Despite today's turbulence, the industry is on course, report Purdue alumni at Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin

Author: Kathy Mayer
A struggling economy, new U.S. presidential administration, and potential changes in defense priorities may be creating some drag for the country’s top aerospace and defense firms, but that’s not slowing their focus on innovations or determination to thrive.

Purdue Alumni

That’s the assessment of three Purdue University aeronautics and astronautics engineering alumni who bring a combined 70 years’ experience in the field to their insights and represent three industry leaders: Chicago-based Boeing Co.; Bethesda, Md.-headquartered Lockheed Martin Corp., and Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp.

With an order backlog of more than 3,500 airplanes and global demand that “remains strong for new, more efficient commercial airplanes in response to high fuel prices, aging fleets and environmental concerns,” there’s optimism at Boeing, says Erika Pearson (BS AAE ’93). She’s the business director/deputy vice president of Leasing & Asset Management for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Renton, Wash.

Yes, there have been layoffs at Boeing as commercial airlines face tough economic storms.

“While we are paying close attention to the uncertain economic environment, and airlines are making significant changes to their operations, market fundamentals and our strong backlog will help us work through this period,” she says. Even though “further deterioration in the financial system may create a funding shortfall,” the company would address that through its capital liquidity and portfolio management infrastructure.

At Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in California, Chief Engineer Paul Bevilaqua (M.S. Engineering Science ’69, PhD ’73), reports, “We’re not depressed, not anything like the auto or general aviation industries. We’re in defense, and the defense budget is about the same as last year. There are no cancellations in Lockheed Martin’s military area other than those that were already planned.”

One challenge comes from having to “make up losses in pension plans due to the market crash,” he says. “And the company is buying back stock, so those two things have reduced money for research and raises. I think that’s occurred across the board in all aerospace companies.”

Northrop Grumman, largely dedicated to government defense and technology, is “not driven by the consumer economy,” says Jerry Lockenour (BS AE ’67), director of technology development in El Segundo, Calif., where satellite, space and aircraft systems were recently combined in one operating unit. “We’re impacted in some of our programs, so we won’t go forward as strongly as we had hoped, but, overall, we’re in a strong growth position.”

In the meantime, all three businesses are continuing with new developments.

At Boeing, product enhancements are ongoing for the 737 and 777, and the latest version of the 747, the 747-8, is progressing, Pearson says. “Delivery of the first 747-8 freighter is planned for the third quarter of 2010. The first delivery of a 747-8 intercontinental passenger jet is set for the fourth quarter of 2011.”

In the leasing area, she says, “We expect there will be some consolidation, but we also expect to see about the same number of lessors we have today, as new players from China, the Middle East and other regions enter this lucrative business.”

Development of Boeing’s 787, dubbed next-generation because of lightweight composite parts and fuel efficiency, also continues, despite delays.

“Throughout the history of commercial aviation, there have been peaks and valleys,” she says. “That said, we firmly believe that long term, the aviation industry will continue to grow.”

That could mean a $3.2 trillion airline investment for some 29,400 new commercial planes in the next 20 years, she suggests. What will fuel that? “Passenger preference for more frequent, nonstop flights with shorter trips times,” she says.

The F-35 Joint Strike FighterLockheed Martin’s focus on the future is centered on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “That will be the biggest airplane program in dollars in history, and it looks pretty good for the next 30 to 40 years,” Bevilaqua says.

Two are now flying, one is on a test stand, and four more nearly finished, with 16 in various stages of assembly. “We have 3,000 or so orders identified, and the potential for who-knows-how-many more.”

Also in Lockheed Martin’s mix are reconnaissance aircraft and airships, he says. “Rather than a few big airplane programs, there will be lots of little programs, with new kinds of engineers needed.”

Important to note is the export market. “Most people aren’t aware that about the only things we sell overseas are aircraft,” Bevilaqua says. “We buy televisions, shoes, clothes, everything from other countries. The only thing to balance that is airplanes.”

Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft System (BAMS UAS)At Northrop Grumman, several projects are planned, Lockenour says. “We are developing unpiloted autonomous aircraft for surveillance and combat, with mission management from the ground. And more sensors are being integrated into our platforms, which together give a single integrated picture of the environment.”

Another area is precision strike, to minimize collateral damage. “We’re moving into lasers, high-powered microwave, cyber operations, going for computer and electronic systems instead of destroying buildings.”

On the manufacturing side, yesterday’s large production lines and numbers that drove low unit cost are being replaced by a new paradigm, Lockenour says. “We’re doing more rapid prototyping and reconfigurable operations so we can build smaller numbers cost effectively and more easily upgrade the product.”

Technology continues to evolve, he notes. “The challenges are the many different aspects, the many dimensions, all rapidly changing. It’s hard to forecast where technology is going to go. When you think long-term, it really is eye-watering.”

He’s positive about the future. “The outlook is very strong. We’ve been challenged by conflicts our country is involved in, the ups and downs in the industry, insurgency conflicts that challenge us to transform to products that are more effective in that environment than the cold war environment,” Lockenour says.

“We’re taking advantage of science and technology, and changes will occur. It’s never been a static industry.”