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The Sky’s the Limit

Utah is the Launching Pad for Shuttle Rockets, Fighter Jets and Unmanned Aerial Systems

By Gaylen Webb

Listen closely and you might hear the roar and feel the rumble of a rocket being test-fired from Utah’s northwest desert. Over a span of three decades, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ground tested its solid-rocket motors for the Space Shuttle program from its facility near Promontory. This year, ATK will ground test its booster rockets for NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle, which is set to lift off in 2017.

Alex Nabaum

On the other hand, that rumble and roar could be from an F-35A Lighting Joint Strike Fighter blasting down the tarmac at Hill Air Force Base. Utah’s Hill AFB has been selected to be the home for the nation’s first “flight wing” of F-35A fighter aircraft.
“From rocket motors to jet engines, from satellites to aircraft parts and maintenance, the nation’s leading aerospace and defense companies have found Utah to be fertile ground for growth. In fact,” says Marshall Wright, aerospace and defense cluster director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), “Utah’s high concentration of aerospace companies makes it one of the top states in the nation in terms of aerospace employment. Currently, about 158 aerospace- and defense-related companies in Utah employ 28,000 people. The state’s core aerospace and defense competencies include advanced composite materials, propulsion systems, avionics and control systems.”

Flight Zone

From its northern mountains to the sunny south, Utah is home to dozens of remarkable aerospace companies.
In Logan, Utah State University’s (USU) Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) has been developing space-flight technologies for half a century. Last November, a rocket carried two SDL-built Miniature Orbital Temperature References instruments to the International Space Station to test a technology critical for maintaining accurate calibration of the space-based temperature sensors used for many satellite programs.
In Ogden, jet engine manufacturer Williams International has grown its facility into the most modern and efficient gas turbine design-to-production operation in the world. The company produces jet engines for a number of corporate aircraft manufacturers including Cessna, SyberJet, Pilatus and Beechcraft, as well as military missile systems.
Not far away, aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has located 250 employees at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport’s Kemp Gateway Center, where the company supports the Hill Air Force Base main aircraft maintenance mission.
In Clearfield, ATK’s Aerospace Structures division has grown its contract with Airbus and will now manufacture and supply composite stringers and frames on the Airbus A350 XWB -1000 variant program at ATK’s Aircraft Commercial Center of Excellence (ACCE) facility. The company has already successfully delivered more than 10,000 parts since the inception of the program. Because of the expanded contract with Airbus, ATK is growing its Utah workforce and plans to hire additional professional and manufacturing employees to meet production increases at its facility.
Besides growing its production capabilities and workforce in Utah, ATK excels in corporate citizenship. The company has made a commitment to help enhance the state’s workforce through support for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Moreover, ATK’s “Expanding Your Horizons” program has helped introduce more than 1,600 young women in the state to science and engineering disciplines.
In Salt Lake City, Northrop Grumman opened a 52,000-square-foot Navigation Systems Division, where the company builds and tests navigation systems, gyroscopes and accelerometers, key components in guidance systems for both military and commercial aircraft. The facility is home to an engineering, manufacturing and support staff of about 750.
Near the Salt Lake City International Airport, Exelis Aerostructures is steadily growing its workforce as it manufactures composite components for aerospace and defense contracts supporting Lockheed Martin’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and its F-35 fighter program. The company also manufactures tail rotor blade assemblies for the Sikorsky S-76D helicopter and was selected by Boeing Co. to produce the composite fiber frame for the 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
Mike Blair, Exelis vice president and general manager, says the Boeing deal will help Exelis add an additional 50 to 100 jobs a year. While Exelis has a long history with Boeing, this is the first time the company has been asked to provide parts for a plane’s substructure, or frame. Blair says the deal validates the large investments Exelis has made in its Salt Lake City plant as part of a contract with the State of Utah to create more than 2,700 high-paying jobs over the next 15 years.
“Being able to expand and use our state-of-the art automation technology that we’ve invested in really expands our footprint with Boeing,” he says.
Speaking of Boeing Co., the giant commercial aircraft maker operates its own fabrication and assembly operation near the Salt Lake City International Airport, where it employs 575 workers. Last year, the giant aircraft manufacturer also purchased an 850,000-square-foot factory in West Jordan. In this new building, Boeing will manufacture composite horizontal stabilizer parts for the new 787-9 Dreamliner jet. The company will employ 100 people at the expansive, 19-acre building when production begins at the end of this year and expects to expand that number over the coming years as more work packages are added.
In Magna, ATK’s Space Components Division has grown into a global center for satellite work, serving NASA, military, commercial and civil satellite applications. ATK program manager Bob Hellekson says the facility is typically working on 10 to 15 different satellite systems at any given time. Nearly all the satellite structures the company makes are from a carbon fiber composite material known as prepreg, which also adds to the depth and breadth of Utah’s composites industry. Utah is somewhat unique in that it has the complete composite supply chain in place from raw material and fiber, produced by Hexcel Corporation in its continually expanding Utah operation, to mold makers and extensive product-development firms.
In Park City, Triumph Gear Systems has been manufacturing products for some of the world’s best known aircraft and military vehicles for nearly six decades. Its expertise has been highly utilized for the design, testing, manufacturing and support of power drive and actuation systems.
In Provo, Duncan Aviation continues to expand its full-service maintenance facility that provides avionics, accessory, engine and airframe technical support for government, business and other service providers at the municipal airport.
In Cedar City, in Southern Utah, MSC Aerospace recently located its company headquarters along with its subsidiaries Metalcraft Technologies (MTI) and SyberJet Aircraft (SJA). Together, this family of aerospace companies is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a new manufacturing facility to produce the world’s fastest and longest range seven-seat light business jet, the SyberJet SJ30. Besides producing the SJ30 light business jet, MSC Aerospace companies support the manufacture and assembly of aircraft components for many leading commercial and military customers. The company expects to grow its Utah workforce by approximately 1,200 people over the next decade.

In Formation

Why is Utah’s aerospace and defense industry growing so rapidly? One reason is what Wright calls cluster economics. “You look at the end-to-end supply chain capability that we have in Utah, and the focus that the governor’s office has put on developing our aerospace and defense capabilities—from tooling to materials suppliers to the manufacturers—and Utah is a great choice,” he says.
The aerospace and defense cluster, particularly composite fiber, has influenced a wide range of other industries in the state. For example, Utah is known internationally for the large number of outdoor and recreation product manufacturers who make the state their home. Composite materials have become a key part of that industry in everything from skis and camping gear to archery products.
Of course, the epicenter of Utah’s aerospace and defense industry is Hill Air Force Base, one of the top employers in the state. Hill is an engine of economic growth and as such contributes more than $3.5 billion to the state’s economy annually.
As the new home to the F-35A II Lightning Joint Strike Fighter aircraft—the most advanced fighter jet in world—Hill is set to play a critical role in the nation’s defense sector for decades to come. The base received its first F-35s last September and more will follow.
“With the amount of computing power that goes into today’s aircraft, they are flying computers,” says Wright. “Being able to keep up with and repair the software of the aircraft, with its millions of lines of code, is one of the key things that software engineers at Hill Air Force Base do so well. That is one of the primary reasons the F-35s are coming to Hill.”
Indeed, with its software Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) at level five, Hill Air Force Base places in the top 3 percent of all software organizations worldwide—not just government, but all software companies—a distinction that sets Hill apart from nearly all other U.S. bases.
The Hill AFB Air Logistics Complex is supported by major companies like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, ATK, L-3 Communications, Boeing, Janicki Industries and hundreds of smaller contractors. Together, they have helped make the base one of the most efficient in the U.S. Air Force. Some 7,500 military, civilian and contract personnel provide logistics, support, maintenance and distribution for the nation’s other premier fighter aircraft, including the F-22 Raptor, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt. The base also maintains the C-130 Hercules, T-38 Talon and other weapons systems, as well as the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile systems.
“Workers at Hill Air Force Base sustain the most technically sophisticated planes the Air Force flies,” Wright says.
Falcon Hill National Aerospace Research Park, a $1.5 billion Air Force enhanced use lease development adjacent to the base, will feature more than two million square feet of commercial space in its first phase. Northrup Grumman was one of the first tenants in the first phase and additional phases are planned. The development offers unmatched location, expansion capability, staging benefits and infrastructure. For the U.S. Air Force, Falcon Hill provides an opportunity to realize the untapped value of its real property holdings.
For the state, Falcon Hill offers long-term economic development. Construction of the first 180 acres will infuse approximately $500 million into the Utah economy, while allowing for the expansion of existing businesses servicing the base and providing space to attract new business.


On the Cutting Edge

As briefly noted, Utah’s core aerospace and defense competencies also include production of composite materials, electronics and communications systems. Composite materials, made of woven fiber and resin that produce a product that is stronger and lighter than many metals, are integral to Utah’s aerospace and defense sectors. They are also essential to a fast-growing list of companies that produce carbon-fiber products for everything from high-impact body armor to outdoor equipment, recreational products and high-end sports cars.
Hexcel Corporation, the largest U.S.-based manufacturers of high-end carbon fiber, is expanding its Utah presence and will add roughly 400 new jobs and $1.1 billion in capital investment over the next 15 years. The company’s new manufacturing facility will allow it to remain the largest manufacturer of high-performance carbon fiber in the United States. The state currently boasts more than 120 composites-related companies and a skilled labor pool of more than 10,000 employees in advanced composites-related firms—one of the highest concentrations of carbon fiber businesses in the nation.
Perhaps that’s why Exelis Aerostructures’ Mike Blair says, “Utah is quickly becoming the center of composite manufacturing. With the demand for composite parts in aerospace and other industries expected to steadily increase in the future, Utah is well-positioned for greater opportunities in this cluster area.”


Soaring to New Heights

Utah’s aerospace and defense companies are also leading the way in the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), one of the most buzzed about sectors in the aerospace industry. Called the greatest innovation in aerospace since the jet engine, UAS are already a significant part of Utah’s cluster economics effort. More than 70 companies in the state currently manufacture or utilize this technology, says Wright.
To competitively enter the merging commercial and civil UAS market, five Utah universities, Utah Valley University (UVU), University of Utah (U of U), Utah State University (USU), Weber State University (WSU) and Brigham Young University (BYU), have partnered to establish several UAS test sites in support of FAA integration of UAS in the national airspace. Utilizing the strengths from this diverse set of schools, and an economic development commitment to sustain the sites, state researchers have gained unique expertise in UAS technology and excellence, which Wright says is unparalleled by any other state. With its responsive infrastructure, research partnerships, and diverse terrain and climate, the state has positioned itself to be at the forefront of the development of this budding technology. Utah is indeed a premier place for aerospace companies to locate UAS activities.
While USU is looking at agricultural uses for unmanned aircrafts, BYU is at the forefront of UAS guidance and control technologies. BYU has a center for unmanned aircraft systems that has more than 15 years of research experience and has conducted hundreds of hours of flight tests with small UAS.
The state’s private sector is also committed to moving unmanned aerial systems forward. L-3 Communication Systems-West is a company that has more than 20 years of experience in developing communications solutions for UAS. The company delivers communications products, systems and services to U.S. Armed Forces and commercial customers. Other Utah-based companies involved in UAS development and manufacturing include Procerus, Rockwell Collins, ImSAR, Rocky Mountain Composites, Rockwell Collins and Nammo Composite Solutions.
Utah’s established infrastructure, UAS history and complex of potential launch and recovery areas make it an ideal location to continue testing unmanned vehicles. The groundwork is in place for the state to be at the forefront of expanding this technology.
Further, Wright points to the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) as another significant resource that has strengthened Utah’s aerospace industry. While Hill AFB manages the range, it has become a valuable tool for testing and evaluating new UAS such as the Predator and Raptor from the Army’s new Rapid Integration and Acceptance Center for Unmanned Aerial Systems facility located in Dugway, west of Tooele.
A growing number of companies involved in the development and testing of unmanned aerial vehicles have utilized the UTTR because it offers the largest overland block of supersonic authorized restricted airspace in the continental United States.
Why has Utah become a center for aerospace and defense companies to locate? The state is unique, says Wright. “We enjoy a collaborative relationship between our aerospace and composites companies, the local communities, the defense contractors, academia and state government leaders. Everyone is working together, which has created fertile soil for our aerospace and defense industries to grow and be successful.”