Located about 70 miles northwest of O'Hare International, Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) is often obscured in the shadow of its busier, better-known neighbor. This fall, however, RFD enjoyed a significant moment in the sun, when it opened one of the largest maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities in the world.
RFD's new 203,000-square-foot structure has enough room to accommodate two Boeing 747-800s or two Airbus A380s at the same time, and is expected to operate 24 hours per day.
AAR Corp., based in nearby Wood Dale, IL, is leasing the facility for $400,000 per year. The company plans to offer everything from heavy maintenance to cabin modifications/in-flight entertainment upgrades. According to an AAR spokesperson, the new mega-facility at RFD is the only MRO in the United States that can handle Airbus A380s.
Project: New Maintenance Facility
Location: Chicago Rockford Int'l Airport
Cost: $40 million ($1 million under budget)
Funding: Airport $3 million; Winnebago County $8 million; city of Rockford $5 million; federal government $10 million; state of Illinois: $15 million
Gap Funding: Alpine Bank; Blackhawk Bank; Byron Bank; Northwest Bank; Rockford Bank & Trust
Size: 203,000 sq. ft. (2 adjoining hangars)
Operator: AAR Corp.
Lease Agreement: $400,000 annually
Construction: Approx. 14 months (June 2015-Aug. 2016)
Engineering: Crawford, Murphy & Tilly
Technical Consultant: Nelson Spohnheimer
Architecture: Larson & Darby Group
Building Supplier & Contractor: Rubb Building Systems
Construction Manager: Scandroli Construction
Hangar Doors: Assa Abloy Megadoors
Hangar Floor: Ductilcrete
Fabric Walls: Thermohall
Competitive Advantages: Central geographic location; large enough to handle 2 Boeing 747-800s simultaneously; ready labor supply from aviation maintenance program at local community college; only U.S. maintenance facility able to handle A380s
Getting the huge two-hangar structure built was a formidable challenge, acknowledges Jeff Polsean, economic development manager for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. "Cargo operations are important to us, and we are always looking to increase that part of our business," Polsean says. "We thought that building a new MRO facility that could work on jumbo aircraft-especially large cargo planes-would attract more business.
"There were no wide-body repair facilities in the country, [so] we went to AAR to get their input on what they needed," he explains. "They told us they needed hangars big enough to house jumbo jets, and a good supply of qualified mechanics."
The Rockford area appealed to AAR for several reasons, explains Polsean: "Our central location makes it very easy for clients to bring their aircraft in for repair jobs; and Rockford is the seventh-largest aerospace supplier in the country for aircraft parts. We touch just about every aircraft flying in one way or another."
Several tier-one suppliers such as Woodward, United Technologies Corp., BE-Aerospace Systems and GE Aviation all have facilities near RFD.
"We also have a highly trained workforce, and access to a robust warehouse and distribution network," Polsean adds.
RFD's existing airfield, complete with a 10,000-foot runway and ample holding areas, was also a selling point for a facility designed to service jumbo jets. "UPS usually lands at night, and there can be 10 or 15 planes on the ground," reports Polsean. "During the Christmas period, we can have as many as 30 planes parked. And because we have a huge infield (about 900 acres), we can add more aprons if necessary, to accommodate increased traffic."
Having a steady stream of highly trained workers readily available was a critical factor for AAR, Polsean emphasizes. "Rock Valley College here in Rockford just opened a new multi-million-dollar Aviation Education Center, covering 40,000 square feet. It will offer an 18-month certification program for airplane mechanics. It is located right on airport property. AAR told us they needed 120 to 150 mechanics a year, so there was a built-in pipeline to supply labor."
After AAR agreed to lease the new facility once it was built, the hard part began for the airport authority-funding and constructing it.
Michael Dunn, RFD's executive director, led a team of airport officials in assembling a coalition of stakeholders that included the city of Rockford, Winnebago County, the airport authority and various state and federal entities. The budget was eventually set for $41 million, with various coalition stakeholders contributing (see Page 44 for the specific breakdown).
Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, RFD's long-time engineering firm, helped select the site for the new facility. "Our firm has been working with the airport on many projects since the late 1970s," says Brian Welker, a vice president with the company. In the early 1990s, for instance, the firm helped plan the large UPS cargo building and supporting infrastructure at the airport.
"For this project, we were involved from the beginning," Welker says. "Crawford, Murphy & Tilly worked closely with the airport team [to determine] how the MRO would fit in, what infrastructure would be needed, environmental requirements and even budgeting."
Engineers identified a midfield area with two older cargo buildings formerly occupied by Airborne Express and BAX as the ideal location for the airport's new MRO. "The required airside infrastructure was already there," explains Welker. "There was parking for heavier aircraft; we did not need to spend several million dollars on infrastructure. We really only had to plan landside improvements and utility enhancements, such as a new parking lot for 400 cars, located outside the airport security fence."
A nearby city well provided ready access to water for fire protection and other services. "Based on flow rates and pressures, we did not have to construct a water storage tank, so that saved money," notes Welker.
As is often the case with ambitious projects such as this, there were unexpected obstacles. "The FAA was worried about signal interference from the new building impacting existing navigational aids," Welker explains. "At one point, it was suggested that the airport would have to rotate the entire building seven to 10 degrees, which would have added several million dollars to the project, and impacted the aggressive project schedule."
Given the tone of initial discussions, the airport and Crawford, Murphy & Tilly retained Nelson Spohnheimer, a retired FAA technical operations specialist who prepared a technical report that helped address the FAA's concerns. "The technical documentation provided a baseline level of comfort to the FAA that the chances of signal interference would be low," says Welker. "This allowed construction to proceed per the original plan."
The biggest challenge to the project, however, was financial, relates Polsean. "High-ranking politicians in the state of Illinois have been bickering about the state budget for years," he explains. "Because no state budget had been approved, the $15 million slotted as the state's share for the MRO project was frozen and unavailable."
Undaunted, RFD officials convinced five local banks to extend $17 million of credit to keep the project on track. "We were very fortunate that the banks had the foresight to see how the new MRO would help the economy of the entire region for many years to come," says Polsean.
Once the project received the green light from various government agencies, RFD signed a contract with Rubb Building Systems, a company based in Maine that specializes in large, prefabricated hangars.
"Building this new MRO was one of our biggest challenges, due to its sheer size," says Rubb's marketing manager, Chuck Auger. "This is the largest building we have ever built. Each of the two hangars is larger than a football field: 300 feet wide, 300 feet long and 100 feet high."
To support the effort, Rubb's project manager moved to Illinois for the duration of construction. "He had a crew of five to eight guys, and enlisted other local contractors as needed," adds Auger.
Specialized Components & Materials
Kathleen Cantillon, AAR's vice president for strategic communications, emphasizes that the new MRO was designed to service next-generation aircraft. The main structure consists of two membrane-clad hangars that are connected and insulated. Each structure has give-panel, vertical-lift Assa Abloy Megadoors with pivoting mullions, which accommodate even the world's largest aircraft.
"The doors will open and close very quickly, and the cost of door operations are the lowest in the market, thereby saving the customer a lot of money in the long run," notes Auger. "Above all, this MRO design is not about housing aircraft, but quickly servicing planes and getting them back in the air."
The facility's hot-dip galvanized steel frame is clad with 2-inch-thick Thermohall insulated fabric, which was selected for its low maintenance requirements. "One of the advantages of a fabric building is that it can be easily repaired," says Auger. "If a forklift driver makes a mistake and rips a hole in it, it can be repaired in a couple of hours."
The two hangars include 1,000 tons of steel, 52,000 bolts and 120 rolls of PVC cover. Overall, the dual hangars are among the largest pre-engineered structures of their kind in the world. The hangar floor is a special concrete mix called Ductilcrete, specified for its strength and load-bearing performance.
Throughout construction, crews were plagued with one constant problem-the wind. "It can get pretty windy in Rockford, and when a crane is up 100 feet in the air trying to roll a tarp, it can be challenging. The fabric becomes like a big sail. There were some days in which we simply could not safely use the crane," Auger reports.
Overall, though, he was satisfied-and surprised-at how smoothly the project went. The entire facility was erected in about 14 months, with crews finishing in August 2016-on schedule and under budget.
"This whole project emphasizes how terrific things can happen when people commit to working together for the common good," reflects Auger. "All the stakeholders (Rockford Airport Authority, the county, city, local media, Rubb, banks, local businesses and subcontractors) all saw how positive this project would be for the region. We all made it happen."
AAR Sets Up Shop
With the huge facility ramping up operations, Polsean foresees many long-term benefits in the future. "This new MRO will be an economic boost not only for our airport, but for the entire greater Rockford region," Polsean predicts. "The new building itself will create 500 jobs, and perhaps as many as 1,000. And other aerospace-related companies in the Rockford area will no doubt get more business from AAR to service this new MRO."
By late November, AAR had completed a few jobs for existing customers at the new facility and was actively negotiating contracts with several other potential clients. "We really expect to ramp up our operations in early 2017 and will be hiring more and more people as new business comes in," reports Cantillon.
A job fair held with the Rock Valley College in mid-November yielded a plethora of resumes and applications from students hoping to work at the new MRO.
New Maintenance Facility Attracts Additional Cargo Business
Since 1994, RFD has been home to the second-largest UPS hub in the country. The 586,000-square-foot sorting facility averages about 26 flights per day, and accounted for the lion's share of 118,000+ metric tons of cargo the airport handled in 2015. Now, the local mainstay has a new neighbor to the east.
In fall, RFD began leasing a 72,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 20 truck docks to ABX Air, an international freight company based in Ohio. ABX began daily flights into RFD in early September, and Ken Ryan, director of business development and cargo for the airport, expects a "very quick progression of cargo activity."
Airport Director Mike Dunn notes that readily available warehouse space and the new MRO both helped seal the deal with RFD's new cargo carrier. The recent departure of a pharmaceutical packaging firm freed up warehouse space just in time for ABX to move in.
Pinnacle Logistics, the firm providing ground services for ABX, planned to hire at least 50 people, and Dunn reports that the airport will also likely add staff members to support the new cargo operations.