Wings lift Spirit plant

Ask what work Spirit AeroSystems performs at its 293-acre Tulsa facility, and spokesman Mark Walker keeps it simple. "We're basically what you call 'wings and things,' " Walker said.

The 1.9 million-square-foot plant, next to the Tulsa International Airport, builds wing systems and other components of Boeing's 737, 747, 777 and 787 airliners.

It also does work for the KC-135, the Unmanned Combat Air System and on AWACS radomes, the company said.

It supports Spirit's after-market and spare parts business.

And for the first time, it's taken on work designing and building entire wing sections. The sections are for Gulfstream's G250 and G650 super midsize and large business jets.

"Eventually, it's going to be a good portion of our business," David Bartz, vice president and general manager of Spirit AeroSystems' aerostructures operations in Oklahoma, said of the Gulfstream work.

The Tulsa operation is one of six manufacturing facilities Spirit operates. Spirit also has a 135,000-square-foot plant in McAlester, Okla., 90 miles from Tulsa, which builds parts and subassemblies.

While the Tulsa operations may be lesser known in the Wichita area, the site has a long aviation history.

The plant began in 1962 as North American Aviation, which built the Hound Dog Cruise Missile for the U.S. Air Force.

In 1967, the company merged with Rockwell Standard Corp., becoming Rockwell International.

Boeing bought the operation from Rockwell in 1996.

The Oklahoma operations were included in the 2005 transaction when Boeing sold part of its Wichita operation to Onex Corp.

Over the decades, the site has built parts for the Apollo spacecraft; Saturn rocket; space shuttle; the B-1B; Global Hawk; International Space Station; Joint Strike Fighter; and Boeing's 737, 747, 757 and 777.

With about 2,450 employees, Spirit is one of Tulsa's largest employers.

Working efficiently

In a brightly lit, massive building, mechanics build the fixed and moveable leading edges for wings of Boeing's 787 Dreamliners.

In another building, mechanics build flaps, slats, and the fixed and trailing edges of Boeing's 737 single-aisle aircraft and the slats and floor beams for Boeing's 777 jetliner.

Hand tools, drills, sealant and other equipment are kept near the work stations. Work flows down the line in an orderly fashion.

A slat comes off the production line every 74 minutes, said Don White, Spirit's 737 program manager.

The plant is preparing for Boeing's announced increase in 737 production. It's studying how to become more streamlined.

Winning the work designing and building the wings for Gulfstream's two new business jets was an important victory, Bartz said.

It's the first large, fully integrated commercial wing that the site has had full responsibility for designing and building.

"It's bolt on and service ready," Bartz said of the wing.

Airplane manufacturers typically have "tightly held the build process" for the wings of their aircraft, he said.

The wings are critical to a plane's aerodynamic features.

The all-new wing design of the G250, for example, is credited with most of the plane's expected performance improvements, such as high-speed cruise and take-off performance.

The G650 will be Gulfstream's largest, roomiest and fastest jet to date.

The Gulfstream work helps the Spirit site diversify its business.

And it will help give Spirit's Tulsa operations credibility when it seeks additional work.

"It makes us more competitive in the market," Bartz said.

Challenges and advantages

The programs have also been the facility's biggest challenge.

"In... any new (development) program, there's always going to be issues," Bartz said. "It's a part of this business."

Both programs have faced cost pressures.

Last year, Spirit took a $93.0 million loss on the wing and tooling contracts of the G250 because of higher-than-expected costs.

That was due to changing technical requirements, overspending on the design and engineering phase and the decrease in the estimated number of units to be built, over which the nonrecurring costs will be spread, the company said in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The decrease in the expected units is due to the decreasing demand for business jets in a down economy.

The company still estimates positive margins for the contracts, however.

"We expect to deliver revenue-generating production units" for the two programs this year, it said.

One of the Tulsa facility's goals is to integrate production rates on the new programs in a "nice, steady fashion," Bartz said.

In the future, it also will continue to market itself where the opportunities are, but in a measured, strategic way.

It will take what it does best and see how that balances with the needs of the market, Bartz said, whether it's in the business jet, commercial or military industries.

"We don't want to just come and grab and fill the place up," he said.

The facility's biggest advantage is its work force, Bartz said.

"It's a great group of people who want to be successful," he said.