When the G8 summit was held in Georgia last July, some locals assumed it was about the new G8 Gulfstream aircraft, rather than a meeting of world leaders. This is perhaps understandable given that Gulfstream Aerospace, a General Dynamics company legendary for producing the most technologically advanced business jets in the world, has its base in Savannah.

And more than likely some of the politicos arrived for the summit in Gulfstream jets. In fact, so many of the aircraft fly into Savannah/Hilton Head Airport from the Far East, Europe and the Middle East for maintenance checks, the domestic-only airport has been given an international designation.

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Without a doubt, Gulfstream is in a class by itself. It is a two-time recipient of the Robert J Collier Trophy – the most prestigious award given by the National Aeronautic Association – largely for the safety record, aesthetic design, well-appointed interior, signature windows and innovative technological systems of its aircraft.

Top ranking clients

 

Gulfstream executives won’t reveal who their customers are, but it is known that NetJets, the fractional aircraft ownership entity owned by financial guru Warren Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway group, have custody of Gulfstream aircraft. In addition, US government agencies such as the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) use Gulfstream GIVs for tracking hurricanes.

In recent years the company has produced 50-55 aircraft a year. When the economy is booming, that figure climbs to almost 80. The company’s latest success is its Gulfstream G450, a huge upgrade of its best-selling GIV/GIV-SP/G400. This aircraft incorporates the most advanced avionics, cockpit displays, aircraft systems, aerodynamic enhancements and flight safety features.

And on the drawing board is the G550, which recently received its third Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). The STC opens the door for Gulfstream to begin unlimited installation of its new ultra-high-speed Broad Band Multi-Link™ (BBML) data systems on customer aircraft.

The G550 is being conceived to fly as high as 51,000 feet at speeds up to Mach .885 and across distances up to 6750 nautical miles. On a test run in March, the jet flew from Honolulu to Sydney in less than 9.5 hours, establishing a new record.

Other top-notch technology being outfitted in Gulfstream aircraft is the Enhanced Vision System (EVS), which allows pilots to ‘see’ down to an altitude of 100 feet above the runway’s touchdown zone. More than 100 Gulfstream aircraft have been retro-fitted with EVS, which will become standard equipment in the long-range G450 and G550.

Location, location...

Gulfstream counts as one of its advantages its location since 1967 in the stunning but somewhat sleepy southern town better known for the films Forrest Gump and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

“Not only are we located next to an airfield, but Gulfstream is within six miles of one of the largest naval-controlled air space test areas on the east coast,” says spokesman Robert N Baugniet. “Within five minutes we are in a stretch of controlled airspace where we can fly from 50,000-plus feet altitude to ground zero and fly about 100 miles out from the coast and 500 miles north and south. We can fly through clouds and find bad weather, and do everything we need.”

In addition, Savannah has a number of sound educational institutions that offer a pool of well-educated applicants from which to hire. “We have co-op students, apprenticeship programmes, the whole lot,” Mr Baugniet says. “We use community colleges and academic institutions across the board: Armstrong Atlantic State University, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, the University of Georgia – you name it.”

The company also recruits engineers from across the US. Another plus is that Georgia is a ‘right to work’ state so union problems are not a concern.

“For a number of reasons, Savannah is a good place to attract people to,” Mr Baugniet says. “We do our own training. Flight Safety is very close by, where we do co-operative training for technicians and mechanics.”

Supply chain

Savannah offers logistical advantages as well, given its central location on the east coast and its port. The latter is important since Rolls-Royce in Germany supplies Gulfstream with its engines and Fokker in Holland its tails and floors. Wings are supplied by Vought Aircraft Industries of Texas.

Both overseas suppliers usually ship their parts by sea. Occasionally engine parts are sent by air via Atlanta then trucked to Savannah if there’s a scheduling problem and they’re needed fast. The Fokker tails are shipped in containers on barges down Holland’s canals to Amsterdam, where they are loaded onto ships destined for Savannah. Once at the US port, the shipments are co-ordinated as oversize loads and trucked to Gulfstream’s plant.

Vought moves its wing sections via rail. “Vought built and designed the first wing for us,” says Jim McQueeney, vice-president, material, at Gulfstream. “They invested in the tooling and designed and built what is known as a fully stuffed wing – one that has all the workings and innards such as flaps, control surfaces, cables and hydraulic lines. We then assemble it onto the aircraft.”

Wire parts and harnesses are trucked back and forth to Gulfstream’s maquiladora in El Centro, Mexico for value-added assembly and placement into kits which are used in just-in-time (JIT) operations.

“Dedicated trucks leave Mexico every Saturday and are here by Monday morning,” Mr McQueeney explains. “We involve suppliers from concept to the end product.”

Gulfstream’s on-site engineering unit guaranteed the wing was designed to its standards. “We also occasionally employ people to watch the design processes at the early stage,” Mr McQueeney explains. “Then as the wing comes out of production, we will have someone on site to continuously monitor the manufacturing.”

Raising the bar

No doubt Gulfstream has set new standards in the industry for suppliers. “There is no one else in the industry who would go out and buy or procure or have a revenue-sharing partner to the extent that we do,” Mr McQueeney remarks. “A company like Vought will do a fully stocked, ready-to-install component such as a wing.”

A key component of Gulfstream’s supply chain operation is its use of assembled parts in kits. While its assembly process is not as fast as that of the automobile industry, Mr McQueeney says similarities exist. Gulfstream employs many of the same logistic tools such as JIT, delivery to point-of-use, kitting of assemblies, etc.

“The elementary knowledge of putting the aircraft together in a sequence of events is the same as the automobile,” he states. “It’s just that the stands are longer.”