Marine Corps brass, Boeing bosses, and most of the region’s U.S. House delegation joined workers at the company’s Ridley Park helicopter complex Thursday to open a $115 million factory, enabling Boeing to start refurbishing V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey assault support aircraft while still building new ones, in air-conditioned comfort.

The two assembly lines in the formerly vacant 350,000-square-foot plant show Boeing’s expectation that the U.S. Marine Corps will keep adding to and updating its fleet of 300-plus Ospreys.

Besides the Marines, Boeing has long-term deals to supply 50 Ospreys for U.S. Air Force special operations, at least 40 for U.S. Navy carriers, and 17 for the government of Japan. That U.S. ally is beefing up its defenses and training troops on Ospreys in North Carolina as neighbors China and North Korea expand their military.

Boeing expects to deliver about 20 new Ospreys this year, at a cost of about $71 million each.

“Where there is trouble in the world, we want V-22s” from the Ridley Park plant, said Marine Col. Matthew Kelly, the corps’ Osprey program manager.

With seven Marine squadrons now launching Ospreys from land and sea sites, “there are very few places in the world where you can’t take off with this aircraft, with a bunch of raging Marine infantry, and drop it in a war zone,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for Marine aviation, to the cheering crowd of employees.

The plant was built in a corner of the old Baldwin Locomotive Works manufacturing and supply complex that once stretched for more than a mile along the Delaware River, the same site where early Osprey development work was done in the late 1980s. Like the fishing hawk it’s named for, “an Osprey always returns to its nest,” said Kristin Houston, vice president of Boeing Tiltrotor Programs.

Former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) championed the controversial design through fatal testing accidents. With its tilting engine and outsized propeller units, Osprey can take off from and land on small sites, like a helicopter, and also speed troops from ships to attack zones, like an airplane.

Boeing workers assembling the V-22 Osprey aircraft at the Ridley Park plant in 2016.
MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Boeing workers assembling the V-22 Osprey aircraft at the Ridley Park plant in 2016.

In moving to the riverside part of the plant, Boeing shuttered buildings west of Route 291, where Osprey fuselages were formerly assembled. (Motors are built at a Rolls-Royce plant in Indiana, wings and final assembly at a Bell Helicopter plant in Texas.)

Boeing hasn’t decided whether to build another product at the old location or sell it, Boeing’s Houston told me. The site is close to the Route 420 exit from I-95.

Without air conditioning, the old fuselage plant “was really hot" in summer, Houston recalled. But office staff were instructed never to complain about the heat to plant workers, who endured tougher conditions.

The refurbishing line means Boeing will be testing more Ospreys in the skies around the plant and not just at the current final assembly location in Fort Worth.

The vote of confidence in Boeing Ospreys comes as the region’s congressional delegation is doing its best to reverse a Pentagon decision last winter to curtail upgrades to Army Chinook CH-47F helicopters that were to have other staff at the 4,600-worker Boeing plant busy for years to come.

The Chinook plant is next to the refurbished Osprey plant.

The House of Representatives budget has added another year’s funding for the refurbishment program, backed by U.S. Reps. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D., Pa.) who both serve on the House Armed Services Committee. Local reps hope the GOP-led Senate will agree.

They joined the Thursday ribbon-cutting alongside U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans and Mary Gay Scanlon (both D., Pa.) and state and local officials.