One year ago, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority began construction on a 200,000-square-foot hangar facility. At more than ten stories tall, it's capable of holding an Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8, the largest commercial airliners ever built.
The Rockford facility is the only one of its kind in the US not owned by an airline. Instead it's owned by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority (a municipality). However, day-to-day operations will be handled by AAR, an aerospace corporation based in Wood Dale, a DuPage County township directly west of O'Hare airport that has operated since 1955. Director for Talent Acquisition Strategy Greg Dellinger says it's common for separate companies to handle the maintenance work.
"The majority of the world's airlines find great efficiency in trying to find third-party partners like AAR to handle those planned heavy maintenance visits, he said. "That's what will be going on here at this repair station."
Dellinger says AAR's decision to come to Rockford was based on several factors, including the area's substantial aerospace economy.
"If you look at a jet engine or an auxiliary power unit...and you look at the content that is on that particular motor," he said, "you are going to find probably six out of every 10 parts or components has some sort of fingerprint of the Rockford Region."
These parts come from a range of companies including smaller suppliers such as Midwest Aero Support, as well as larger corporations like UTAS and Woodward.
Rockford also has institutions in place for an easy hiring pipeline. Rock Valley College already has an aircraft mechanics program, but Dellinger says it's made an additional $5 million worth of investments.
"They not only doubled down," he said. "They tripled down by building a brand new school so they could start filling it up with individuals from the region and beyond."
It also helps that the school is right next to the hangar.
Graduates of the RVCs program will be equipped with the knowledge to work in this MRO facility (short for maintenance, repair and overhaul). Dellinger says there are three basic specializations, starting with certificated mechanics. The MRO industry calls them A&Ps.
"The A is the airframe. That's the tube that you ride in. You learn how to make repairs on that airframe," he explained. "The second, which is the P, is your power plant. That is your motors. And so you're going to learn how to make repairs, how to use hand tools, to work on engines."
Second is radio and electronics. These men and women work on avionics, which encompasses navigation, communications, and other systems that serve as the "brain" of a commercial aircraft.
Finally, Dellinger says, there's always a need for those adept at working with sheet metal.
"You'll learn how to work with that as well as shoot rivets," he explains, "realizing that what holds the entire aircraft together are rivet lines."
Mike Nicholas, President of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, says AAR plans to slowly expand its workforce over the course of its ten-year lease.
"They talk in terms of hiring 500 people, with an average salary of over $50,000 per person," he said.
While the hangars are explicitly designed to handle Boeing and Airbus's massive craft, the sheer amount of space helps with economies of scale. It's possible for each hangar bay to hold two regular Boeing 747s.
At this point, AAR is finishing up regulatory work, such as acquiring the proper permits from the FAA and assembling technical manuals on the aircraft they intend to service. While commercial airliners are likely to be the first customers, Dellinger says the company isn't picky.
"AAR is old fashioned in the sense that, if you show up with an airplane that needs maintenance with a big bag of U.S. currency, you're in," he said.
The MRO Facility is scheduled to open this fall and will bring a new swath of activity and jobs to Chicago Rockford International Airport.