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Flying High on Wings of Fiber

Utah’s aerospace industry soars ahead

By Story by Daniel Donahoe


Some industries are simply cooler than others. Aerospace reigns supreme among cool industries, because flying brings fantasy into reality. Our fascination with flight is ancient. In Greek mythology, the craftsman Daedalus built wings of wax enabling his son Icarus to fly. In science fiction, Arthur C. Clark conjured human powered flight in a sky-bike. Just as it is said that life mimics art, these dreams of flight have since become reality.

In the most compelling technically focused speech of all time, President Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Who can forget the sense of wonder watching the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969? From air travel to space exploration, advances in aerospace have turned ancient dreams into reality. This is a gripping story of the serendipitous path of aerospace, and how the State of Utah has helped this awe-inspiring industry soar to new heights.


Utah has a storied legacy in the aerospace industry. From innovations like the James Webb Space Telescope to companies like Jet Blue Airlines, the State has been a leading aerospace player for many decades. Today, Utah is considered one of the nation’s top states for concentration of aerospace companies and employment. Companies like ATK, Hexcel Corporation, The Boeing Company and L3 Communications have discovered vast opportunities in Utah, ranging from the State’s solid workforce to a healthy business infrastructure to an innovative culture. Within the aerospace industry, Utah is considered a top leader in the relatively new composites sector. Stronger than steel, composites are replacing the traditional metals found in technology ranging from airplanes to outdoor recreation products.

Utah’s success with composites began largely with ATK, formerly known as Thiokol Corporation, which helped the State stake claim as a national composites leader. The company, now headquartered in Clearfield, Utah, got its start in the late 1920s based on an accidental invention of a polymeric sealant named “Thiokol.” Beginning in 1945, scientists at Cal Tech (now JPL) discovered that Thiokol’s product was the magic component they sought to improve rocket fuel, and Thiokol found itself in the rocket business. The company opened its first Utah-based plant in 1957 to build ICBM rocket motors and has since expanded in the State many times over. ATK was key to introducing composite structures to the nation’s aerospace industry, initially manufacturing the components to serve as rocket motor cases. At that time, Hercules, initially an explosives manufacturer, competed with Thiokol in Utah. Today, the materials component of Hercules is part of Hexcel, and the structures component is part of ATK. Thus competence in composites aerospace structures began in Utah, and a number of successful companies grew from these beginnings.

“Since the breakthrough of converting polymer to carbon string in the 1950s, Utah has been at the forefront of graphite composite structures,” says Bob Hellekson, ATK program manager. “Products such as tennis racket frames, golf club shafts, race car chassis and eventually aerospace structures were developed to sell raw graphite materials owned by ATK (formerly Hercules). As launch vehicle cases, airframe assemblies and spacecraft structures became more viable businesses, ATK began producing flight spacecraft hardware and developing advanced technologies for processing graphite structures.”


Composites gradually made their way into commercial aircraft, as the industry adopted the technology piece by piece. In 1972, the NASA Aircraft Energy Efficiency Program introduced composites into its aircraft. Today, composites are considered key to modern aerospace. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is composed of 50 percent composite materials. As the global demand for composites has skyrocketed, Utah has proven again to be a leader in this innovative industry. There are well over 100 Utah firms in composites, and many firms producing aerospace composites, such as ATK, Hexcel and ITT Exelis, have expanded facilities or made plans to expand in Utah within the 2011–2012 timeframe. Due to Utah’s unique competence in composites and a complete supply chain in place, other firms are spinning off to produce consumer goods made of composites.

Boeing, for example, recently opened a new composite assembly line at its Salt Lake-based facility, where it will build the vertical fin assemblies for the 787 Dreamliner. Composites engineering firm ITT Exelis has plans to add nearly 3,000 highly trained technicians and manufacturers at its Utah-based composites factory. And in 2011, ATK opened a 615,000-square-foot facility where workers will manufacture composite-fiber airframe components to be used on the Airbus A350. Military aircraft are also transitioning to composite parts, beginning with the F-14 Tomcat and the AV-8B Harrier. Modern fighters are also utilizing composite technology, such as the F-22 Raptor, which has approximately a 60 percent composite structure. Unmanned aircraft, such as the Predator and Reaper, are almost entirely composed of composite structures. According to Jim Sutton, Director of Plans and Programs at the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, the presence of composites in the military is booming.

“Hill Air Force Base’s Ogden Air Logistics Center sits on the cutting edge of these activities as the Air Force’s fighter depot,” says Sutton. “Sustaining the A-10, F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighters puts the maintenance experts at Hill at the forefront of four successive generations of composite laden systems. In addition, Hill’s role as the MRO depot for the all composite Predator and Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft is driving innovation in this exploding material science technology.” In addition to aerospace products, composites are used in sporting equipment such as surf boards, skis, canoes, boats, golf clubs and bicycles. Composites are also used in automobiles and in many industrial applications. “As the Utah composite industry grew, several other successful composite companies have spun off of these lightweight and thermally stable products,” says ATK’s Hellekson. “In Utah, besides the aerospace industry, there are composite prosthetics, gun barrels, structures for the semi-conductor industry, and ground based military applications. With a composite engineering department at several of the State’s universities, Utah is a great place to work and live with this high technology industry.”


Utah’s solid manufacturing industry has helped numerous composites-focused companies reach new heights. For example, Radius Engineering, which builds a special composites manufacturing tool, is headquartered in Salt Lake. And Janicki Industries, located in Layton, Utah, manufactures the molds for the most critical parts of many military and commercial aircraft to make high quality composites. The Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) has also been integral to building and sustaining Utah’s robust composites manufacturing industry. The SAMPE organization is considered the professional glue that assists the State’s composites experts and companies. Larry Peel, a renowned composites researcher and professor at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, says that SAMPE has helped Utah’s composites industry reach first-class status. “The local SAMPE chapter in Utah is much stronger than any of the SAMPE chapters in Texas because of the long history of composites fabrication in Utah, the vigorous exchange of ideas between academia and industry, and the willingness of local SAMPE chapter members to share their time in supporting relevant seminars, conferences, workshops and so on,” he says.

Utah’s highly educated workforce is also central to the industry’s success. Due to the growth of the State’s composites industry, Utah has fully invested in composite training in its educational institutions. JoAnn Matern at Davis Advanced Technology Center (DATC) managed a federal grant to create composites programs within Utah for training composites technicians, and her efforts involved several educational institutions and industry leaders. In 2011, the DATC composite program trained 399 students in its 10,000-square-foot training facility. Utah universities house many distinguished engineers and faculty members, including Brent Strong at Brigham Young University, an expert in composites manufacturing, and Daniel Adams at the University of Utah, an expert in composite mechanics. According to Mike Therson, Director of Composite Systems at ITT Exelis, Utah’s highly trained workforce is essential to the company’s success. “We have been in Utah since 1967. We are very pleased with our employees sourced from DATC, Salt Lake Community College and Weber State University. We also pull entry-level engineers from local universities and experienced people from the area,” Therson says. Utah’s composites industry is continuing to pave the way for future innovation and growth. Whether aiding the aerospace industry or outdoor products, the Beehive State is the ideal site for companies in the composites business.