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Boeing seeks $30 million grant for V-22 mod workshop in Ridley Park

The Boeing Co. is seeking a state grant to help transform a vacant industrial building at its Ridley Park manufacturing plant into a massive aircraft-modification workshop, saying the site may be overlooked for a lucrative, job-sustaining military contract if the facility isn't constructed there.

The Chicago-based aerospace firm is seeking $30 million in state redevelopment funds for the $64.9 million project at the Boeing Philadelphia complex in Delaware County, where it produces V-22 Osprey and CH-47 Chinook military aircraft, according to a grant application provided to the Inquirer.

The renovated facility would be used to standardize V-22s that were manufactured with different features and specifications in separate production runs, according to the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant application.

Boeing is working with the U.S. Marine Corps "to increase the reliability and reduce the number of configurations of the V-22 Osprey," the company wrote in the application. "Multiple configurations are negatively impacting our USMC customer's ability to carry out missions."

Boeing's proposal for the Ridley plant comes as production of the Osprey, which has been criticized over its cost and other issues, begins to taper, with orders for the aircraft winding down, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group aerospace consultancy.

As of the end of 2015, 320 Osprey units had been produced, with no more expected to be built beyond the 169 scheduled for completion through 2025, according to a Teal report.

Boeing's Ridley proposal "signals that the V-22 is transitioning from heavy production and toward maintenance and sustainment," Aboulafia said.

The V-22 was developed by Boeing and Fort Worth, Texas-based Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc., and first deployed in 2007 in Iraq, according to the Teal report. Its "tiltrotor" design allows it to take off and land vertically, like a conventional helicopter, but to fly like a turboprop airplane once aloft.

A fiscal 2014 procurement request by the U.S. government pegged the V-22's cost at $72.4 million apiece, Teal said.

Boeing's current proposal for the Ridley Park plant involves renovating what is now 230,000 square feet of unused factory space, according to its grant application.

It comes as an apparent response to an August solicitation for the modification of about 255 aircraft from two separate production runs "to a common configuration" by the Naval Air Systems Command, which manages the V-22 program.

Building the new modification facility would "generate significant economic employment over the next 10-20 years," retaining or sustaining about 450 jobs, Boeing said in the state grant application.

"The expected employment and economic impact will only be realized if the proposed manufacturing facility receives the necessary upgrades and improvements" to satisfy the military's needs, Boeing wrote. Otherwise, "the program and associated jobs could be lost to our joint venture partner, Bell Helicopter in Texas."

Bell spokeswoman Ashley Moore did not respond to an email.

Mike Tolassi, who represents about 1,400 of the Ridley Park complex's roughly 4,000 workers as president of United Aerospace Workers Local 1069, said he is hoping the expansion will end the recurring job cuts at the facility.

About 400 represented workers have left the complex through layoffs or buyouts since late 2015, with more cuts expected next month, Tolassi said.

He blamed the reductions on shrinking orders for both Osprey and Chinook aircraft, as well as the transfer of some job functions to other plants.

"Right now, we're keeping our fingers crossed that we get potential new work so we can bring back our laid-off brothers and sisters and hire new people into the facility," Tolassi said.

Boeing spokeswoman Cindy Anderson declined to share additional details about the expansion plan.

"As we recently did for our Chinook helicopter program, we are evaluating a series of modifications we can make to our Boeing Philadelphia facility in order to boost efficiency of our V-22 program and help sustain jobs," she said in an email.

The company invested $130 million into a renovated CH-47 Chinook manufacturing facility that opened in 2011, according to a news release at the time.

The Ridley complex generates $135 million in annual economic impact for the state, according to the grant application.