-T / T / +T | Comment(s)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: A Corner Turned

Bill Carey

I couldn’t help but feel patriotic at the Sept. 29 roll-out of the Gulfstream G650 in Savannah, Ga. There we stood, a gaggle of journalists on a makeshift platform, waiting just inside the hangar door of the cavernous new manufacturing building erected for Gulfstream’s biggest, fastest, longest-range business jet. Seated in row upon row to our left were several thousand Gulfstream employees, the core of a workforce that has been culled this year by 1,200 layoffs. Yes, we’re supposed to be dispassionate, non-partisan observers and note-takers. But on that platform it dawned on me that this was a special moment in uncertain times, inspiring even before the big jet rolled out under its own power.

Despite everything — the deflated economy and diminished expectations, the slings and arrows hurled at business aviation, the order cancellations, furloughs and layoffs — an American manufacturer of business jets, something we excel in, boldly pulled the wraps off its biggest, most technologically advanced project to date. (A week later, the new super-midsize Gulfstream G250 was rolled out in Israel, where initial manufacturing will be conducted by Israel Aerospace Industries.) A video I filmed of the G650 rolling down the tarmac that day at last count had nearly 2,400 views, according to YouTube. Several commenters were as impressed as I. "Awesome!" said one. "So proud my son had a part in the building of this!"

Days earlier, at a briefing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rockwell Collins executives presented a sobering view of the state of the business aviation market. That company’s advanced Pro Line Fusion suite will fly on the G250, among other new entries. But Rockwell Collins is counting on aftermarket opportunities with its Pro Line 21 system until the market recovers, executives say. They reported 250 Pro Line 21 upgrades to date, on King Airs, Falcons and Citations.

In Savannah, we were shuttle-bused from the roll-out hangar to an office building, where Joe Lombardo, executive vice president of the General Dynamics Aerospace Group, and Pres Henne, Gulfstream senior vice president of Programs, Engineering and Test, gamely fielded questions from a mixed bag of mainstream reporters asking about layoffs and aviation journalists like me, inquiring about synthetic vision. They were upbeat but candid. Gulfstream has endured some lean months, they acknowledged, but with 200 announced orders, the $64.5 million G650 represents a way out of the wilderness.

"With the 650, it’s sort of a statement by Gulfstream, it’s a statement by General Dynamics about the future," said Henne. "It’s a willingness to invest in an all-new product. This is the first new, different cross section since the G2. It’s a statement of our confidence in the product, in the company and in the future."

For the present at least, the industry appears to have stemmed if not stopped the aspersions cast by politicians and pundits, thanks to educational outreach by organizations including the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

"The bad rap, I think you would agree, has died down substantially," Lombardo said. "This was as a result of a lot of education that took place through GAMA and NBAA, at the local level here and as well as all around the country, in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and also the administration. Part of that education process was to make sure people understood the numbers of jobs that were affected by general aviation.... We went very aggressively at it, but we did it professionally, although it was an emotional time for everybody."

At this special moment, Lombardo even dared to be optimistic. "We had a very bad first half of the year; it was a troubling first half of the year," he said, recounting the company’s 1,200 layoffs and 2,200 furloughs of four and five weeks endurance.

"The second half of the year we turned a corner," Lombardo declared. "... Quite frankly, it looks like we’ve weathered the storm because things are picking up a bit."

Live chat by BoldChat