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New Facility In Rockford Will Repair, Maintain World's Largest Passenger Jets

Passenger airliners are a mainstay of the aircraft business, and the world's two biggest manufacturers are trying to outdo each other with supermassive craft. 

At more than 70 meters -- 229 feet -- long, Boeing's 747-8 and Airbus's A380 can carry hundreds of passengers at once.  But these behemoths need specialized facilities for loading, unloading and maintenance.  

Only about 15 airports in the United States can service these particularly large airliners, and the associated hangars are owned by airlines.  However, Rockford is about to become an exception. 

"From what we've been told, this is the first municipal facility that is able to house these types of aircraft in the United  States,"  says Jeff Polsean, Economic Development Manager for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. 

He says the city has been hard at work constructing an MRO facility (short for maintenance, repair, and overhaul)  for the past year.  For daily operations, they're working with Wood Dale-based aerospace conglomerate AAR Corp. 

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Jeff Polsean is Economic Development Manager for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.

“This is where owners of aircraft, large aircraft, will bring their planes in and have service done to them," Polsean explains.  "AAR is a specialty company who knows the different types of aircraft that fly and what maintenance they need on a normal operation.”

The new facility received financial support from the airport authority and many of the local communities.  Another block of funds was set to come from the state of Illinois.  However, Mike Nicholas, of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, says that fell through with the state budget crisis.

"Alpine Bank in the area, along with a number of other banks, came up with the money to fill in what the state was not able to provide, keep the deal going," he said. "The community really banded together to help pull this thing off."

The 200,000-square-foot facility comprises two hangars separated in the center by an office wing.  Each hangar is roughly ten stories tall, with a steel superstructure held up using tension cable. Polsean says the metal was fabricated at Garbe Iron Works in Aurora, sent down to Joliet to be galvanized, then shipped to Rockford and assembled by Area Erectors. 

The floor is made of Ductilcrete, a concrete-like substance that is cheaper than steel but also capable of supporting massive aircraft (The A380, the larger of the two airliners, can weigh almost 1.2 million pounds).  As for the walls, Polsean says they're inherently flexible. 

“The structure will actually be able to move 6 inches during the day or different weather conditions," he says."  As you heat up a structure like this, it moves.  The actual cover itself is a PVC vinyl with a 2-inch insulation bat built in.”

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The ceiling contains light fixtures, industrial fans, and dispensers for the fire suppression system.

Large-scale industrial fans are placed across the ceiling to help cool the hangars.  Interspersed with them are 8-foot-tall red cylinders with a partially open bottom.  Polsean says these connect to the fire-suppression system. 

"You have a 12-inch water main coming in.  If it’s actually ever tripped," he said, "there’s a couple of huge pumps that kick on and, as those pumps kick on, they trip these valves, and they send the water up to the foam generator."

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A 12-inch water main under 165 pounds of standing pressure is at the ready in case a fire breaks out. Fluid would be mixed with a foam solution and pumped up to the ceiling.

Polsean said this is the second-largest fire-suppression system in the world, only dwarfed by one in Dubai.  He turned to an employee to ask about the system's power. 

"It's 150 lbs of pressure, right, Kenny?"  

He was promptly corrected. 

"Standing pressure is 165." 

Finally, the front walls of each hangar contain a series of door panels.  They're translucent enough to let in light and, depending on the size of aircraft coming in, workers can open different sets of doors. 

"You can open one door, you can open all five doors, or can open a combination of one, two, three, or four," Polsean explains.  When the panels rise, they constrict like an accordion.

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Each bay's door panels can be raised in different patterns, depending on the size of aircraft coming in.

This maintenance facility is almost complete, merely awaiting proper approval from regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.  Polsean admits the yearlong construction was grueling, but credits his personnel. 

"We had a lot of great contractors.  We had a great construction manager in Scandroli Construction," he says. "We worked very well as a team."

The actual opening of the facility is planned for this fall.  AAR will lease it for ten years and carry out daily maintenance operations.   During this time, the company hopes to hire 500 mechanics and specialized maintenance personnel. 

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