Its equipment cools the electronics contained in aircraft pods used in wartime reconnaissance and targeting missions.
The world’s most advanced attack helicopter uses its environmental control systems. Its air turbine drive units fly on military and commercial aircraft manufactured by the world’s premier aerospace designers. Meet Fairchild Controls Corporation of Frederick, Md.
Fairchild today thrives on the spirit of its founder, Sherman Fairchild. In the early 1920s, the inventive Fairchild developed a camera to take aerial photographs, but he could not find an airplane suitable for his needs. So he built his own, and The Fairchild Aircraft Company was founded. Fairchild rubbed shoulders with other early aircraft pioneers like Bill Boeing, Donald Douglas, and James McDonnell, and the Fairchild Aircraft Com-pany was a strong player in World War II.
Whatever It Takes
Fairchild Controls’ intrinsic relationship with the military today, and during major wars of this past century, bears testimony not only to the company’s superior products but to its resolute determination to innovate what is necessary to get the job done expeditiously. In addition to its reputation for designing and manufacturing precision air drive units and environmental control systems (ECS) for aircraft, Fairchild has also built a sterling reputation for offering impressive repair and overhaul capabilities for airlines worldwide. Its niche markets include air turbine drives, pod-based ECS products and rotary wing ECS products. Fairchild supplies its components and systems to the aerospace industry for military and commercial aircraft, in both domestic and international markets.
The company’s two major product areas are pneumatic air drive units and vapor-cycle ECS products. “These vapor-cycle ECS units are basically highly efficient and lightweight air conditioning units,” explains Richard Gloor, director of business development. “We provide cooling in a unique way with some of the work we’ve done for pod reconnaissance and targeting applications on a variety of military aircraft, including the Air Force’s F-16s and the Navy’s F/A-18s.” Fairchild’s ECS units cool the electronics in the pods, which sometimes carry heat-generating thermal imaging equipment. The system utilizes outside air, cools it to the right temperature and then distributes it throughout the pod to keep the various electronic components operating at the proper temperature. These ECS units are also designed and produced for rotor-wing applications.
“One of the things that distinguishes us from our competitors is that the applications we provide product for tend to be very demanding in terms of weight,” says Brian Fischer, vice president of programs. “So our systems have to be very efficient for a given weight. We have high-precision components that go into our cooling systems that make them perform about five times greater than what you see in a typical automobile.
The Choice for Aerospace
It is no wonder that the top aerospace manufacturers choose Fairchild Controls’ air turbine drive units for their aircraft. “We supply all of the air drive units on the Boeing 747 series aircraft, as well as the Lockheed C-130 four-engine Hercules military transport aircraft (A models through early H models) and the Lockheed Martin L-382 (which is the commercial variant of the C-130 and is used by some cargo airlines),” says Gloor.
Fairchild Controls has designed and is now in the early phase of production to supply an air drive unit for the new Boeing 767-400ER (extended range) aircraft.
“Air drive units take bleed air from a propulsion source, whether it is the main engine of the aircraft or the auxiliary power unit, and then convert this pneumatic pressure into a mechanical energy,” explains Gloor. Bleed air is high-pressure air taken from a jet engine before it gets to the combustor. “We are siphoning a little bit of that air from the engine,” he continues. After being ducted to the air drive unit, the bleed air is directed through a turbine shaft which is connected to a reduction gear set. The output of that gear set can drive either a hydraulic pump or an electrical generator.
Fairchild personnel work closely with aircraft, helicopter, and reconnaissance pod manufacturers in the development of their ECS products. “We are the supplier of the environmental control system to such major manufacturers as Boeing for its AH-64D Apache Longbow Helicopter, the world’s most advanced attack helicopter,” says Gloor. “There are two independent systems on that helicopter. That’s a unique application, and their requirements are extremely stringent. Picture a helicopter sitting in the hot desert sun, baking at 120° F, when the crew has to scramble to prepare for a mission and get the helicopter in the air quickly.” With Fairchild ECS, the helicopter in such a situation is able to cool down to habitable temperatures for both the crew and for the equipment, all within a remarkable 15-minute time frame.
Going the Extra Mile
Over its 40-year history, Fairchild has developed an impeccable reputation worldwide. “We compete very well in our specific product niches of air drive units and ECS because we offer high reliability at low cost,” says Rick Hunsicker, vice president of operations. “We consider ourselves a world-class repair and overhaul facility, mostly for international airlines since most all of the domestic airlines have their own repair facilities,” continues Hunsicker. “We tout an impressive 10-day or less turnaround time. Our advantage is that we produce the original equipment. We do about 350 to 400 air drive units per year for airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa, KLM, Singapore, Malaysia, Cathay Pacific and other airlines in Asia.”
Weight is a perennial issue in aerospace design. “The lighter the hardware, the better the airlines like it because they can carry more people and more freight,” says Gloor. A short time ago, Fairchild supplied Boeing with an air drive unit that would satisfy significant weight constraints. “The unit we developed for the Boeing 767 weighs about one-third more than units used on larger aircraft. But it does twice the work. And it is projected to have more than twice the reliability of the previous unit.” When you can produce equipment like that, it says quite a bit about your technical expertise and manufacturing capabilities.
Esprit de Corps
Within the last three years, the company doubled its size, both physically and in the number of employees, which now number 170. Fairchild promotes a philosophy of autonomy to which its highly experienced and dedicated employees respond favorably. “Our factory operation functions within a team concept,” explains Hunsicker. “The work is completed in an autonomous nature with group leaders working with repair teams and product teams in the mechanical assembly area and in the machining area.” Fairchild mechanics are highly experienced Federal Aviation Agency-licensed airframe and power plant mechanics.
The company’s remarkable growth in such a short time is partly due to its expansion of its market base. In addition, when Fairchild Controls was split off as a stand-alone entity, it had a backlog of orders not yet filled. “The Apache contract, for example, was a five-year contract,” says Fischer. “So over the past five years, we’ve come up to production rates on several contracts for which we now have orders that we have not yet had the opportunity to fill. We staffed up to meet our production rates, while securing new business that we had not even identified when we became a stand-alone company.”
Fairchild Controls engineering group is highly skilled and has extensive knowledge in the design and development of various ECS applications that could be used in a variety of tactical weapon systems and applications.
“On the technical side, we recruit nationally to bring in the types of engineers to enhance our product niche technologies in both ECS and air drive product areas; we’ve tripled our technical resources since 1997,”
Fairchild Controls Corporation was spun off as a stand-alone company from the Fairchild Space and Defense Corporation in 1994. “At the time we were about a $13 million company, and we have practically tripled in sales since that time,” notes Gloor.
“We try to manufacture the proprietary and complex parts of our systems, for example, the compressors on the ECS and the turbine machinery on the air drive units,” says Hunsicker. “We have very capable machining abilities with our CNC mills, CNC lathes and grinders.”
“We would buy everything outside if we could, because we are really a systems house, not a commodity manufacturer,” says Richard Bair, president. “However, because schedule and quality control are critical to us, there are certain things that we have to have the capability to build in-house. Also, there are a few technologies that are critical to us in that they are proprietary in nature, or that you wouldn’t want to put into the hands of someone outside. Our philosophy is buy it outside if it doesn’t impact our schedule, and if we can get high quality with advanced technology.”
Fairchild’s facilities now occupy 90,000 square feet of space. “That figure represents a doubling since 1997,” says Hunsicker. “Since then, we built a new administration building that also houses the engineering departments.” A new 7,000-square-foot engineering center is being added and the company is leasing a 20,000-square-foot materials center for stockroom and storage operations, as well as receiving and inspection. In addition to these facilities, Fairchild also has modern climate controlled facilities for manufacturing and assembly, repair and overhaul, and development and production testing.
Fairchild is exploring new opportunities in variable speed drive (VSD) capabilities for its ECS products. “VSDs exist in all kinds of industries out there, but an aerospace-qualified VSD with the right efficiency that’s low in weight and high in reliability – this is something
you just can’t go get off the shelf,” says Bair.
“We also believe that smaller, lightweight, self-powered air cycle systems will be important to the future of the industry,” he continues. “Most of our systems right now operate on a vapor cycle using a fluid. The expansion of that fluid from a liquid to a gas is what provides the cooling.” Fairchild will be exploring the development of air cycle expanding equipment. “You can also get cooling with air as the fluid without having to go through a phase change but you do go through an expansion.” Although large versions of this equipment are already being used on commercial aircraft, Bair believes there are applications for smaller versions for either regional-type aircraft or self-contained cooling systems for pods or other types of sensors.
Propelling Capital Investment
Fairchild invests between 8 and 10 percent of its sales in capital investments. “We have about 20 pieces of high-precision machining equipment capable of high-tolerance machining,” says Bair. “This equipment is very expensive and can cost upwards of half a million dollars per item. This is a major investment area for us.”
Because the systems Fairchild builds require advanced state-of-the-art test equipment, the company invests heavily in developing specialized test capabilities for the products it designs and builds. As an illustration, to test its air drive units, it uses four test cells driven by three large Ingersoll-Rand air compressors that simulate jet engine bleed air (temperature and pressure). Fairchild is committed to its philosophy to fully test every single product it designs and manufactures. “Very few companies have that kind of specialized capability” says Bair. The company’s commitment to quality shows: Fairchild is an ISO 9001-registered company.
Fairchild sees its future as continuing to dominate in its current niche markets. But it is also poised to do the same in an emerging niche market: sophisticated cooling systems for combat vehicles. “We see ourselves as well positioned to succeed in this market. We are opportunistic and when we spot companies out there that fit into what we do well, and they exist in markets related to products we already manufacture, we will go after them big time,” concludes Bair.