GE flight calls Stewart ‘home’

 - May 6, 2008, 11:19 AM

“It was definitely our second choice, but it turned out to be a good one.” That’s how corporate air transport manager Rich Sismour characterized GE’s move to Stewart International Airport (SWF) in Newburgh, N.Y., from Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains, N.Y. There’s no question that HPN is far more convenient to GE’s executive headquarters in nearby Fairfield, Conn., particularly since GE took delivery of its pair of BBJs (GE and Boeing are joint-venture partners in Boeing Business Jets). But there are other advantages to the location some 40 mi north up the Hudson River.

Sismour told AIN, “We tried for three years to get approval to build at White Plains. We had the support of the county executive’s office and won our case with the county board of legislators in September 1997.” But there followed a 120-day appeal period, and opposition groups used the time to organize against building at the airport. “We answered every one of their objections,” said Sismour, “but I guess they just didn’t want us there.”

One line of logic in favor of staying at White Plains was that moving out would actually increase the number of BBJ operations at the airport. If the aircraft were based there, each trip would involve one takeoff and one landing. As it is now, there are twice as many movements, since the airplane must fly into HPN to pick up its pax (one landing), make the trip (one takeoff), then return to HPN (second landing) and reposition back to SWF (second takeoff).

Perhaps those opposed to GE’s building at HPN hope the company’s executives will eventually warm to the idea of originating their trips at Stewart. So does Sismour. When the flight department first made its exodus northward in mid-July, 100 percent of company flights involved prepositioning at HPN. Now, 10 percent bypass HPN and leave directly from Stewart, with the executives either driving or arriving via one of the flight department’s two Sikorsky S-76s. Helicopter pilot Howard Winkler said he recently made the trip to SWF from Fairfield in 22 min during some nasty IFR weather. The VFR record, so far, is 17 min. By comparison, GE plans 10 to 12 min to transport executives from Fairfield to HPN in the Sikorskys.

Sismour said he’d like to see a 60/40 split between preposition flights and those that originate at Stewart, but added that anything better than 90/10 would be fine with him. “The only unknown right now is winter ops,” he said. “But we’re prepared. If we need to leave a BBJ outside overnight at White Plains and de-ice it in the morning, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”

He speaks highly of the relationship he has developed over the years with Jet Systems, the ExxonMobil Avitat FBO at HPN. The bond is important, since GE aircraft use the FBO as a staging area for picking up passengers. By agreement with airport management, GE will not operate its BBJs at weights greater than 151,000 lb when flying to or from HPN. That’s some 21,500 lb less than mtow, yet another reason for starting from Stewart on longer trips. International operations make up some 35 percent of GE’s flying, overall.

Sismour said the GE aircraft fleet logs some 10,000 hr per year. Half that is flown by 34 GE-employed pilots on company aircraft, the balance on fractional or charter flights. Besides the Sikorskys and the BBJs, GE fields a pair of Gulfstream IVs and a pair of Challenger 604s. The company has fractional shares in NetJets’ Citation VII and Citation X programs, as well as in a Flexjet Challenger 604. All in all, GE “owns” 2,400 occupied flight hours on fractional jets per year, leaving approximately 2,600 hr of on-demand charter operations. “We flew with 57 different charter operators last year–all Wyvern audited, of course,” said Sismour. Charter flights are used when positioning a GE aircraft is inconvenient, or if the schedule is simply too busy. Sismour said each BBJ flies 500 to 600 hr per year; each GIV about 800 hr; each Challenger 1,000 hr and each helicopter about 300 hr.

‘No AOGs’

GE does all its own maintenance at its new hangar, with the exception of major engine overhauls. At busy times, Sismour will outsource some light inspections, but he said in-house maintenance is the best hedge against delays. “I simply cannot have an unexpected AOG situation,” he said.

The new hangar is a maintenance technician’s dream. Sismour pointed to the windows in the massive 50-ft-high hangar door and said, “GE insulated plastics. They let in a tremendous amount of light without letting out the heat.” And it comes as no surprise who “brings good things to life” when the sun goes off duty. GE lighting has transformed the new hangar to a reporting point for inbound pilots. “We’ve become the ‘lighthouse’ for Stewart Airport,” said Sismour. “The controllers tell us pilots are reporting the airport in sight from 20 miles out at night. They say they ‘have the GE hangar.’”

The hangar is high-tech, literally from below the floor on up. The high-gloss floor is heated from underneath, with ultra-efficient radiant heating. “It’ll pay for itself in seven years,” said Sismour. Also, the radiant heat extends 20 ft onto the apron in front of the hangar door, ensuring the doors will never be frozen stuck. An added benefit is that an aircraft can taxi up close to the hangar door and an “inside” tug can pull it to shelter. That means that the tug does not need chains for the winter, so it won’t damage the floor.

Sismour added that GE is not too proud to admit it borrowed ideas from other facilities. He said, “When I went to the opening of the new NetJets facility in Columbus, I said to myself, ‘This is the floor I want.’ A lot of people see a high-gloss floor and think it’s got to be slippery. We had two independent studies done on the coefficient of drag on this floor. The fact is, when dry, it’s less slippery than a plain concrete floor. When it’s wet, they’re about even.”

With the radiant heating, water evaporates more quickly, reducing the hazard of slipping and falling.

Another benefit of the glossy floor is that it reflects light, further adding to the airy atmosphere of the hangar. And speaking of falling, GE incorporated a fall-protection system in its hangar to be used by any technician working more than four feet above the floor. Workers strap into a harness and clip into a line suspended from the ceiling. The line is on tracks riding on the building’s upper support beams so it can follow the workers effortlessly as they move about an aircraft.

The fall-protection system is part of the required code for hangars with doors tall enough to accommodate a BBJ’s tail. Building codes for such hangars represent a cut above those for Gulfstream-size hangars with their 28-ft-high doors. Other requirements include increased foam fire-suppression (FFS) capability. The GE hangar can be totally inundated with fire-suppressing foam in three minutes. GE had to build a 375,000-gal water tank adjacent to the parking lot to provide enough water to meet code. That 375,000 gal supplements the city water supply. The holding tank for emptying the building after filling it with foam accommodates 650,000 gal and is located under the parking lot.

Sismour said the extra code requirements were not a burden. “Just as we operate our FAR Part 91 operation to Part 135 and Part 121 standards, we would have put in the fall-protection system, the FFS capability, remote-control fuel-spill containment and a number of other features anyway, even if we had a 28-foot-high door and didn’t need them to meet code.”

A Place for Everything

Other features of the hangar include an environmentally compliant paint room and aircraft work stations, complete with electrical outlets, water and air connections offset from the walls. Sismour said, “Most hangars you see have electrical outlets on the walls. With this arrangement, however, we have a clear walkway around the inside of the building that doesn’t have wires and hoses running along the floor.”

Neatness extends to having dedicated rooms for storing the usual effluvia found on hangar floors and/or leaning against the walls. Mops, ladders and other equipment can be stored away out of sight and out of harm’s way. Said Sismour, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” That includes a locked room for technicians’ rolling toolchests.

Maintenance technicians also have a dedicated area for keeping manuals and other paperwork. “We made sure they have the fastest computers in the building. They need them the most,” said Sismour. The technicians also have access to a huge printer to make oversize hard copies of schematics and other diagrams. GE operates two shifts of maintenance workers, with operations ongoing from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Creature comforts are important, too. The hangar has bunking rooms that look like small hotel rooms, complete with a full bath. They’re there for pilots with early-morning departures or anyone with a need to stay overnight at the “office.” There is also a full exercise room and a quiet room with a television and lounge chairs. The main conference room can accommodate all of the flight department’s roughly 80 employees at once, or can be subdivided in half.

“Before he retired, Jack Welch would often hold meetings at the flight department facility. It has the advantage of being off site, and for incoming guests it can be very convenient,” said Sismour. He hopes executives will make even more use of the conference facilities.

Asked about ATC congestion at Stewart, Sismour laughed. “It’s like a different world,” he said. Never once have any of the pilots heard a controller say standby, he noted. “And with the current situation with temporary flight restrictions popping up, we’re well outside any of that activity. Of course, that wasn’t something we anticipated in 1997 when we were making our decision, but it’s worked out to be another advantage.”

Sismour summarized the attraction to Stewart: “We feel welcome here, in contrast to how it all went at White Plains. The county and the towns of Newburgh and Goshen [N.Y.] have been very receptive and cooperative with everything. That can make all the difference.”