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Video by Lyn Burks

Written Article & Photos by Ron Whitney

One of the more satisfying aspects of this business is when you have the opportunity to actually watch a company grow, succeed, and prosper. It is not very often, considering the recent economic conditions, that will a company not only set about on an ambitious growth plan, but actually goes quite a bit beyond it as well.

Just two years ago we traveled to Andalusia, Alabama to visit the folks at Vector Aerospace. Based at the South Alabama Regional Airport, 79J, Vector’s first operation in Alabama was initially spread among six or so hangars and administrative facilities on the south side of the airport. It was during our initial visit that Vector presented its growth plan, one component of which included building a new 40,000 square foot state of the art maintenance facility, and moving the majority of the operation to the north side of the airport. All the while, meeting the needs of their growing list of customers. Little did we know then, exactly how fast this company would grow.

"We’re going to fill that new facility to capacity within three years", said Ronnie Kearns, Vector’s local Director of Sales and Business Development. "We’ve got a vision, a plan, and the right people to make it happen, you just wait and see", Kearns continued. Turns out he wasn’t quite right, but we’ll get back to that a little later.

Location is key

To achieve any level of success in the MRO business you need three things; Capability to do the job, the personnel and facilities to do that job, and you should be strategically positioned to save your customer time and resources. Vector Aerospace in Andalusia has done just that. Two of Vector’s major customers, the Department of the Navy’s Whiting Field, and the U.S. Army’s Fort Rucker are very near by the Andalusia facility. Whiting Field, 48nm to the southwest, is home to the Navy’s fleet of primary helicopters the TH-57. Fort Rucker, the largest helicopter training facility in the world, and flies the TH-67 as its primary trainer, is located 34 miles east of Andalusia. Between both training facilities there are over 300 of the Bell 206 based airframes, all of which get a great deal of use, and require depot level maintenance on average of every five years. Having a depot level maintenance facility in such close proximity to the major CONUS training bases is not only very efficient, it saves the taxpayers untold thousands in transportation and shipping costs alone.

Welcome to Vector

On arrival Mr. Dave McGrath, Vector’s Director of Communications, met us at the front door of the new facility. Always quick with a smile and a warm handshake, Dave was patiently waiting for us to arrive. Once inside the foyer of the administration area we were given a thorough safety briefing and issued badges and safety goggles. "Everyone who enters any of our facilities goes through the same process", stated Dave McGrath. "We’ve not had a lost time accident yet at this facility and we plan to keep it that way".

During our last visit the new production area was still under construction. Contractors and Vector staff were still in the process of getting the new facility prepped for the move in. We were briefed as to what they had planned, what was going where, and where each piece of the plan fit. It quickly became obvious that their plan was well executed, everything seemed to fit exactly where we were told it would.

In my thirty years in the aviation business I have had the opportunity to visit dozens of maintenance and repair facilities. From the top-notch state of the art maintenance hangar, to the small corner of a hangar in a small FBO, I believe I am a fairly good judge of quality workmanship and commitment to safety. Vector did not disappoint. Upon entering the new production area we found a well lit, very clean and highly organized shop. We also discovered one other interesting fact, the place was packed.

Aircraft were lined up in a circuit type arrangement through the hangar. From aircraft just beginning the rebuild process, all the way around the facility, to the aircraft being readied for test flight and delivery back to the customer. Taking a tour of the production line turned out to be a very interesting lesson in the process of rebuilding a helicopter. From initial inspection and tear down, through the airframe jig, and on through the build up process several things really stood out. Each stop along the line was carefully detailed in a work plan, the crews had their manuals within easy reach for reference, and each member of the crew had everything they needed to perform the task.

The People Factor

Any company is only as good as its employees will allow it to be. Simply put, if your team is well trained, well paid and cared for, and motivated your company will do well. It is not at all unusual for a company to forewarn their folks when a magazine editor is going to be snooping around and asking questions. Ask them to go the extra mile to present the company in a good light. I had the sense this was not really necessary here. Other than a few expected glances in our direction, most folks simply went about their routine. Another thing that thirty years in this business has given me is the ability to sense if an employee is truly happy in the workplace, or just going through the motions for a paycheck. Again, they did not disappoint. What we found were people who were truly happy with their jobs and fully committed to quality and safety. "There are plenty of jobs closer to where I live, but I like it here and will stay as long as they’ll have me" said one. "I live south of Dothan, takes me an hour and half each way to get to work, but it’s worth it", he continued. Comments such as those were common, so much so I got tired of asking.

Projects and Plans

Although many of the projects on the board at Vector are still in the planning and development stages it would be safe to say many of them mirror the upgrades and enhancements currently popular in the mainstream civilian market. Glass cockpits, satellite tracking and communication, integrated GPS navigation systems, if there is an upgrade going on you can bet Vector is in on it.

Focused on the Future

Ronnie Kearns only had it half right when we first met two years ago. He had the new facility and "we’re gonna fill it" part pretty much right. But he had the timeline and scope a little wrong.

Within two years of moving to the new 40,000 square foot facility they had grown their business to the point where theyvector logo again needed more space. "It would be safe to say our business here has doubled since the initial expansion", claimed Ronnie Kearns. "And I’ll go you one better, we are going to double our footprint in our next stage of expansion", he added. Why am I not surprised? 

Posted in: Company Profiles

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