- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

COATESVILLE, Pa. (AP) - Lunch time is less busy at Little Anthony’s Pizza in Coatesville this month than it was in June.

“Thirty percent of the lunch crowd lost,” owner Mark Madanat said.

Many of those lost customers worked at nearby Sikorsky Global Helicopter, which this summer began shedding 720 employees over 12 months from its Coatesville plant.

Two doors down from the pizza parlor on Lincoln Highway, John Keesey has seen business for his shop, Keesey’s Airport Automotive, dry up, too.

“We used to get four cars a day from Sikorsky,” he said. “Now it’s dropped to one every day, one every other day.”

Helicopter manufacturing is a key reason Southeastern Pennsylvania is an aerospace hub - responsible for 6,600 jobs, according to census data.

In 2014, Boeing was the largest employer in Delaware County, with 4,700 workers. Prior to layoffs, Sikorsky’s plant had a workforce of 1,060, the 20th largest in Chester County.

“They’ve been very, very good to the community,” said Ed Simpson, a Coatesville council member.

But distant events, like federal spending and declining oil prices, have hurt business and created repercussions.

Aerospace titans must adapt. Business owners are hunkering down. Laid-off workers, such as Dalton Smith, are altering plans.

“As of six or seven months ago, no one had any idea this was going to happen,” said Smith, 30, of Parkesburg. “We were planning on lots of work.”

A legacy of flight

“The Philadelphia area truly is the cradle of the rotary wing aviation in the U.S.,” said Sarah Sands, executive director of the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester.

The first rotary-wing aircraft flown in the United States, an autogiro, took off from Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County, in 1928. The second successful U.S. helicopter, designed by Frank Piasecki, flew for the first time from Roxborough in 1943.

The history here means there is expertise that keeps companies local, experts said. They also say the lull is temporary.

“In time, these things often even out, and the long-term prognosis is good,” said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, (R., Pa.), whose district includes the Boeing plant in Ridley and areas near Coatesville. Meehan has sought to bring both U.S. and foreign contracts to local manufacturers.

There’s no one cause for the downturn, experts said. Low oil prices hurt Sikorsky because the Chester County facility services the oil industry, which travels between land and offshore rigs by chopper. As prices fall, there’s less exploration for oil, and less need for helicopters.

Boeing’s local facility caters to military contracts. Deliveries of military rotorcraft, at $10.7 billion in 2012, are projected to be $9.6 billion this year, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president with industry analyst the Teal Group.

“We have it basically in decline through the next 10 years,” he said.

Worldwide, rotorcraft shipments fell 11 percent in the first half of 2015 compared with 2014, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reported.

The industry benefited from massive spending on two wars, Aboulafia said.

“They’re coming down to normal,” he said. “This is not a free fall.”

‘Many levers to pull’

At AgustaWestland in Northeast Philadelphia, a 46-foot fuselage with no window panes sits beside partially assembled wings. They’re components of the experimental AW609, a hybrid plane and helicopter.

It’s similar to Boeing’s V-22 Osprey, but for the civilian market. Filling orders for about 60 aircraft, with more expected, will create 100 new jobs, and it fits the company’s strategy to shift from oil and gas customers to domestic and foreign VIPs, medics, and television, CEO William Hunt said.

In 2013, Boeing snared two multiyear U.S. military contracts for $10 billion to build at least 155 Chinooks and 101 Ospreys through 2019. It also courts clients abroad. One deal will bring five V-22s to Japan, and another is in the works with Brazil.

“There are many levers to pull there,” said Dave Koopersmith, a vice president of the Boeing Vertical Lift division.

In July, Lockheed Martin bought Sikorsky from United Technologies for $9 billion. Sikorsky staff did not comment, but officials say Sikorsky is committed to Coatesville, despite the sizable workforce cuts.

“We’ve been assured and reassured they are making some adjustments,” said Gary Smith, president of the Chester County Economic Development Council.

Shifting plans

Sikorsky’s expansive Chester County plant encompasses broad hangars adjacent to the Chester County Airport. Helicopters are visible on paved strips outside. The company is cutting 560 contractors, said Dalton Smith, who spent almost two years there. Contractors do the work of employees, but for more money, fewer benefits, and less security.

“The lifestyle really is about just making money,” he said. “People tend to drift on to other things.”

Many are ex-military, he said, and used to a transient life. They travel hundreds of miles with little notice for a large signing bonus or per diem. Dalton Smith’s specialty is troubleshooting electrical systems in assembled helicopters.

After moving to Chester County, he said, he realized: “Man, I don’t want to move any more. I’m happy.”

He also noted that contract jobs for skilled workers are scarcer in aerospace.

He hoped to remain at Sikorsky, but while his laid-off friends moved on, he decided to abandon the contractor’s nomadic life and use the GI Bill offered by his Army service to take engineering classes locally. He would love to work at Sikorsky again, and said he respected that they gave contractors notice of layoffs.

“I’ve never seen layoffs handled so diplomatically,” he said.

Less than a mile from Sikorsky is Harry’s Hotdogs, where the company’s laborers hang out in the first-floor bar; executives go to the lounge upstairs. Business has dropped off, co-owner John Lymberis said, but he’s not concerned. Sikorsky’s executives seem confident in Lockheed.

“I think it’s two steps back,” he said, “before you go five steps forward.”

BY THE NUMBERS

720

Workers laid off recently by Coatesville’s Sikorsky Global Helicopters.

6,660

Jobs in the area related to helicopter manufacturing.

4,700

Helicopter jobs provided by Boeing in Ridley, Delaware County.

11%

Drop in worldwide rotorcraft shipments in the first half of 2015, compared with 2014.

100

Jobs to be created at AgustaWestland, in Philadelphia, due to a run of 60 new aircraft.

$9B

Spent by Lockheed Martin to acquire Sikorsky from United Technologies.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1KpihRq

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com


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