Spirit Aerosystems Scrambles To Address Tornado Damage

 - April 16, 2012, 3:23 PM
Tornado damage at Spirit Aerosystems' Wichita campus forced a halt to operations for at least two days. (Photo: Spirit Aerosystems)

Spirit Aerosystems will remain closed for at least two days after a tornado tore through its sprawling campus in Wichita on Saturday night, causing severe structural damage to at least “three or four” of the site’s 45 buildings. Although a Spirit spokesman told AIN that local utility company Westar Energy has restored electricity to two substations and one of the major production buildings, the company cannot estimate when full power will return.

“It could have been much worse,” said the spokesman, who noted that the 213 people working the third shift evacuated the area before the tornado hit and that no one sustained injuries. “We had plenty of warning, and that’s key…Basically we drill for this all the time and they kept safe.”

Senior Spirit personnel spent most of the day Sunday conducting a destruction assessment and early indications point to limited damage to tooling and product. However, all of Spirit’s programs will feel an effect, said the spokesman, at least until workers restore full electrical power and gas supply to the site.

A major supplier to Boeing, Spirit’s Wichita plant builds virtually the entire fuselage for the 737 and the nose section and pylons for the 787. Those and all of the programs the Wichita facility supplies will experience some supply-chain interruption due to the closure.

Now running at a rate of 35 airplanes a month, the Boeing 737 potentially stands to experience the most severe disruption of all of Spirit’s programs due purely to the volume of work in question. Spirit builds on average more than one 737 fuselage per day; an extended interruption to its production could potentially hamper the timing of Boeing’s planned fall rate break to 38 airplanes a month. Spirit, however, hopes the line stoppage will prove short-lived. “In terms of magnitude, the 737 is our biggest production [project] out of the Wichita plant,” said the spokesman. “The fuselage is the largest piece of that. We obviously want to get that started as soon as possible.”

Although Spirit also holds the contract to build the Airbus A350XWB’s center fuselage section and front wing spar, it manufactures and assembles those parts at sites in Kinston, N.C.; St. Nazaire, France; and Prestwick, Scotland. The only Airbus work performed in Wichita involves engineering and supply-chain support personnel, suggesting minimal, if any, effect on A350 production.

As of Monday afternoon some 100 senior managers had arrived on site to begin the evaluation and “action plan” process. “Overall, we’ve done enough of an assessment to say that for the most part our production capability is still intact,” he said. “We just have some issues we need to work [such as] debris cleanup, [ensuring] the structural integrity of the buildings to make them safe enough to bring our employees back.”

The company expects to resume production as soon as it deems the facilities safe, even while construction crews work to repair the buildings’ outer structure. Although roofing over some of the most damaged buildings did blow off, the company could erect tents to keep workers and product out of the elements.

“We’re not going to ask employees to come back in if they’re not going to be safe and our product’s not going to be safe,” said the spokesman. “So we want to make sure we’re working on those things right now, and we’re in close coordination with our customers about our progress.”