A thunderous roar of jet engines pierced the air and forced a pause as onlookers watched a series of Fighting Falcons drill into the heavy, gray clouds. Though this was no ceremonial flyover, it was as if the world’s largest aerospace company had won a salute.
The Boeing Co. is the largest tenant among 80 tech, aerospace, and industrial organizations at Port San Antonio and an integral part of a sector said to contribute $3.4 billion to San Antonio’s economy.
Boeing landed at the former Kelly Air Force Base in 1998 and to date has invested about $200 million in its 168 acres at Port San Antonio, where it occupies the world’s largest freestanding high-bay hangar. The hangar can accommodate 16 large aircraft at a time, primarily the C-17 Globemaster IIIs, a military transport plane that Boeing supports from nose to tail.
Boeing’s San Antonio site is a different picture since 2014, when the City failed to win its bid for the company’s 777X production from Seattle and a month later saw 600 Boeing workers laid off here. Soon, the site will enter a new era that will take it beyond its mainstay of overhauling C-17s and commercial aircraft.
“We have never even typically eclipsed 60 percent utilization at this site in the now more than 20 years we’ve been here,” said Jay Galloway, San Antonio site leader for Boeing Global Services. “But we are at a place today where we are going to fill this place up, which is exciting for all of us.”
This summer, Boeing will begin modernizing the Navy’s fleet of 800 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. Boeing will also modify and sustain the next generation of aircraft that makes up the U.S. executive government “blue and white” fleet.
The company is taking on other commercial derivative work as well, turning Boeing 777s into head-of-state aircraft for countries Galloway won’t name because the information is classified and upgrading planes belonging to some U.S. allies. Two years ago, Boeing established its 59,000-square-foot Rapid Response Modification Center for quick engineering upgrades – often customized top-secret modifications – in a hangar large enough to accommodate the biggest commercial aircraft, including a 747-8 Intercontinental, and military aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy.
Boeing is also nearing a deal on F-15 fighter jet modification work, Galloway said, which was typically done only in St. Louis or Jacksonville, Florida. “So it’s kind of a coup that we’re now going to start doing F-15 and F-18 work here in San Antonio.”
The company recently signed a lease that keeps it at the Port until at least 2029 and expects to double its current workforce to 2,000 in the coming year.
“We are pretty dug-in with this community. … This is just a great place for us to operate,” Galloway said.
To meet the requirements of this new work, Boeing is in the midst of a floor-to-ceiling renovation at Building 375, which the Air Force built in 1957. “It is an old dog that desperately needed to be modernized,” Galloway said. “We’re putting another $40 million into this building. And that’s to bring it up to this century.”
Hangar floors, walls, and ceilings are being painted with white epoxy, a new air-cooling system is being installed, wood paneling removed from hallways, and upgrades are being made to employee restrooms. The transformation is turning the old hangar into a modern 600,000-square-foot laboratory complete with what Boeing calls an “innovation cell.” Work is being done in four segments as Boeing shuttles in and out the giant, paint-stripped C-17s that nearly touch the ceiling.
“That’s how we’re going to get to 95 percent capacity at this site,” Galloway said. “We’re trying to line up things up well into the future, which is a great feeling rather than worrying about what are we going to do with that space.”
The growth trend at Boeing began almost two years ago when the San Antonio facility transitioned from being a Boeing Defense site to a Boeing Global Services (BGS) site, a division of the company based in Dallas. “The reality of it is there’s forecasted $2.7 trillion of services and sustainment business in front of us in the next 10 years,” Galloway said. “There’s $10 trillion of aerospace production and service to sustain in that same period.”
BGS itself was created to position Boeing for that opportunity companywide and especially in San Antonio, where 85 percent of its work is still defense-related. “We’ve been an airplane builder,” Galloway said of Boeing. “We didn’t think we wanted to go out there and provide a bunch of support. But we’re seeing the market is just so big, we’ve had to get more and more engaged in that.”
To manage the workflow at the San Antonio site efficiently, the team gave up on using traditional manufacturing models and now relies on a scale map of the site pinned to an office wall that lets them move cut-outs of planes in and out of hangars.
“This is the ultimate game of strategy,” Galloway said. “It has proven to be one of the best and cheapest tools we’ve ever deployed. It’s low-tech but it works really well. We can make decisions on the fly.”
In the actual hangar, aircraft maintenance technicians are posted at worktables alongside the massive C-17s, and some stand on the 169-foot wingspan of planes from countries around the world: Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Each plane gets on average 30,000 hours of heavy maintenance work every five years, a complete overhaul that takes it down to the studs and ends with a brand-new coat of paint. Boeing plans to replace its current paint system with a laser ablation process by 2021, which Galloway said is safer for both employees and the environment.
Boeing is a $93 billion company with 20,000 customers and more than 140,000 employees, according to the company’s 2017 annual report. Even after its manufacturing division delivered 806 airliners last year, the company has a seven-year order backlog. Its defense division was awarded 10 U.S. military contracts in 2018 and completed others. The Super Hornet contract that Boeing San Antonio shares with the company’s Jacksonville site is worth $204 million.
With a goal to double its workforce, the company relies on two initiatives to help build a pipeline of talent, both short- and long-term, in addition to recruiting through local schools such as Hallmark University and Alamo Colleges. Boeing promotes STEM programming in schools, from kindergarten through college, and also emphasizes hiring military veterans. Forty percent of Boeing’s workforce is made up of veterans.
“And that’s a big benefit of operating in this community,” Galloway said of being in Military City, U.S.A. “Most [companies] don’t have that proximity, and Boeing takes huge pride in that overall.”
The jobs Boeing is creating will be not only “cool and exciting,” given the kinds of aircraft that will be coming, he said, but also can lead to longstanding careers.
“Filling it up like we’re going to is going to make us stable for years to come,” Galloway said. “And I can tell you right now, we’d like to expand right now, because I could fill it right now. We have that many suitors knocking at the door for other programs that we’re turning people away.”