Rockford’s growing aerospace cluster is taking a giant leap forward as it welcomes a new center for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul. Step inside and discover how it’s enjoying the benefits of Rockford’s manufacturing prowess.
Looking at this plane a week ago, you might have spied something resembling a skeleton with all of its innards showing. Looking at it now, 16 days into a heavy maintenance inspection, the outside looks nearly complete.
The inside still looks disassembled: floorboards are laid down loosely; open patches reveal the metal aircraft frame and the cargo holds below. Oxygen masks, lamps and control panels dangle from above.
Come back in about 10 days and you’ll see this Boeing 767 aircraft looking polished and refreshed, its mechanicals fully inspected and any worn-out components restored or replaced. As soon as this maintenance job is approved, the plane will fly out of Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) and back into service, just in time for a sister aircraft to come in for its next maintenance check.
Such is the work at AAR, a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility that opened earlier this year at RFD. Expected to hire as many as 500 people at full capacity, AAR’s Rockford facility could someday become one of the region’s largest employers.
Even now, it’s providing a source of high-paying technical jobs and proving itself to be an important link in the city’s expanding aerospace cluster.
“Rockford is a great aviation community. There are lots of great companies we can utilize and are utilizing,” says Wayne Jamroz, vice president and general manager for AAR Airframe-Rockford. “It’s close to Chicago, so getting parts into Rockford is fairly easy. Everything flies into Chicago, even stuff we need to get same-day. It’s centrally located, for the most part, so it’s easier for our customers to be able to fly and keep their costs down. Many things work to our advantage.”
What is MRO?
Think of airplane maintenance, repair and overhaul like the airline version of your car’s maintenance program. Periodically, you take it in for an oil change, a filter replacement and a multi-point inspection. Other times, you may need to fix that faulty mechanism or buff out some rust.
“We look at the normal, everyday tune-ups, but we’re also like a restoration shop, as well, where you bring in your vehicle and leave it for a long time, because you’re taking all of the interior out, you’re taking the frame off the chassis, and so on,” explains Jamroz. “But for us, we’re taking the engines off, we’re taking the pylons off, the panels come open, the interiors are gutted and you can see through the floor.”
Just like your car, each manufacturer recommends certain intervals for checkups. Airlines often go a step further and create a personalized maintenance program that’s then approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“That’s really based on the reliability of the aircraft and how they fly the airplane,” says Jamroz. “Some airlines that do shorter flights say that’s a little harder on the aircraft, so they’ll put a few more cycles on the landing gear, more cycles on the flaps and slats, so their maintenance program will be a little different. The aircraft that go flying overseas put in more hours than cycles, so we’ll have a different maintenance program for them.”
Some planes may be in and out within a day or two. Others may take several weeks or months. Before a plane arrives, negotiators ascribe a work plan and a timeline. Once the contract is signed, an AAR process team breaks down the job into manageable work orders – task cards – that are assigned to individual aircraft maintenance technicians.
More than 1,700 of these task cards have been printed out for a Boeing 767 being checked in the hangar this summer. Jamroz pulls a card off the rack.
“Here, it gives you the instructions on what to do on the daily check,” says Jamroz, reading off some of the details inside. “They’ll sign off on this as they go through it.”
When workers take up their task card, they’ll scan a barcode into the time clock. They’ll also have to check in any tools, parts and other details needed for the job. When they’re done with the task, they’ll again sign in their tools and card. Each task is monitored carefully by AAR’s team to ensure it’s executed in the allotted timeframe.
Not until every task card is completed, every tool returned, and every detail signed-off on will this plane leave the hangar.
While the plane is being fixed up, there’s a good chance it will be joined by other planes in AAR’s twin hangars. Each hangar stands 10 stories tall and is about 300 feet wide and deep – about the length of a football field. Depending on the type of plane being maintained, each hangar can accommodate up to 10 planes at once – or each can house just one Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the gargantuan Airbus A380.
Every plane parked in Rockford has airline representatives who remain on-site, working in a personal guest office on the hangar floor. Some representatives stay as long as the plane is in town, while others stay long-term as their company’s planes cycle in and out.
“They want to make sure that we’re following their procedures and that they feel good about the airplane,” says Jamroz. “Not only do we have our own inspectors, but the clients also are auditing us all the time.”
On the hangar floor this summer, workers are attending to the interior and exterior of a Boeing 767. Crews are installing panels on the tail, inspecting the engine and working inside the fuel tanks. Parts of the engine are still exposed.
“There’s a health check we do on the engine, to make sure all of the systems are operating and all of the valves are working properly,” Jamroz says. “We take the fan blades out and we lubricate the fan root, and then put the blades back in. Each blade is numbered, so they all have to go in the same place they came out, to balance the engine.”
Inside the plane, floorboards are still loosely arranged, lavatories are out of place and the metal skeleton is exposed. Cables for electricity, fuel and flight controls, all recently inspected, are sheathed in protective wrapping. Jamroz points out a spot on the floor that’s required extra attention. The spot is smooth now, but it had been corroded, most likely the result of a leaky bathroom, he says. His crews are working with Boeing to fill in this groove.
“That’s part of what the inspection is for, to try and find things like that, so we can blend it, repair it and put the aircraft back into service,” says Jamroz.
It’s not unusual for parts coming off a plane to need a little work. Upholstery, wall panels and interior elements are repaired in the paint shop. An on-site fabrication shop refurbishes and replaces some parts, per the manufacturer’s drawings.
Still other repairs will require outside help from a qualified partner – an easy proposition in Rockford, where a cluster of nearly 250 aerospace-related firms are doing business within 90 miles of the city.
“We’ve used several local companies to do welding for us, to do nondestructive testing and some composite materials work as well,” says Jamroz. “It helps us to keep our costs down a bit, and there are many FAA-approved repair stations in this area.”
The Data is in the Details
As AAR’s fifth and newest location in the U.S., Rockford’s MRO center is in league with domestic ports like Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Miami. The design of this new facility considers the best practices of other AAR facilities and fulfills an important goal: to reduce labor time.
Offices, tool rooms, parts, shipping/receiving and employee break rooms are located in the juncture between AAR’s twin hangars, enabling one central location for essential functions.
“We designed the hangars so that it’s as easy as possible to get your work cards, check in and out, and get all of your paperwork,” says Jamroz. “You get your parts and tools, and you’re right on the floor. For a large facility, it’s always a short walk to get what you need.”
At the core of this efficiency planning is a persistent devotion to data. By mastering data from this and sister facilities, Jamroz believes his team can provide more accurate estimations of labor and material costs, and therefore provide better, more profitable service.
Data is so integrated into the AAR process that it’s even collected at a vending machine that doles out screwdrivers, drill bits, safety glasses and other expendable equipment.
“To get these things out of here, you have to have your task card, and you check in with that task card,” says Jamroz. “The door will open and you’ll take what you need for that job. The computer will record what you take. Each bin is on a scale, so we can measure how much you take. It’s all bound to that task card, so we know exactly how much expendable material we use on this particular work.”
Almost every part of the job is tied to an employee badge and task card. Workers at the tooling station scan their ID in order to get the equipment they’ll need for the day, and can’t clock out until those tools are returned.
“At the end of the project, we take a look at all of the remaining tools that are checked out to the project, and if any tools aren’t checked in, we can’t close out the work,” says Jamroz. “We can’t actually release the airplane until it’s all done. We can tell who’s got the tool, where they were working on the plane, and get the tool back before the plane leaves.”
A similar scanning system manages components as they move through the parts and receiving rooms. Control is essential here, because certain paperwork and certifications will follow this plane as long as it’s in use. Parts that don’t have their paperwork sit in quarantine.
“At any time, the FAA can come in and say, ‘I want to see the certifications for this part, and we can go to the computer and pull up that information,” says Jamroz.
Equipping the Workforce
When it’s fully staffed, AAR’s Rockford facility is expected to employ nearly 500 people, making it one of the largest employers in the region and a major draw for certified aviation mechanics – a group, it turns out, that’s hard to source.
Lucky for AAR that Rock Valley College’s aviation maintenance technology center is located just across the street. Training students at RFD for nearly 50 years now, the program moved into its new digs in 2015. The 40,000 square-foot building is about four times bigger than RVC’s previous center and has room to accommodate 100 new students every year.
Aviation mechanics generally take two paths to acquiring their certification: they go to school or they learn in the military.
RVC instructor Todd Morgan took the latter approach. Fresh out of high school, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard and spent five years working with a helicopter maintenance crew. After his discharge, he attended Southern Illinois University to learn about civilian aviation. In 2009, he joined RVC.
Training students for certificates or associate’s degrees, Morgan and his fellow instructors focus on three areas of aviation: a general introduction to aircraft maintenance and FAA regulations; an introduction to the airframe and all parts of a plane not related to the engine; and instruction on the powerplant, or engine, of a plane. Students typically graduate with FAA certification in Airframe & Powerplant, what’s colloquially called A&P.
About a dozen various aircraft sit inside RVC’s hangar, waiting for students to test their knowledge. Several labs provide additional training.
Inside the fabrication lab, students are handed blueprints and taught how to use composite materials and how to form sheet metal into airplane wings. Over in the powerplant lab, students practice taking apart and reassembling actual engines.
“A large part of aircraft maintenance is finding stuff before it becomes a problem, because if it becomes a problem in flight, it’s much more critical,” says Morgan. “Every engine has a time between overhauls where the manufacturer recommends the engine be disassembled, inspected, and any parts that are worn be replaced.”
At this level, students are working only with smaller aircraft, but Morgan believes the principles are the same, no matter if you’re working on a small-engine plane or a wide-body Boeing. Besides, firms like AAR typically put new hires through additional training.
RVC graduates commonly make their way toward the Chicago area and land jobs with regional airlines or smaller firms that offer corporate flights. But as work ramps up across the street at AAR, increasingly more graduates can expect to remain in Greater Rockford. About a dozen RVC graduates have been hired at AAR thus far, and the company plans to hire many more in the years to come.
The proximity is a bonus for AAR, given the increasingly competitive job market. A combination of retirements and industry growth is producing a shortage in qualified airplane mechanics, says Morgan.
“Really, anyone who’s looking for a job right now is finding one,” he says. “It may not be in Rockford, but there are jobs. We’re getting places farther and farther away contacting us.”
Landing an MRO
When Jamroz and his team welcomed their first plane this past winter, it was a moment more than four years in the making.
Mike Dunn, RFD executive director, says he first reached out to AAR in 2012, hoping to attract more aerospace-related jobs to the region. Between then and the public announcement in August 2014, Dunn, the Airport Authority, City of Rockford, Winnebago County and then-Gov. Pat Quinn worked in tandem to create a $15 million investment through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Build Illinois bond funds. The state also pitched in $600,000 toward training for new employees.
“The key item the airport had to produce for AAR in this transaction was proof that there would be an ongoing stream of qualified labor to work at AAR,” says Dunn. “Thus, the need to modernize and expand the RVC program as well as to provide a strong working relationship with the Workforce Investment Board.”
As part of the deal, the airport agreed to own and build the new hangar; AAR agreed to lease the hangar.
Just as construction was beginning, so too was a 2.5-year impasse in the state budget. Promised cash was held up in Springfield. Things grounded to a halt.
What happened next demonstrated a rare showing of solidarity. In December 2015, locally owned Alpine Bank led a consortium of five area banks that together extended a $17 million line of credit to continue MRO construction.
Leaders from Alpine Bank, Rockford Bank & Trust, Blackhawk Bank, Northwest Bank and Byron Bank appeared at the joint press conference.
“As a local community bank, we’re dedicated to helping our communities succeed,” Bill Roop, president and chief executive officer of Alpine Bank, said in a statement at the time. “I’m proud that our friends and colleagues in this group of local community banks collaborated to help move this important project forward.”
Ben Barton, chairman of the board for Byron Bank, added: “In my 40 years of banking, I have never seen such a large group of community banks come together to help our region.”
Springfield now has a budget, but Dunn is still waiting for cash promised long ago.
“The State passed an operational budget and has not yet passed a capital budget,” Dunn explains. “So, we, the investors in this project, are standing by, today, the same as we were a month ago, waiting for the state to pass a capital budget.”
AAR’s new Rockford center officially opened Sept. 27, 2016, ready and certified to serve Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft. For nearly a month and a half before, Jamroz oversaw the final details of construction, computer system installations, technician training and a myriad of other preparations, all geared at proving to the FAA that Rockford’s MRO was ready for business.
“We’ve gotten so much interest in working with all different types of customers that we ended up having to put the 757, the 777 and the 747 on our certificate as well,” says Jamroz. “So, we have to go back and demonstrate to the FAA that we can work on those aircraft as well. Right now, we’re working on getting the Airbus 320 on our certificate, too.”
Still operating with a startup mindset, Rockford’s MRO is, in many ways, still proving to global customers that it can meet deadlines and produce reliable results – even as it wracks up certifications to work on Mexican, Canadian and European aircraft.
“It’s not uncommon to have delays and startup issues, so a lot of customers shy away from bringing airplanes in until you’ve proven yourself,” says Jamroz, who’s been with AAR for eight years. “We knew this going into this, because we’ve opened a lot of facilities over the years. Here, we started off being successful from the beginning.”
Keep looking to the skies for more wide-body planes as inspection costs rise overseas and airlines look for competitive alternatives in places like Rockford. The fun is only just beginning.
“Our reputation is growing, and we’re getting more and more business,” says Jamroz. “We’ve really only been working airplanes since Jan. 23. It’s come a long way since then.”