Aircraft maker could bring 100 jobs to state

Gov. Joe Manchin announced today that if Northrop Grumman wins a $40 billion contract to supply the U.S. Air Force with tanker aircraft, the in-flight refueling systems would be built in Bridgeport, creating at least 100 high-paying jobs.

Northrop Grumman is partnering with the North American division of the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., known as EADS; Sargent Fletcher, the U.S. subsidiary of Cobham; and others to compete for the contract. Their competition: Boeing.

The U.S. Air Force is expected to award a contract this year or early in 2008.

Joining Manchin this morning at a press conference at the Capitol were Ralph Crosby Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of EADS North America, and Patrick O'Connor, president of Sargent Fletcher.

Strategic military aircraft employ two kinds of in-flight refueling systems - a flying boom, which looks like a large pipe, and a hose and drogue, which looks like a 90-foot-long garden hose with a basket on the end.

Northrop Grumman wants to sell the Air Force KC-30 Tankers. The aircraft is derived from EADS' Airbus A330 wide-body twin-engine passenger jet. Each tanker would have one boom system and two hose and drogue systems, allowing it to re-fuel several aircraft in flight simultaneously.

All of the in-flight refueling systems would be built in Bridgeport. EADS would build the boom system in a 32,000-square-foot plant. Sargent Fletcher would build the hose and drogue systems in an adjacent 25,000-square-foot plant. The planned investment would include $5 million in building construction and $3.5 million in equipment, for an $8.5 million total investment, said Rick McGivern, director of major programs for EADS North America.

Manchin said at the press conference, "Although the Air Force has not completed selection of the contractor to build the new refueling aircraft, EADS and Sargent Fletcher's commitment to West Virginia reaffirms that we are making great progress in attracting world-class companies to the Mountain State.

"These would be good-paying jobs with benefits, and it would open the door to additional aerospace and defense contractor opportunities," Manchin said.

Crosby said the jobs that would be created in Bridgeport would require employees highly skilled in aeronautics manufacturing and other skilled support personnel because the boom is a "very sophisticated system."

Crosby said it would be reasonable to estimate that the hundred direct jobs that would be created by the project in Bridgeport would lead to about 300 spinoff jobs throughout the state. He noted that Alcan, which has a large aluminum rolling mill in Ravenswood, already produces aluminum body parts for the Airbus A330 jet.

O'Connor added that there would be a range of jobs that would also include system integration for both the boom and the pods.

Crosby said, "We examined a number of sites across the country and chose Bridgeport because it offers a solid combination of location, community support and skilled workforce necessary to execute this critical national security program.

"In particular, Gov. Manchin and the West Virginia congressional delegation have a demonstrated record of support for industry," Crosby said. "This investment decision - along with our previous selection of Mobile, Ala., as the potential site of the KC-30 Tanker final assembly facility - reflects EADS' firm commitment to create jobs and in-source advanced critical technologies into the United States."

EADS North America spokesman Guy Hicks said, "The boom will be the world's most advanced refueling system, period."

"The boom goes on the back of the aircraft," he explained. "You have an operator who is guiding the boom to the receiving aircraft. He's like 'the pilot of the boom.' Now all booms are mechanically, hydraulically controlled. The new boom will be a fly-by-wire system. That system enhances control. It significantly increases safety and you can refuel in a broader envelope of conditions and circumstances. Refueling in flight is not easy, not without risk.

"The boom weighs about 2 1/2 tons, it's 40-feet long and it can pass up to 1,200 gallons of fuel per minute. That's one big pipe!"

As for the hose and drogue pods, EADS North America and Cobham said the pods Sargent Fletcher would supply are all digital, carry their own power system and can offload about 420 gallons of fuel per minute. EADS North America and Cobham noted that all under-wing pods presently used by the U.S. Department of Defense are Sargent Fletcher products.

Most of the Air Force's fleet of nearly 600 tankers are more than 40 years old. Although the initial contract will be for 179 tankers, the Air Force has said its long-range plan is to replace almost all of its tanker fleet over the next two to three decades.

EADS said that if it gets the Air Force contract, it would not only build the boom systems in Bridgeport, the plant there also would provide long-term support and maintenance for the boom on in-service aircraft.

Northrop Grumman announced last year that if it wins the U.S. Air Force contract, it would assemble the tanker aircraft in Mobile, Ala., and employ 25,000 American workers at 230 U.S. companies in 49 states.

The addition of in-flight refueling systems manufacturing plants would be a major boost to the aeronautics cluster at Bridgeport and a boost to the state's fledgling aeronautics sector.

McGivern said the refueling systems site selection process began in April when the Northrop Grumman team started looking at 17 locations in three states. He said that list was narrowed to one finalist site in each of the three states, with the West Virginia site coming out on top.

McGivern said one of the factors that helped West Virginia win in the site selection process was the state government's commitment to provide the workforce training necessary for the people who would work at the plants.

Companies clustered around the North Central West Virginia Airport include Aurora Flight Sciences, which builds components for unmanned aircraft used by the military; Bombardier Aircraft Services, which repairs and paints aircraft; Pratt & Whitney Engine Services, which rebuilds aircraft engines; and FMW Composite Systems, which makes fuel tanks for the military.

Also at the airport: Fairmont State University's Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, which trains avionics technicians, and the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Flexible Manufacturing's Bridgeport Technology Center, which offers a machinist training program and provides manufacturing training to area businesses.

According to the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex, an economic development company, the businesses clustered around the airport employ about 1,400 people in aviation-related jobs.

Near the airport, on the Bridgeport Hill, Lockheed has a plant that builds a portion of the C-130J military cargo aircraft.

Contact writer George Hohmann at or 348-4836.