The biggest aviation shop in the region belongs to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which counts 4,400 employees in San Diego County.
The runner up is the U.S. Navy. And what Uncle Sam lacks in headcount — it has 3,700 local employees — it makes up for in diversity.
Working with the Navy are a variety of partners including Chromalloy, Moog Aircraft Group, Northrop Grumman and Parker-Hannifin. Private business accounts for 550 of the 3,700 employees that go to work at the North Island facility.
The Naval Base Coronado facility, called Fleet Readiness Center Southwest, maintains and overhauls all sorts of aircraft for the Navy, though a full third of its work is for the U.S. Marine Corps.
One building at the complex is wall-to-wall F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes in various stages of construction. A second hangar holds cargo and early warning aircraft that operate from carriers. Helicopters line up in a third shop.
The center completed 227 overhauls in fiscal 2012. Capt. Don Simmons, the depot’s executive officer, said he’s not sure what 2013 will bring, as the federal budget is not yet final.
“We’re being flexible and that’s where my days are spent right now,” said Simmons. The amount of flying time dictates repairs, and it’s possible that the Navy and Marines could fly fewer hours if leaders in Washington move to cut expenses.
Most depot employees are civil servants. Some 550 contractor employees also work at the center, though the number fluctuates. “That number is going to go down this year” with the possibility of sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts that federal officials have been mulling, Simmons said.
Outside contractors at the center include Northrop Grumman, which provides spares, repairs and major assembly replacement components for the Hornets. In the past, the Navy has done “touch” labor on F/A-18 cockpit canopies as a subcontractor to Boeing. A Boeing spokeswoman said the company was not on contract for the work right now.
Federal budget problems are putting pressure on several of the military’s repair depots. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute recently named a handful of depots that the Pentagon might dump. Coronado was not on the analyst’s list.
However, the North Island depot was eyed for closure during the Pentagon’s 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round. San Diego leaders rallied to preserve it, and ultimately they prevailed.
Another BRAC round could come as early as 2014, said Sean Barr, vice president of economic development for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. Barr said the government might give Fleet Readiness Center Southwest another hard look, along with facilities such as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (another survivor of the 2005 BRAC) and the area’s shipbuilding infrastructure.
Barr said a coalition of organizations — including Connect, the EDC, the City of San Diego, the San Diego Military Advisory Council and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce — will work to keep the local facilities intact.
In the meantime, the center on North Island promises to remain a beehive of activity.
Many shops at the depot turn out specialized aircraft components in limited numbers — ones or twos — or on very short notice. “We’re not here to take business from industry,” said manager Gabe Draguicevich, standing by one of the depot’s 50-plus computer numerical control (aka CNC) milling machines.
3-D Printing Machines
Draguicevich is working to shave time from shop procedures with the help of a new generation of 3-D printing machines. Highly specialized measuring rigs are also going in, changing the old way things were done.
Several buildings away, employees are working to reinforce the composite and aluminum wings from F/A-18s.
Another shop cuts Hornets in half and gives them new “center barrels” provided by Boeing and Northrop Grumman. The delay of the next-generation F-35 Lightning II jet means the Navy has to get more use out of their Hornets, said depot spokesman Mike Furlano.
The Marines’ new hybrid helicopter-airplane, the V-22 Osprey, will soon come to the depot for work, Furlano reported. High-flying unmanned systems such as the Navy’s Triton (a variation of Northrop’s Global Hawk) will also be shopped here.
The depot also works on catapult and arresting gear from aircraft carriers, as well as ground support vehicles. One corner of the place works on a certain model of General Electric Co. gas turbine that propels ships. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer runs on four turbines.
$49.7 Million Project
Most of the 80 building at Fleet Readiness Center Southwest are old. A few date from 1919. But for now at least, the Pentagon is looking toward the future.
The Navy recently broke ground on a 100,000-square-foot hangar at the depot, where it plans to work on H-60 Seahawk and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters. Carlsbad-based RQ Construction is prime contractor on the $49.7 million project, slated to be finished next year.