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Delaware manufacturing keeps aircraft industry aloft

Katie Tabeling

It may be hard to believe considering Delaware was the last state to begin commercial airline service until as recently as last month, but aircraft manufacturing has long been a vital cog in the state’s manufacturing industry.

Delaware has roughly 560 manufacturers according to data from the North American Industry Classification System, but transportation equipment is the state’s largest export at $900 million. Aircraft and aerospace parts make up a good portion of that, from the small machine shops to large helicopter assembly hangars.

“It has a relatively quiet presence here, and it’s not talked about much. The funny thing is when we had two auto plants, we had almost as many jobs per capita as California due to our small size,” said Rustyn Stoops, the executive director of the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership. “But with the aviation sector, we have companies that work with big [original equipment manufacturers] OEMs. They have the ability to land planes in Georgetown and service them.”

The quality assurance team performs an inspection of a structural assembly at Summit Aviation’s Delaware facility in Middletown | PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENWICH AEROGROUP

Many manufacturers with a Delaware footprint may not have the immediate name recognition of the Boeing Company or Lockheed Martin. It is rich with contractors like Dassault Falcon, a French company that provides hanger space, maintenance and fuel to charter services based out of the New Castle Airport. Famed astronaut-outfitter ILC Dover also manufacturers aerostats, either for high-profile advertising similar to the Goodyear blimp or intelligence and surveillance purposes for the U.S. Air Force.

But Delaware is also home to aviation and aerospace contractors that create the parts that let the sector take flight. GE Aviation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial airplane engines, counts the U.S Navy Missile Defense Agency and NASA among its other clients.

As a subsidiary of General Electric, GE Aviation is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial airplane engines. With a small team at its Newark plant, the company has been building advanced aircraft engine components made of ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) since 1989.

GE Aviation Newark manufactures more than 2,000 parts per year for the chemical vapor infiltration process and are used for missile defense and manned space flight.

GE Aviation is laying off most of its Newark workforce amid the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air travel. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“Some of the noteworthy applications include hot gas valve components for SM-3 … in layman’s terms, these components enable a projectile to intercept and destroy another projectile at a certain coordinate accurately every time,” said Richard Gorham, spokesman for GE Aviation. “[Like] intercepting a bullet with another bullet.”

GE Aviation also focuses on thrust chambers for the Boeing Starliner space capsule and wing leading edge repair kits for space shuttles. As technology has changed how the company approaches, designs and service complex parts in engines, Gorman noted that the future lies in hypersonic systems.

“Our material systems are enabling technology for high-temperature applications in conditions that require beyond 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.

Meanwhile, Summit Aviation’s 550-acre airport in Middletown serves an array of clients from general aviation, U.S. government, foreign military, law enforcement and corporate segments. Now a subsidiary of Greenwich AeroGroup, Summit Aviation has provided plane and helicopter services for six decades.

“Middletown’s not our prime manufacturing location. But if we find an opportunity that’s a little larger in scale for assembly or manufacturing, we bring it to Delaware,” Summit Aviation Business Development Manager Justin Cevette said. “The last job we did there was for Sikorsky Aircraft, and we’ve done full build of helicopters there before.”

The Middletown facility’s location – a two-hour drive or a 30-minute flight from both New York City and Washington D.C. – makes it easily accessible for repair jobs in either market. It also opens opportunities to run test flights with large acreage, or even more room for large projects.

“We are structured to keep things as much in their lanes, with machining in North Carolina and structures in Kentucky. But if we need to do something with a larger scope, you’d probably need 20,000 square feet dedicated to it. That space is pretty much taken up in our other facilities,” Cevette said.

But there are other companies that can specialize in a particular piece of equipment. ALOFT AeroArchitects in Georgetown designs and installs auxiliary fuel systems in commercial aircrafts to extend their range as one part of its vast enterprise.

For example, in the Boeing 737, the system was installed as a modular fuel cell in the cargo hold, allowing the client to select the number of tanks needed for a mission. In extreme cases, the auxiliary fuel system can increase flight range by 50%.

“It’s designed specifically to be very unintrusive to the aircraft and operated by backfilling the main tanks so ‘downstream’ operations like engines would operate exactly as they normally would,” ALOFT AeroArchitects Vice President of Sales and Marketing Matt Hill explained. “We make it possible for their valuable assets to do more for them, enabling them for a new and longer mission.”

Each auxiliary fuel system kits include between 2,000 to 3,000 parts and it’s one of the lower volume products the company produces on an annual basis. Under its Hollingsead brand name, the company also designs and develops Avionics enabler products, or parts that hold down numerous pieces of electronics to run the aircraft.

“They’re commonly referred to as hold-downs, extractors, and avionics racks and trays,” Hill said. “As you can imagine, each aircraft could have dozens or even hundreds of these unique electronics installed, and each of these needs a home where it can be easily accessed for maintenance and troubleshooting.”

In years when demand is high, the company sells more than 100,000 parts and components to market, and customers include a broad mix of aircraft operators, manufacturers, parts brokers and product companies.

Manufacturing is just one part of ALOFT AeroArchitect’s portfolio, as the company also has a hangar-oriented business of maintenance, modifications, VIP luxury interior completion services and system upgrades. Another sector is engineering and certification, which is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to review and approve product designs. In all, the company has 215 employees.

“We like to consider ourselves as innovators who enable customers in one way or another,” Hill said. “For our V.I.P clients for bespoke interior design, we enable their lifestyle in the sky to closely match their daily lives in the ground, to our engineering and certification customers who seek our services out to help them get their product to market faster with the right attention on detail, design, paperwork and approvals.”

While Delaware’s aircraft manufacturing sector can be out of sight at times, its workforce training efforts are at the forefront of Delaware Technical Community College. For decades, the college has offered an aviation maintenance technology program and while the FAA caps courses at 24 students, it is common for students to be waitlisted before getting in the classroom.

“From a manufacturing standpoint, we teach it all from airframe assembly to sheet metal and fabrication, welding and hydraulics. For the capstone project, we have students take a plane completely apart and put it back together,” said Barry Weiss, the department’s chair.

Since Del Tech’s Aviation Maintenance Center opened in 2009, Weiss said the program has seen great change as the economy expands and contracts with the recession and recovery, fueled even further with maintenance technicians and others starting to retire.

“COVID has curtailed a few things, but we get requests and connections from all different sources looking for viable employees, from SkyWest Airlines to [fixed-based operators]. It’s a pretty intense program with six hours of work five days a week. And what we’ve heard is that they appreciate how they’re well-disciplined and they don’t have to spend too much time getting them up to speed,” Weiss said. “Delaware’s an aviation state, but our reach goes beyond that. We’ve got former students working out in California, Tennessee, New York and Florida.”


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