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Boeing's key Wichita supplier hit hard by tornado
Production workers at Spirit won't be returning before Wednesday as the supplier of fuselages and other key plane sections assesses how badly it was damaged Saturday night.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Spirit AeroSystems, which supplies Boeing with 737 fuselages and nose-and-cockpit sections for all its widebody jets, suffered a "direct hit" late Saturday night from a powerful tornado that destroyed walls on the east side of the sprawling Wichita plant and ripped away large sections of roof.
No one at the plant was injured, but the company has suspended operations at least until Wednesday. Structural engineers spent Sunday going through the buildings to determine if it's safe for Spirit's teams to enter.
"Some walls have collapsed. Roofs are off. We have no power. No gas service. Our email systems are down," Spirit spokeswoman Debbie Gann said Sunday.
If Spirit suspends deliveries of aircraft parts for any extended period, it would swiftly slow down or stop Boeing production lines in the Puget Sound region.
Gann said management is optimistic that operations can resume soon.
"We sustained substantial damage," she said. "But we think, at least at first blush, that most of the damage is to infrastructure as opposed to equipment. ... The majority of our production capability is intact."
She also said it doesn't appear there was any major damage to partially completed aircraft sections.
"Obviously our intention is to get our plant up and operating as quickly as possible. We've got to do that in a safe manner."
The Boeing facility most vulnerable to disruption is the 737 plant in Renton, which receives about nine complete fuselages delivered by train from Wichita every week.
The widebody-jet programs in Everett depend on Spirit for the front sections of all their airplanes, as well as for engine pylons and other parts.
Boeing defense-division spokeswoman Yvonne Johnson-Jones said its Wichita facility wasn't as badly damaged as Spirit. All the buildings are structurally sound but there is a lot of broken glass and some potential roof damage.
Boeing has suspended Wichita operations through Monday as damage is assessed. An employee update is due Monday afternoon.
Boeing Wichita does mainly maintenance and modification work on military aircraft — tankers and bombers — as well as on the U.S. government's fleet of executive aircraft.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes spokeswoman Mary Kelly said Sunday that Boeing doesn't know yet how badly its supply chain to the Puget Sound area will be affected by the Spirit damage.
"We're certainly going to be spending a lot of time looking at that in the next couple of days," Kelly said. "Right now, I don't have an answer and I'm not sure that anybody does."
U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., on Sunday toured the devastated south side of Wichita, which also includes McConnell Air Force Base. He and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback were briefed by Spirit CEO Jeff Turner.
"They don't think they are going to have to take down any of the buildings," Pompeo said in an interview. "But they've got to get roofs on these things and get it back in operational condition."
On Sunday afternoon, construction crews at Spirit were busy cleaning up and the utility company was working to restore power and gas lines, he said.
"You could see huge Dumpsters with debris that they'd picked up and there'd already been an enormous amount of work done to get things back in operation. We're moving heaven and Earth," Pompeo said.
About 200 workers were inside around 10:45 p.m. Saturday when the storm hit. They had plenty of warning and sheltered in tunnels.
"We do a lot of disaster preparedness," said Spirit's Gann. "It worked just like it was supposed to."
Gann said a tornado clipped the side of a building in the late 1990s, when the plant was owned by Boeing. Still, Saturday's blow was shocking.
"This was a direct hit on the facilities," said Gann. "We've not experienced anything like this before."
With the company email system down, Gann said management was communicating via text messages and personal email accounts Sunday. Spirit's website was down late Sunday.
Even if some Spirit work resumes Wednesday, "it'll probably be in pockets," Gann said.
"We're going to be focused on which areas we can get back up to operating capacity the easiest and what are the highest priorities and most critical areas."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org