Spirit hopes to expand work in military, spacecraft

Spirit AeroSystems CEO Tom Gentile speaks at the Wichita Aero Club meeting on Thursday.
Spirit AeroSystems CEO Tom Gentile speaks at the Wichita Aero Club meeting on Thursday. The Wichita Eagle

Spirit AeroSystems sees a chance to expand its business in military aircraft and even space structures, chief executive Tom Gentile told a packed Wichita Aero Club luncheon on Thursday.

Gentile, who joined Spirit in April from a long career at GE, said Wichita’s largest employer recognizes that the current, record cycle for commercial airplane orders from Airbus and Boeing will someday slow.

And there are a number of other industries within aerospace where Spirit can grow its business.

Military aircraft structures is one, he said, including fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and tilt-rotors, and drones.

“All of those markets seem to be fairly robust, and potentially with the election … thinking that maybe a Trump presidency might result in more defense spending,” Gentile said. “We will see. But the need for replenishment of military aerospace structures and craft definitely is there and will continue.”

Gentile said Spirit estimates that business at $88 billion over the next 10 years for aerostructures alone.

Among the types of military aircraft, drones “are a growing part of the industry,” and Spirit, he said, has something to offer since many of those craft are made of composite structures. Missiles, too, could be a new part of growth for the company, “a chance for us to leverage our commercial expertise and translate that into the military market,” he said.

“We haven’t been very involved in military in the past, but this represents a very big opportunity for us.”

Spirit’s current portfolio of defense work includes manufacturing fuselages, wing parts and engine structures for programs including the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon jet, the Boeing KC-46 air refueling tanker, the Air Force’s new B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber and the Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift helicopter for the Marines.

Gentile also said Spirit is looking at ways to get into building structures for rockets that travel to space. To that end, it is currently bidding for work on some space structures, he said.

“Not because it’s a big market today,” he said. “It could be a very big market in the future.”

He also said bidding on space work will inform the company about the industry and the skills it will need to have to expand its work in that sector.

It’s “going to push us in terms of the scientific envelopes about what’s necessary from a standpoint of weight and heat absorption and other technical aspects to make us better,” Gentile said.

Watch as Spirit AeroSystems workers assemble the 500th Boeing 787 Dreamliner forward fuselage. (courtesy Spirit AeroSystems)

Spirit workers joined executives from Spirit and Boeing, plus national, state and local elected officials, as they celebrated the 500th delivery of the 787 Dreamliner fuselage to Boeing on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wic

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark