Boeing helicopter executives say the company needs more orders or plans to close two major assembly lines at the Ridley Park complex on the Delaware River, the largest heavy industry employer in the Philadelphia area. says he will have to. .
Boeing Vice President Heather McBryan, who is leading the program, said production of the new Chinook CH-47F heavy-lift helicopters at the Delaware County plant has dropped to about 20 a year from 60 in 2021 and 2022.
According to McBryan, this equates to the “minimum sustainability rate” that many of the plant’s suppliers can keep busy enough to keep operating.
Boeing began manufacturing helicopters in Delaware County in 1960. Employment peaked at around 13,000 workers building the first generation Chinooks used to transport troops and equipment in the Vietnam War. The plant currently employs about 4,100 people, down from 4,700 a few years ago.
McBryan and other Boeing helicopter leaders toured the Ridley Park factory on Tuesday ahead of next month’s Paris Air Show, where Boeing and rival aircraft makers will parade their products. Responded to questions from industry reporters.
McBryan said that “the industrial base is not comfortable” at that minimal production level.
Companies in the area, such as Emke Manufacturing Company in Juniata Park, which manufactures fiberglass foam acoustic blankets for the interior of the Chinook, and Summit Aviation in Middletown, Delaware, where Boeing is testing products, are working with Ridley. It benefits when the park factory is busy. .
“Right now it’s on the decline,” McBryan said.
The future of the Chinook
Smaller orders from U.S. Special Forces and U.S. allies such as Germany help keep the Chinook assembly line up, but many of them will either fully modernize the 470 Chinooks with enhanced lifting capabilities and electronics. depends on the decision of the U.S. Army. That decision is expected “by the end of this year,” McBryan added.
Boeing, at its newly expanded helicopter factory in Mesa, Arizona, which employs 4,600 people, is producing about 80 Apache attack helicopters a year, four times the Chinook, at its current rate. The Arizona plant has also restarted production of the AH-6 “Little Bird” reconnaissance helicopter and is home to other major Boeing operations.
Boeing officials stressed that a prolonged shutdown of Chinook production would make it difficult to reunite Chinook workers and suppliers.
The long-term plan to rebuild the Chinook with more power and better electronics for future operations was launched by the Pentagon in the mid-2000s, when massive U.S. forces still occupied much of Iraq and Afghanistan. approved by and funded by Congress. Some of the improvements were designed to deal with desert conditions.
In 2018, military planners virtually placed large, long-term orders for helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and other vehicles that have become familiar from US warfare in Asia after World War II. stopped. At the time, military officials said they should instead focus on long-range artillery, satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and software to rival those of China and Russia.
Concerned about potential job cuts, congressional delegations in the region, including local Democrats and supplier district Republicans, are lobbying to revive the Army’s massive Chinook program.
The Ridley Park factory has a second line that produces the V-22 Osprey, whose long-prop twin-engine can be tilted up to take off and land like a helicopter, and tilted forward to fly like an airplane. You can also It is used to transport Marines from ships into battle much faster than helicopters, or to hover and land in disaster zones after rapid deployment.
With 36 Ospreys now slated to be built, the Osprey line at Ridley Park will be busy for “two more years,” said former Army helicopter pilot Shane Openshaw, who heads Boeing’s Osprey program. .
In response to a question, he added that discussions were “starting” to slow down or stop the line. The plan is “subject to new order flow.”
The company has also worked to expand its helicopter product line. The Boeing-backed partnership failed to get Pentagon support last year to build the Defiant X, the company’s proposed successor to the current Blackhawk helicopter. The Army chose the Textron Inc. design instead.
The Chinook is used by more than 20 U.S. allies, but Japan is the only country to follow the U.S. in purchasing the Osprey. Proposals to produce a civilian version have not resulted in an FAA-approved commercial tiltrotor.
On Tuesday, Boeing officials at times appeared to want to prepare the public for life after the Chinooks and Ospreys.
Indeed, “people come here and say it’s Boeing’s prettiest factory they can eat off the floor,” says Kathleen “KJ” Jolivet, the new general manager of the Ridley Park and Mesa factories. rice field.
Beyond the on-site assembly line, engineers and the company’s Philadelphia Design Center work on all Boeing helicopters as well as other Boeing businesses, including commercial airliners built at factories in Washington and the Midwest. .
Will Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Replace Today’s Military Helicopters?
Helicopters remain an important tool in a nation’s war arsenal, but recent wars have seen a rapid increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Syria, Libya, Armenia and Ukraine, prompting military planners to move away from the design and use of expensive manned aircraft. are forced to consider major changes in .
“Technology is changing really fast,” said Rich Sikora, senior director of strategy for Boeing’s vertical lift helicopter division. “These helicopters are trying to do harm. Does it always make sense to have manned helicopters?”
Boeing is considering new products such as unmanned rotorcraft and helicopter-deployed drones, he said.
Boeing is the largest helicopter factory in the region, but not the only one.
Leonardo’s AgustaWestland plant at Northeast Philadelphia Airport will employ about 1,000 people and will partner with Boeing on Leonardo’s “multi-mission” designs that will be sold to oil prospectors, emergency services and other buyers. developed a new military helicopter based on the MH-139. Azim Khan, who heads Boeing’s MH-139 program, said the first aircraft should be ready next year.
The former Sikorsky Helicopter Factory in Coatesville, which made commercial aircraft and the Marine One helicopter that transports the president, closed last year after Sikorsky was bought by Lockheed Martin. It was then bought by a group led by members of the Piasetski family, who continue to design new aircraft.