Spirit AeroSystems has reached a milestone in its march toward more defense work and jobs.
On Friday, Spirit handed over to Sikorsky the final test unit fuselage of the CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter.
The Marine Corps wants 188 of the "most powerful helicopters in the Department of Defense," said Marine Maj. Kelly Allen from the Pentagon, who added the CH-53K would serve troops for decades to come.
"The work you're doing today will support Marines who aren't even born yet," Kelly said at the delivery ceremony attended by a couple hundred Spirit employees.
Spirit CEO Tom Gentile called the delivery a milestone because it marks the start of low-rate production and serves as a key building block for the city's largest employer to grow its defense business from 5 percent today to 15 percent in the next few years.
"It's one of our key growth strategies to expand in defense, and this is really a foundation for Spirit to continue to grow our business in the future," Gentile said.
Jeffrey Jessop, Spirit's director of military programs, said in an interview after the event that as the company moves to full-rate production of the helicopter at two fuselages a month, Spirit will need "more resources," including employees, to sustain that rate.
He would not say how many more workers the company would need because Spirit doesn't disclose the number of people working on any one aircraft program. Spirit employs 12,000 people in Wichita.
Spirit was one of the first suppliers Sikorsky selected for the program in 2006, said Mike Torok, vice president of CH-53K for Sikorsky.
It was Spirit's "technical capability in composites and big aerostructures that turned the tide," Torok said.
"It's not a stretch to say the CH-53K starts in Wichita," Torok added. "It's the longest lead part. We don't set our delivery date until you tell us."
The fuselage Spirit builds for Sikorsky in a 20,000-square-foot building in Wichita is fashioned from composites and titanium. Once assembled, it is transported by truck to Sikorsky's final assembly plant in Connecticut.
The cabin of the fuselage is 30 feet long and nearly 9 feet wide. The cabin height is nearly 7 feet.
The CH-53K can lift 27,000 pounds — that's roughly the equivalent of two motor homes — over 126 miles, at a maximum temperature of 91.5 degrees. Its lifting capability is more than triple that of the helicopter it will replace, the CH-53E Super Stallion.
It can also transport 32 troops, or 24 for medical evacuation.
Low-rate production of the helicopter is set to begin this month, Spirit officials said.
Odds are the Marines won't be the only ones ordering the helicopter, Sikorsky's Torok said. Sikorsky also expects to receive foreign military orders.
"We could have another 70 to 100 in our international business," he said at the delivery ceremony.