Aerospace Service Industry Emerges at Former San Bernardino Air Base

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.


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.

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