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Getting off the ground

Martinsburg aircraft corporation deals with ups and downs

Martinsburg aircraft corporation deals with ups and downs

August 21, 2005|By CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Even its name is mostly numbers.

Sino Swearingen Aircraft Corp.'s SJ30-2 - the main shell of which is assembled in a plant outside of Martinsburg - is a seven-person jet, including crew, that is defined by its statistics.

Jet-setters, consider this: Its cabin pressure is 12 psi, meaning it maintains sea-level pressure at 41,000 feet - the highest ever in the industry; it can travel 2,500 nautical miles without refueling, and it travels at Mach .83, or 560 mph.

As the sales brochure puts it, the SJ30-2 will enable its buyers to go "Farther, Faster, Higher for Less!"

Although the company still is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration certification, Sino Swearingen President and CEO Carl Chen said 188 buyers have ordered one of the $5.5 million jets, creating more than $1 billion in backlog.

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"That's a nice problem to have," Chen said.

Wings and outer shells for three of the jets have been assembled in Martinsburg, with each requiring around eight months to finish.

David Bartles, vice president of operations at the Martinsburg plant, said he hopes the process can be streamlined to eight weeks.

Not all of the numbers, of course, make it into the glossy color sales brochure.




'We're here to stay'

Chen hinted that the Martinsburg plant's future could be in trouble if West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin doesn't find a way to help pay employees, but he backed off those claims when asked whether existing employees should be worried about their job security.

"We have a challenge here," Chen said initially from a conference room at the 87,500-square-foot Martinsburg plant.

The high cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle, including rising real estate prices, has made it difficult to find an adequate, consistent labor force, especially experienced aircraft mechanics, Chen said.

Without assistance from the government, Chen said, "We gotta get out. We have no choice."

Chen's tone changed, though, when asked whether jobs were secure for existing employees.

"We're here to stay," he said. "We'll find a way to make it work. We're committed."

"I think we'll get that support" from the governor, Chen said.

The company's journey to Martinsburg has not been without turbulence.

Construction on the company's plant was finished in November 1997. It sat all but empty until early 2002, when employees began assembling sheet metal and outer-layer "skins" into the shell of the jet.

In the five years in between, the plane was being developed and prototypes were being built, Bartles said.

Now, the company employs 135 people, a number expected to grow to 300 by the end of 2007, Bartles said.

When it was announced in 1992 that Swearingen Aircraft Corp. was considering building a plant here, plans called for 1,303 jobs by 1999. By the late 1990s, that estimate had decreased to 300 jobs.

In February 1999, the building's main occupants were a security guard, a part-time building manager and a couple of house plants.

Two months later, a prototype of the plane was flown in, bringing with it a promise that up to eight local workers soon would be hired.

In March 2001, Sino Swearingen laid off 100 employees at its Texas plant, but none of the company's 11 local employees were affected. At that time, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who worked for a decade to bring Sino Swearingen to the area, said news that other airplane manufacturers either had produced jets sooner than Sino or were further ahead in development, was "worrisome."

"I'm trying my best to keep Sino Swearingen afloat, and that's a task," Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said at that time.




Building a plane

The massive production floor of the Martinsburg plant in the John D. Rockefeller IV Science and Technology Center on Novak Drive south of Martinsburg has heat in the winter, but no air conditioning in the summer. Perhaps it was the sweltering weather that prompted an employee to tape a magazine advertisement depicting an ice cream sundae to the inside of a personal toolbox.

With fans blowing, the company's employees now are putting together components for a fourth and fifth jet.

Once the jet's shell is assembled here, it is loaded onto a trailer and hauled by truck to another Sino Swearingen plant in San Antonio, Texas. There, workers attach the plane's wings, install electrical and plumbing systems, avionics and hydraulics equipment, put in the cabin's furniture, including leather seats, and paint it.

On a tour of the Martinsburg plant, Bartles pointed out half of a cylindrical "skin," or outer shell for the jet, of the fuselage. The skins are green because of a corrosion-resistant primer coating.

Later in the process, the two cylindrical pieces, made of sheet metal and the skin, will be mated together, forming the fuselage.

It looks smaller than one might expect.

The cabin's internal dimensions are 4.3 feet tall, 4.7 feet wide and 12.5 feet long. It is not tall enough for many adults to stand up inside. The fifth passenger seat in the cabin doubles as the lavatory, which can be partitioned for privacy.

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