacturers.
ADDAPT president Jamie Moore said the majority of those companies have fewer than 100 employees.
CPI Aero estimates that more than half its revenue comes from supporting aircraft that first took to the air decades ago, including the E-2 Hawkeye (first flight 1960, developed by Grumman and now produced by Northrop Grumman), the T-38 supersonic jet trainer, the F-16 Fighting Falcon (General Dynamics, 1974), the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter (Sikorsky, 1974) and the A-10 (Fairchild Republic, 1972).
John Spiezio, vice president of Hicksville Machine Works Corp., which produces machined parts for the aerospace industry, says that legacy aircraft account for more than a third of sales at his company.
The A-10 “Warthog,” a close-air support jet designed as a Cold War era tank killer, illustrates the difficulties in retiring some military aircraft. In 2014, the Pentagon signaled plans to retire the more than 300 A-10s as a cost-saving measure and eventually replace them with the new F-35 multipurpose fighter, which would not be combat ready for several years.
Political opposition quickly arose in regions where the aircraft is based or where workers build components for the A-10.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee who plans to leave Congress at the end of this term, said the F-35 is “not battle ready” and that opposition to retiring the A-10 arose among politicians representing districts with economic benefits from the aircraft.
When a warplane “is retired and that can result in significant job losses, any member of Congress, his first inclination is to retain jobs,” he said.
In the A-10 showdown, one hot spot was Arizona, the home state of Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and site of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, a major A-10 site.
Former Long Island Democratic congressman George Hochbruechner, now a lobbyist based in Laurel, said the work for many defense programs is spread geographically to garner widespready political support for them.
Douglas McCrosson, chief executive of CPI Aero, said that the A-10, whose titanium “bath tub” structure around the cockpit protects the crew, takes “bullets and keeps flying.”
Stealthy alternatives also lack the intimidation factor of the ungainly Warthog, he said. “This thing is meant to be heard and scare the [expletive] out of you.”
Still, the Defense Department initially stood firm and CPI Aero took a $44.7 million one-time noncash charge in August 2014 on its piece of Boeing’s A-10 wing-replacement contract.
What the Pentagon didn’t foresee then was the rise of the Islamic State. After the militants grabbed broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon sent the battle-tested A-10 into combat to aid allied forces in Syria. The Defense Department now says it will seek to fund the A-10 until at least 2022, 50 years after the first prototype flew.
For the moment, executives say CPI Aero is continuing work on the wing-replacement program and awaiting details on the Pentagon’s latest A-10 moves.
Like the B-52 and the T-38, the A-10 has been out of production for years. The last A-10s were produced in the early 1980s. Other military aircraft, such as variants of the E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft, with its distinctive saucer-shaped revolving radar dish, have remained in production through several iterations.
Stoff said that unlike commercial jets, which tend to last about 20 years before being changed for more fuel-efficient models, military aircraft can last 30 years or more.
Wayne Plucker, aerospace and defense director for consultancy Frost & Sullivan, based in Mountain View, California, said the strength of the airframe — the fuselage, wings and undercarriage — is key to the longevity of the aircraft.
GSE’s Kohler said that military service technicians will examine those airframes for cracks with ultrasonic waves and radiography — usually X-rays — to detect stress and cracks.
“Sooner or later, they have to change all the large, stress-carrying components,” like the bulkheads, said Joe Spinosa, part owner and vice president business development at Ronkonkoma-based East/West Industries Inc., which makes ejection seats for the F-16 and crash-attenuating seats for the CH-47 Chinook helicopter (Boeing, 1961).
Maintenance programs combined with upgrades to avionics, electronics, software and weaponry mean that “it’s common that the airframes are as old as the parents of the people flying them,” McCrosson said.
Economics also plays a role. Spiezio said that it’s less expensive to repair and maintain aircraft than to develop replacement models and their support and maintenance programs.
Some aircraft also gain popularity by filling a role. Scott Abrams, chief executive of The Omnicon Group, which provides software, electronics and safety engineering for the aerospace and transportation industries, and is based in Hauppauge, points to the Chinook CH-47 heavy lift helicopter that remains in demand more than 50 years after introduction.
“There are very few helicopters that do what that helicopter does,” he said. “All our allies buy it.”
The emergence of high technology also has extended the life of aircraft, Spiezio said.
“Warfare has always been infocentric and today the technology exists to get the information to the battlefield in near real time,” he said. “This has reduced a reliance on the physical performance of some of these legacy systems while putting a premium on” new technologies like air-to-air missiles, laser-guided and GPS bombs and threat identification and avoidance systems.
The ecosystem of Long Island aerospace companies includes some with narrow specialties.
Arkwin Industries Inc. in New Cassel focuses on hydraulics, including those that activate the wing flaps, landing gear and bomb bay doors.
“Northrop and Lockheed come to us for hydraulic expertise,” said David French, president of the 210-person company that has done work on the A-10, F-16 and Black Hawk helicopter.
Working on legacy systems can present challenges. Older aircraft were built from blueprints instead of the computer-aided design common today. Software on legacy aircraft may be in languages no longer in use and circuit boards may no longer be in production.
“You’ve got to be like a detective,” Omnicon’s Abrams said of upgrading systems on aircraft like the CH-47 and the B-52, whose original life span was expected to be about 30 years.
“You may not have all the documentation,” he said. “You may have trouble finding the data sheets online.”
Spinosa said that older workers have a feel for the artistry of aircraft design and that can be invaluable when upgrading legacy aircraft.
“Us graybeards have been around here a long time,” said Spinosa, 58. “A lot of things weren’t on the blueprint. It’s the artisan aspect of it. The basis of a lot of what has been done in aerospace has been penned on the back of cocktail napkins.”
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