Aerospace Service Industry Emerges at Former San Bernardino Air Base

A jetliner slated to carry equipment for Canadian diamond miners waited in a cavernous hangar at San Bernardino International Airport April 25.

Workers for So Cal Precision Aircraft Inc., using rented cherry-pickers and other lift equipment, spent the day prepping the jet and two other large planes occupying the hangar. They planned to move the three aircraft out to make room for a Boeing 747 expected to arrive April 27. Maintenance will take about 25,000 labor hours and cost about $4.5 million.

Also on April 25, the company received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to work on the Boeing 777 aircraft. So Cal plans to expand its operation into an adjacent hangar and rebuild heavy engines. The process involves disassembling massive jet engines to the smallest component.

So Cal Precision Aircraft performs maintenance inspections on aircraft, pulling apart interiors and plane components to hunt down any problems. The 125 employees are so busy the company is refusing work. The company is hiring 40 or 41 more people to help handle the load, President Greg Albert said.

So Cal Precision landed at the airport in January 2006 after opting against a move to Los Angeles International Airport. It is among 17 companies that form the loosely organized Aerospace Research and Development Center at the former Norton Air Force Base.

The companies offer aircraft maintenance, painting, repair, testing, interior refurbishing and other services in former military buildings and hangars.

The aerospace firms congregated at the airport over the past two years after hearing about its facilities and aerospace tenants through the industry grapevine. They form a one-stop shop for customers who save tens of thousands of dollars otherwise spent flying aircraft to other locations for painting and maintenance. Kelly Space & Technology Inc., an aerospace launch vehicle development firm, opened at the San Bernardino International Airport in 1993. It is renovating a former military jet engine test facility across the street from airport hangars housing So Cal Precision and other companies.

Once the test facility is complete, So Cal Precision will test its customers' jet engines there, a procedure offered mainly at test sites in Michigan or Florida, Albert said. It costs jet owners $5,000 one way to fly the craft to Florida for testing, "as opposed to a forklift ride across the street," said J. Erich Lewis, program manager at Kelly Space. "Everyone is leveraging everyone else's skills."

Smaller aerospace service and research and development companies are expanding in a region that pulsated 20 years ago with large divisions of aerospace conglomerates, before the Cold War ended and Norton and other bases closed.

TRW Inc., now part of Northrop Grumman, employed 1,200 people at its massive building on the grounds of Norton Air Force Base; Rohr Inc. employed 3,000 in Riverside; Lockheed Martin Corp. employed about 1,000 at Ontario International Airport to repair aircraft; General Dynamics employed 5,000 people each at missile plants in Rancho Cucamonga and Pomona.

General Dynamics and Lockheed shuttered operations. TRW handled the intercontinental ballistic missile program. When the Norton base closed in 1994, the Air Force moved its ICBM acquisition office to Clearfield, Utah, and most of the TRW operation moved with it.

Goodrich Corp. acquired Rohr in 1997. The Riverside plant, which assembles components for aircraft engines, became a subsidiary of the Goodrich Aerospace/Aerostructures Group.

The Goodrich plant employs about 545 people. The company about 12 years ago implemented a lean manufacturing program in which unnecessary manufacturing steps are eliminated, officials said.

The Norton base is now home to the AllianceCalifornia industrial park and San Bernardino International Airport. The Air Force transferred ownership of the industrial park property in 2000 to the Inland Valley Development Agency. The airport, hangars and nearby buildings are operating on a 55-year lease from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Northrop Grumman acquired TRW's defense and auto parts divisions in 2002 for $7.8 billion. In 2006 Northrop moved the former TRW operation to a new, 85,000-square-foot site in an industrial area of San Bernardino. The facility is known as the missile engineering center and currently employs approximately 215 people. It handles work for the intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III modernization program and other missile projects.

Aerospace companies need alternative revenue streams, "so they can weather the storms, the ups and downs in the aerospace business," said Mike Gallo, president and chief executive officer of Kelly Space & Technology. Cooperative groups such as the research center companies can bid together on big projects and refer customers to each other.

Kelly Space organized the Aerospace Research and Development Center. The company and other entities are establishing three startup companies using technologies from other tenants at the airport.

One startup, Laser Strip, is developing a laser technology for stripping paint from airplanes leaving no environmental waste. The technology has potential applications in medicine, cauterizing wounds and cleaning burns with little or no fluid loss. AeroPro, a jet aircraft painting company at the airport, is developing the lasers.

Another startup is using composite materials to create bullet-proof doors for Humvees that pop back into form after being hit. Medina Holdings International, which makes police and rescue boats, sells the composite materials for aircraft repairs. Another startup is developing explosives detectors that use the same computer technology found in aircraft navigation systems.

"What we're building out here is commercial sustainment," Gallo said. Kelly Space hired 10 people over the past eight months for a total of 38 employees, Gallo said.

Gallo is working to lease a 30,000 square-foot building near the Kelly Space facility that can serve as a machine shop for aerospace companies. In the void left by down-sized aerospace corporations, service and research companies have popped up.

Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, formerly George Air Force Base, has attracted aerospace companies providing maintenance, aircraft painting and other services. The airport and Victor Valley College are creating aircraft mechanic and engine maintenance training programs for high school students to help fill hundreds of jobs at the airport.

International aerospace company Smiths Group moved its Smiths Aerospace subsidiary from Yorba Linda into Corona in 2004 to accommodate its local workers. Smiths Aerospace on April 19 announced the completion of its first in-flight test of an aerial wing refueling system for Boeing Co. Boeing's customer for the wing aerial refueling pod system is the Italian Air Force which will use the system on the KC-767 tanker. The cone-shaped refueling pod, mounted underneath each tanker wing, allows military planes to fly behind and below the tanker and receive fuel through hoses trailing from the pods. The receiving planes have probes protruding from the aircraft. Pilots fly the receiving plane to connect the probe with the tanker's hose. Patented system software recognizes the connection. It checks hoses for movement and stabilizes them to prevent a dangerous situation called hose whip, a key problem of aerial refueling systems. "It's the reason we're so excited about this successful test," said Greg Piponius, business director for aerial refueling at Smiths.

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