Sunday, March 5, 2017

Skies brighten for Sikorsky General Manager as market stabilizes

 Audrey Brady looks down from one of the helicopters being built at the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. Coatesville plant in Sadsbury, Pennsylvania. 

SADSBURY >> It was a turbulent start for Audrey Brady as head of Sikorsky’s Coatesville commercial helicopter operation.

In June of 2015 Sikorsky, then a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., announced widespread layoffs that affected more than 700 full-time workers and contractors at the western Chester County plant.

A month later, United Technologies announced it was selling Sikorsky to Lockheed Martin in a move that cast further uncertainty over the future of the operation.

But Brady, who in May will hit her 2-year anniversary as general manger of the operation that builds the S-92A and smaller S-76D helicopter lines for the VIP, Search and Rescue, Utility and EMS markets, indicated in a recent interview that the storm has been weathered.

In fact, the company is in the process of hiring for the operation again.

“That’s very exciting news for us,” said Brady. “There are a lot of opportunities here. Not just for engineers but for the office support functions.”

Sikorsky now employs more than 500 at its Coatesville plant – 537 to be exact, said Brady, who has a memory for details and names that amazes co-workers.

The sale, Brady said, has been a blessing for Sikorsky. Lockheed Martin is a veteran of the aerospace industry and understands better than United Technologies did the cycles of the business.

Under United Technologies, a multi-faceted conglomerate, Sikorsky sometimes felt like “the red-headed step-child,” Brady said.

“A new helicopter is a 10-year project from paper to certification,” she said. “With Lockheed Martin, we already worked with them (before the sale). It was more of a natural fit. They understand our business - the life cycle.”

While the oil exploration market downturn continues to affect demand, Sikorsky is pushing aggressively into the EMS, search and rescue and VIP segments. It sees potential for an uptick in those markets, notably in emerging economies in parts of Asia and India, as local demand for more civil service programs grows.

Sikorsky’s commercial unit – its military operations and headquarters are in Stratford, Connecticut – has several milestones it is marking.

Its S-92, known as a workhorse in the oil exploration field, last May crossed the 1 million flight hour threshold.

According to a recent article in Vertical, a magazine that covers the helicopter industry, “the landmark was achieved by a worldwide fleet of 275 aircraft, just 12 years after the first production delivery, and while recording a best in class safety record and availability rate.”

The company is currently working on a variation of the aircraft for the Canadian military. It also is making a model for the next presidential helicopter that will be shipped to a classified area for final fitting out.

During a recent tour of the plant, Brady pointed out the full house of helicopters keeping workers busy painting, putting wiring and seating in, testing and assembling.

“This building was completely empty when Lockheed Martin bought it,” Brady said. “Now it’s completely full. That’s success, that’s success.”

Longtime employee Jim DeMarr, an aircraft manager who started with the company when it was Keystone Helicopter before Sikorsky bought it, said he has been around the world delivering helicopters made in Chester County.

“There’s great honor in doing this stuff,” said DeMarr, who has been with the company for 42 years. “It’s bigger now and there’s been changes in all the processes.”

Painter Brandon Powalski of Coatesville, who has been with Sikorsky for 15 years, works on both the S-92 and S-76, putting on five coats to get just the right sheen.

“You have to be a perfectionist to do this job,” he noted.

Brady, 44, of Downingtown, hopes she can inspire girls to pursue careers in the math and science fields.

She holds bachelor of science degrees in mathematics and mechanical engineering from Trinity College, a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon.

She began her career with Pratt & Whitney in 1996 as a design engineer and progressed quickly within the engineering function. In 2002, she transferred to operations where she held the positions of business center manager, manufacturing engineering manager and then commodity manager within the supply chain group.

In her eight years with Sikorsky, Brady has held multiple roles of increasing responsibility including: operations manager in rotor systems, senior operations manager and then director in the Connecticut Assembly and Flight Operations for the production of Black Hawk and Naval Hawk aircraft. Most recently, she served as director of S-92 programs prior to becoming the general manager of Coatesville Operations.

She would like young girls to consider similar careers, which is why she participates in the Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Technology, or GETT program, culminating in a daylong event put on by the Chester County Economic Development Council, where she is a member of the board.

When the hundreds of girls attending the event at West Chester East High School on March 25 engage in the tradition of greeting the helicopter from Sikorsky, Brady will be at the controls. She recently received her pilot’s license.

“This year, myself and one of the pilots on staff will land in the middle of the soccer field,” Brady chuckled. “There will be 500 or 600 girls watching. I hope some of them say, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’”


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