Illinois 200: State's aviation tech found on jets around the world

  • The frame and container for Honeywell's black box is built by Melrose Park-based Mech-Tronics.

    The frame and container for Honeywell's black box is built by Melrose Park-based Mech-Tronics.

  • Gene DeMuro, president of Mech-Tronics, with a cockpit voice recorder and data recorder.

      Gene DeMuro, president of Mech-Tronics, with a cockpit voice recorder and data recorder. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Lockheed Martin systems engineer Dennis Littrell, right, explains the instrumentation of the F-35 fighter jet simulator to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger at UTC Aerospace Systems in Rockford.

    Lockheed Martin systems engineer Dennis Littrell, right, explains the instrumentation of the F-35 fighter jet simulator to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger at UTC Aerospace Systems in Rockford. Rockford Register Star/2013

  • Rayner Hutchinson, vice president of quality for AAR Corp., based in Wood Dale, explains parts of the plane to a group of interns from Chicago Public Schools who were visiting Hawthorne Aviation at Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling to tour planes and the facility.

      Rayner Hutchinson, vice president of quality for AAR Corp., based in Wood Dale, explains parts of the plane to a group of interns from Chicago Public Schools who were visiting Hawthorne Aviation at Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling to tour planes and the facility. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Greg Dellinger is director of talent acquisition strategy at Wood Dale-based AAR Corp.

    Greg Dellinger is director of talent acquisition strategy at Wood Dale-based AAR Corp.

  • Boeing Co. headquarters in Chicago.

    Boeing Co. headquarters in Chicago.

 
By Chuck Sweeny
Rockford Register Star

Many Illinoisans don't realize it, but our state is a center of aerospace and aviation technology.

Illinois' aerospace cluster is centered around the northern and northeastern portion of the state. Including the Chicago area and southeastern Wisconsin, there are more than 200 companies in the aerospace cluster, including giants such as Wood Dale-based AAR Corp.; Northrop Grumman, with sites in Rolling Meadows and Arlington Heights; and Chicago-based Boeing, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Illinois also is home to prime contractors and subcontractors that together supply the U.S. military, NASA, Boeing, Airbus and smaller airplane manufacturers with numerous systems and components.

In fact, it's been estimated that there's no commercial jet in the air today -- apart from those made in Russia -- that does not have Illinois-made parts and systems on it.

Why northern Illinois? Sagar Patel, president of aircraft turbines at Woodward Inc. in Loves Park, near Rockford, explains.

"We have built the ecosystem here, with companies that planted their roots here long ago and have adapted to the changing technologies successfully," Patel said.

Woodward, founded 147 years ago in Rockford, built a $300 million factory in 2016 to manufacture jet engine fuel systems.

The 440,000-square-foot plant is gearing up to employ more than 1,000 people and is the company's second in Loves Park.

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The first, built in 1941, continues to operate.

The northern Illinois aerospace ecosystem is recognized as having "solid research and development, staying ahead of the competition from around the world," Patel said.

Boeing, one of the world's largest corporations, moved its corporate headquarters in 2001 from Seattle to a 36-story building in the West Loop.

Wood Dale-based AAR Corp. is a major maintenance and parts supplier for United, Southwest and Delta airlines, as well as the Navy and Air Force.

Among many other Chicago-area suppliers is Mech-Tronics, based in Melrose Park.

The family-run business ­­-- which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year -- builds parts ranging from metal frames and bezels that hold flat-screen panels on commercial and private jets to metal parts that are on the International Space Station.

One of its well-known products is the frame and case that holds the aircraft's "black box," the device that contains the plane's voice and data recorders and is used to analyze vital information in the event of a plane crash.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Illinois parts are in outer space, too.

Precision gears made by Roscoe's Forest City Gear are working today on the surface of Mars.

In 2013, NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover was the first robot to drill into the surface of Mars.

According to Forest City Gear's website, "More than 70 gears produced and manufactured by Forest City Gear helped actuate Curiosity's mobility systems and the robotic arm responsible for all critical drilling operations."

The firm's parts also are on the International Space Station.

In addition to aviation manufacturing, Illinois' airports provide jobs for 337,419 people, either directly or indirectly, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study. Altogether they earn $12.8 billion.

O'Hare International Airport in 2016 handled 867,635 flights, according to the FAA. Chicago Midway handled 253,046 flights during the same year.

From commercial airlines that serve 11 Illinois airports to the variety of general aviation services found throughout the state, the aviation industry creates more than $40 billion in economic activity, according to IDOT.

• Chuck Sweeny of the Rockford Register Star can be reached at csweeny@rrstar.com. Illinois 200 is a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at dailyherald.com/topics/Illinois-Bicentennial/.

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