Spirit AeroSystems on track despite tornado damage

Washington DC
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It is tempting to invoke the miraculous after nobody was killed or injured when a massive tornado rolled over nearly all of Spirit AeroSystems' sprawling campus in Wichita, Kansas during second shift on 14 April - but it is perhaps unfair to use the term. A better word than miraculous might be "heroic", says David Coleal, Spirit AeroSystems vice-president.

There were about 250 Spirit employees at the factory when the tornado - packing 169-179mph (147-156kt) sustained winds - rolled across the campus, striking 39 of 42 buildings. Each one of the workers did exactly what they were supposed to do - an achievement that not only spared their lives but made the recovery process infinitely easier.

"They reacted beautifully. They all got to the shelters in time. They looked out for each other," Coleal says. "We told them what they did was heroic. If we were going to funerals it would have put a much different tone on things."

Three months later, plastic sheets still cover holes in structures scattered across the campus, but production continues as if the storm never happened.

Spirit AeroSystems customers, such as Boeing, have been amazed by the company's recovery. In a supply chain with ever-shrinking margin for error, few, if any, suppliers are more important to Boeing than Spirit AeroSystems. Among other major assemblies of Boeing aircraft, its one-time subsidiary unit still builds the complete fuselage of the 737, which is now delivering at the rate of 35 per month from the final assembly centre in Renton, Washington.

"They never missed a delivery. It was remarkable," says Kent Fisher, Boeing vice-president of supply chain management. "And they had pieces of their statement of work that they couldn't touch for a week."

In truth, some fuselage deliveries were slowed by the storm, but none reached Boeing after its scheduled load date, when the fuselage is inducted into the assembly line to be mated with the wings, landing gear and engines.

"We did not impact Boeing's production at all, which is pretty amazing because we lost seven days of production," Coleal says. "It's a pretty lean system. It's not like we had a bunch of inventory between here and Renton."

It was a unique performance, even in Wichita history. Despite its location in tornado-prone Kansas, nothing as bad as that storm had ever blown through the city.

Coleal says: "We've had tornados come by the area south of us with some minor damage. Actually, I won't even say minor damage - they just missed us. But nothing like this. This was a pretty significant event for Spirit in our history, even back to the Boeing days."

The tornado's route of destruction was also unique, carving a path that swallowed Spirit AeroSystems properties whole, but left most of the rest of the city largely unscathed.

"Before the storm, if you were asked what's the chance of a direct hit of a tornado directly on Spirit, you would have said one in a million - and this was the one in a million," Coleal explains. "It went right across. Just the way the tornado went across the campus, the width of it. It hit everything. It didn't come east to west and hit a small part of it, it went across the entire campus from the southwest to the northeast on a half-mile-wide path."

As the tornado approached, the workforce turned off the machines and scrambled for the emergency shelter, counting heads once they got inside to make sure everybody was safe. The force of the tornado blew open the doors on one of the shelters, sending a burst of dust inside and knocking out the power.

Slightly downwind of the tornado's path, Coleal was sitting in his basement, monitoring the storm on the Weather Channel.

"The first news we got about this was when it flashed across the bottom of the screen, and it said 'Damage at Spirit'. Probably a few minutes before that I was getting text messages from some of my team saying, 'Hey, some of the storm is heading that way'."

About 35min later, Coleal reached the point of impact for the tornado: "When you drove up it was pitch black. There were trees, debris. It looked like a war zone. Because it was so dark outside it was kind of surreal."

Even more disturbingly, Coleal looked up to find the company's massive production buildings twisted and damaged.

"They were just crushed. You couldn't even believe it when you looked at it because these were such large structures. The whole surrounding area just did not look right."

Once inside the campus, Coleal noticed an 18t rail car, sturdy enough to carry an entire 737 fuselage from nose to tail, flipped over on its side, with its axle lying about 300m (980ft) down the tracks.

Coleal joined up with emergency crews and other executives, including chief executive Jeff Turner, at a designated emergency contact point inside the campus. At this point, the executives knew only that the employees on second shift were unharmed, but they still had no idea of the extent of the damage and how long it would take to re-launch production. All they had was an emergency response plan in a large, red binder.

Coleal recalls, laughing: "It was kind of funny. Jeff Turner, the CEO, asks everyone, 'Who's in charge?' And everybody looks in the book, and says, 'Well, you are'. He said: 'OK, but who's really in charge?'."

Before the facilities could be assessed or even entered, emergency crews had to first shut down leaking gas pipes and disconnect the power to downed electrical lines. Once the potential for secondary fires or explosions was eliminated, structural engineers entered each building to make an assessment.

Meanwhile, the executive team set up a "war room" inside the company's indoor gymnasium. The campus was divided into three zones, with a director appointed for each zone to assess and repair infrastructure, such as sewage, water and power. Then, managers of particular production processes were assigned to the appropriate zone leader so they could assess when production could be restarted for each process.

Coleal says: "We knew we could do this. We could get back up and running. We put down a challenge we could get back up to full production by April 23, which was basically a week later."

Spirit AeroSystems shipped its first fuselage to Boeing seven days after the tornado struck. The assemblies had already been completed before the storm hit, but for the workforce it was a moral victory. Two days later, Spirit AeroSystems re-opened, allowing 11,000 employees to return to full production.

"We were building hand to mouth initially. We were expediting freight, but we made every one of their [scheduled] loads. For our customers this was like a seamless event. They never saw [the impact]," Coleal says.

For Spirit AeroSystems, the costs were far greater. Overtime rates spiked in late-April and May and are only now coming down. Employees worked full shifts every weekend for the first six weeks after production re-opened. With Wichita's aerospace cluster already reeling from a steady stream of lay-offs and plant closures at other companies, Spirit AeroSystems' workforce knew as well as the executives what was at stake.

"Everybody realises this could have been the shutdown or demise of Spirit. This could have been a multimonth delay, where our customers would have to find different sources of product," Coleal says.

Instead, Spirit AeroSystems resumed production even as the facility was being repaired around them. The parts and assemblies Spirit AeroSystems has delivered since the storm meet the company's standards, but the environment in which they are made is not always "pretty", Coleal says. The full list of tornado-related repairs are not scheduled to be finished until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the event has already become a case study for any company dealing with recovery from a natural disaster.

"With hindsight, we did some smart things. We kept our supply chain building - parts. We didn't turn them off," Coleal says. "That allowed the supply chain to make sure we had material here so when we got back on line, we didn't have a shortage of parts."