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Low-tech wheels ‘the right tool’ for Spirit AeroSystems employees

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at 11:35 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, at 7:24 a.m.

Spirit Bikes

There are 778 bicycles and tricycles used at Spirit to get around the large facility. (video by Jaime Green/November 19, 2013)

In a high-technology business building parts for multimillion dollar airplanes, Spirit AeroSystems relies on some practical, low-technology transportation – the bicycle.

Take Phil Foster, for example.

A maintenance technician, Foster travels around Spirit’s sprawling facility fixing machines that need repair.

Rather than walk or drive a scooter far distances around the plant, 90 percent of the time, Foster pulls up on a three-wheeled bicycle.

“They make it a lot easier to be able to carry your toolbox,” Foster said of the large tricycles he rides.

On a recent day, Foster, who turns 70 next month, and his crew pedaled across Plant 2 to look at a machine with an oil leak.

At the machine, Foster opened a large metal tool box on the back of his tricycle and looked through a variety of tools for what he needed.

Foster has worked at Spirit, and Boeing before that, for 28 years.

The use of bicycles at the plant has a long history.

Two-wheel bikes have been in use at the former Boeing plant since the mid-to-late 1940s when the plant was building military planes.

A black-and-white 1951 photograph of a Boeing machine turning out parts for the B-47 Stratojet shows a bicycle rack in the background.

Boeing added tricycles to the mix in the mid-1980s, officials said.

Spirit’s campus is massive, spanning 610 acres with more than 150 buildings totaling 11.1 million square feet of space.

The company has 437 bicycles and 331 trikes in use in its Wichita facilities.

Spirit employees also rely on scooters, electric golf carts, Cushmans, forklifts and other equipment to get around.

Bikes are also in use at Spirit’s plants in Tulsa and McAlester, Okla. And Spirit added bikes when it opened its facility in Kinston, N.C., in 2010.

“As our footprint continues to increase, bicycles become a more and more useful tool,” said Spirit spokesman Jarrod Bartlett.

At Spirit, some workers use bikes and trikes to pick up parts, attend meetings, get to the cafeteria or travel from one building to another.

Managers and salaried employees often use bicycles to travel around the site.

So do company executives and directors from time to time.

Other Wichita aircraft factories also use bikes and trikes in their facilities.

Beechcraft Corp. uses tricycles in its tooling and maintenance departments. They’re equipped with racks to carry larger items, such as tool boxes.

Bombardier Learjet uses bicycles and tricycles on its site for use moving parts, tools and other items between work areas within the production line.

Ron Owings, senior manager of Spirit’s facilities, heads the Spirit garage that maintains the bikes, trikes and all the vehicles.

When someone has a flat tire or a bike is otherwise in need of repair, Owings’s shop does the work.

His shop also assembles new bikes and trikes when older ones need to be replaced.

On a recent day, several new tricycles were in boxes and ready for assembly.

“We treat the trikes as an important tool for the mechanics or technicians,” Owings said. They shorten the response time in getting them and their tools to the right location.

Owings uses a bike to get around the site to meetings. It’s at least a half mile ride from Spirit’s garage, where the repairs are done, to Spirit’s Plant II.

He arrived at a meeting inside Plant II recently in dress pants and dress shirt and smiling broadly, despite the long bike ride.

Since they don’t need gasoline, the bikes and trikes are environmentally friendly, although that’s not why they were put into use.

“It’s about having the right tool to do a job,” Bartlett said. “And for a lot of these guys, bicycles are the right tool.”

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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