Boeing to spend $130 million to modernize Chinook factory

Everything about Boeing Co. is big.

Revenues for the Chicago-based company in 2008 topped $60 billion. Its global workforce is more than 150,000 people. And if you drive along I-95 in Delaware County, the Boeing Rotorcraft complex sprawls over 364 acres between the highway and the Delaware River.

Standing on the factory floor inside a massive U-shaped building yesterday, I marveled at the Chinook assembly line. The tandem-rotor helicopter is big, but even a row of the new F class models was dwarfed by the soaring structure.

Boeing’s CH-47 assembly line inhabits an 80-year-old building once used by the defunct Baldwin Locomotive Works, which built even more massive machines along the river’s edge. The Chinook has been rolling out of the same factory since 1961, and now Boeing intends to modernize the building.

In all, Boeing management has proposed spending $130 million over two years to enable the factory to produce five Chinooks a month, compared with three now, said Obie B. Jones, site manager for the local operations.

These are good days for Boeing’s rotorcraft business with record orders in 2008, when it landed a $4.3 billion U.S. Army contract for 191 CH-47F Chinooks. Last month, Boeing got a $1.15 billion contract from Canada for 15 Chinooks. In May, Boeing and AgustaWestland reached a $1.23 billion deal to make 16 Chinooks for the Italian Army.

But mindful that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to change how the Pentagon buys weapons, Boeing Rotorcraft Systems general manager Philip J. Dunford said none of the 5,200 local employees should feel complacent. After all, it’s not guaranteed business. “They can always take the money away,” he said.

As busy as the global helicopter industry is, Dunford said, the signs point to a drop-off in orders in 2018. No one seems to have the next big thing, although they’re trying with heavy-lifting dirigibles and unmanned reconnaissance craft.

Perhaps, Dunford speculated, the big thing will be a substantial improvement in reliability for helicopters, which require more downtime than fixed-wing aircraft.

Or maybe the next big thing will resemble the last - the enduring Chinook.