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Friday, February 1, 2008

Summit Aviation Wins: Prestigious Workplace Award

Rion Haley

What keeps employees safe, happy and efficient? A management team that understands the needs of its employees and that includes a job that allows for personal and professional growth.

As the only aviation MRO to win The Wall Street Journal’s 2007 Top Small Workplaces Award, Summit Aviation has a lot to celebrate. The company was selected from more than 850 nominations. There were 35 finalists and only 15 award winners. The award is meant to spotlight small and midsize companies that allow employees at all levels to help make key decisions, groom future leaders from within and offer traditional and non-traditional benefits. The chosen companies are also constantly looking for new ways to improve employee satisfaction.

During a recent visit to the facility to talk with some of the 93 employees and management, one comment became a common theme. When asked, "What’s so great about working here?" the unanimous response was, "The people are great." Other responses included: the pay and benefits are good; there’s never a problem scheduling vacation; nearly 100 percent of the company’s leadership roles are filled from within; and Summit offers on-the-job training and tuition reimbursement. The company also offers a mentoring program that pairs new employees with veterans and provides a scholarship program for its employees’ children, an expensive proposition that required buy-in from the board.

For nearly 50 years, the FAA-certified repair station has quietly gained the respect of the small community in Middletown, Delaware and has kept customers coming back too. According to Caroline duPont Prickett, chairman of Summit’s Board and the wife of Summit’s late owner, "We have some customers who have been coming here for 45 years." Those customers may have been dealing with the same employees too; some employees have 40-year tenures and a third of the workers have tenures of at least a decade.

Summit’s Director of Maintenance John Bonnell, has been with the company for 16 years and, like most employees, worked his way up the ladder. He began working as an A&P on the floor. "There are a lot of good people here," he said and that, along with the fact that the company keeps reaching for bigger challenges, allows him to continue to grow. That sentiment was echoed by Jim Lewis, helicopter team leader and another A&P who has worked with Summit for nine years. "The people are great to work with, it’s a nice working environment." Lewis moved to Delaware to work for Summit and began his employment as a helicopter mechanic. Larry Wheeler has been with Summit for 25 years and, "love[s] coming in every day." He began as the company’s landscaper and now holds the title of inspector and lead mechanic for aviation. Bob Perago, program manager for special projects and a nearly 20-year employee, began as an install manager and now oversees all of the company’s special programs.

Recently, Summit was contracted by Boeing to upgrade a CH-47D model into an F model with a common aviation architecture system so that the entire U.S. Army fleet would run with the same systems. With Boeing’s engineering team help (Summit does not have engineers on staff), Summit removed all of the analog systems and associated wiring and equipment, rewired the helicopter and put in a digital flight control system with a glass cockpit. According to Perago, the entire project took almost a year to complete, but Boeing is one of the big clients that not only keeps coming back, but also trusts Summit to the degree that both companies’ computers are linked together.

"We are considered a gold supplier for Boeing and when they have special projects they’ll come to us to see if we can do it," said Summit’s President and CEO Finn Neilsen. Neilsen described those projects and one of them truly showed the spirit of ingenuity and persistence that embodies the employees at Summit.

Summit was asked to demonstrate the preparation of a complex military aircraft for air transportation. The operation would be completed in two separate phases. Phase One would be configuring the aircraft for air transport, including disassembly, packaging and upload of components. Phase Two would return the aircraft to flyable status, including download of components, assembly, follow-on maintenance task and operational checks of aircraft systems. Both phases were to be conducted with a three-hour time constraint. It was a widely held belief that three hours was far beyond the realm of possibility.

Planning began with identifying special tooling, facilities, consumables and manpower requirements. The manufacture provided special tooling. It was determined best course of action would be to perform the demonstration indoors. Consumables were consistent with routine maintenance. Manpower for the exercise was two teams of seven technicians each, two crane operators, one inspector and one safety specialist.

Lean principles were utilized in developing a plan that would assign each technician a specific task that would be performed. Three full practices of a disassembly and assembly were completed prior to the demonstration. After action reviews were conducted following each practice. Task assignment and manpower were evaluated and reassigned as required.

Historical data from the aircraft manufacture and the military reflects actual hour numbers for disassembly and assembly to be in the double digits. Summit far exceeded all benchmarks by performing both tasks in one-hour 36 minutes, two-hours and 58 minutes respectively.

Summit’s efforts helped to prove the aircraft was air transportable within a reasonable timeframe. Specifically demonstrating that the level of disassembly and the complex nature of follow on maintenance to return the aircraft to a flyable status proved the aircraft is a rapidly deployable platform. Summit’s achievement has given the aircraft additional value and legitimacy.

The MRO has opened another facility in Somerset, Kentucky, at the Somerset-Pulaski County Airport. The primary goal of this facility is to produce aircraft subassemblies for certain Schweizer aircraft. Summit was approached by a couple of government agencies who wanted a prototype aircraft built. The agencies contracted Schweizer and they in turn began a dialogue with Summit. There was an existing U.S. Army contract already in place at the Kentucky facility with Schweizer and an arrangement with a technical aviation maintenance school that trained new avionic techs. Between the existing contract and the school looking for student placement, Summit decided they were in. They are assembling doors that are then shipped to Schweizer where the aircraft is put together. The hangar is 15,000 square feet and they are currently only using a quarter of that. "We’re hoping that more of that type of work will be done in Kentucky because there is a lot of room to grow down there and good facilities," said Neilsen. Will the new facility have the same family owned feel? "Absolutely" said Neilsen. "We have a manager down there who is very proud, he heard about us winning the award and he went out to the local paper and they did a big spread. The town was very proud of them." Not unlike the people of Middletown, Delaware.

"One of the great things since that Wall Street Journal article is that our employees take such pride in reading about how well they’re doing and we really appreciate you taking the time to highlight those men and women," Prickett said. Summit Aviation won the award because from management down, the employees are family and the company is represented by its final product that is produced by a team of dedicated employees who not only deeply care about that product, but also care about the company they represent.

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