When the Department of Defense closed the Naval Aviation Depot in 1993, Pensacola lost 2,600 civilian jobs, abruptly ending its 80-year history of repairing aircraft. But nearly two decades later, that legacy of aircraft repair is undergoing a renaissance of sorts in a large metal building on Olive Road in north Pensacola.Now under the banner of LSI, a civilian company headquartered in Jacksonville, former NADEP employees are rebuilding Army helicopters, as well as Pensacola's reputation for high quality aircraft repair. Led by plant manager Steve McNair, a former NADEP department head, LSI's Pensacola branch is undergoing a growth spurt.
Currently operating out of a 20,000-square-foot building, LSI is just weeks away from expanding into a new and adjacent 12,000-square-foot facility and contractors are clearing more property on site for future expansions.
"We have 40 employees here and I expect we will expand that number by at least 20 or more over the next year or so," McNair, a former Marine, said. "LSI has no plans to move us out of Pensacola."
The kind of work LSI is doing in Pensacola "is a classic example of leveraging the military talent that trains here, and eventually comes home to Pensacola and finds work in the private sector," said Craig Dalton, vice president of armed services for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
"LSI is a real jewel," Dalton said. "It's a great company that's supporting the military, and helping to develop the aerospace industry here along the Gulf Coast."
The business accounting for nearly all of LSI's growth is converting non-operational helicopters, primarily the twin-engine H-47 Chinooks and AH-64 Apaches, into ground-based platforms for training aviation technicians.
"All the electrical and hydraulic systems on the aircraft work when we send out a finished product," McNair said.
Back in service
The helicopters that are trucked in through LSI's doors are not airworthy and cannot be put back into full operational service for various reasons.
"We're working on a helicopter now that came out of Afghanistan," McNair said. "It has too much corrosion to keep it operational. It's not flyable, so we're turning it into a ground-based trainer."
Working closely with software engineers at LSI's Jacksonville headquarters, McNair and his team build computer-generated faults into the helicopters electrical and hydraulic systems. And it's up to avionics trainees to find those faults and correct them.
The bulk of LSI's workload is for the U.S. Army, but the company also is building trainers for foreign militaries.
LSI, which operates out of a 124,000-square-foot facility at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, employs 450 and has branch operations in North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Texas and California.
In addition to supporting the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, LSI's international training programs have supported air crew and maintenance training for military personnel in Germany, Korea, Thailand, Argentina, Egypt, Portugal and Greece.
The origins of LSI's Pensacola plant are deeply rooted in the Naval Aviation Depot.
Founded in 1994 by Pensacola banker Glen Boutwell and her husband, Gary Boutwell, a former NADEP supervisor, the company began as Aviation Systems of Northwest Florida, with a two-person office in Gulf Breeze.
It specialized in providing custom manufacturing, repair, overhaul, modification, relocation and support services to the Department of Defense for aviation training devices.
Over the next 15 years, the start-up company grew rapidly, continued to recruit former NADEP technicians, and made a name for itself in the military community.
In late 2010 the Boutwells sold the company to LSI for an undisclosed amount.
LSI's chief corporate development officer Phil Voss said Pensacola's operation stands to benefit from the anticipated growth of additional military contracts. "The most explosive part of our growth is in training devices of the kind being built in Pensacola,' he said.
When LSI bought Aviation Systems a year ago, Voss said there was an immediate opportunity to move the company to Jacksonville. "But one of the things we found is that Pensacola has some of the best aircraft technicians you can find anywhere," he said. "And we liked the fact that these retiring military craftsmen wanted to stay in Pensacola.
"So we are pushing as much growth as we can to Pensacola," he added.
Voss estimates as much as $15 million of the company's annual $65 million in contracts are due to the work being done in Pensacola.
Electrician Donald Sasser, a 26-year employee with the Aviation Depot, was among the original eight Aviation Systems employees.
"Back then we had to do everything," he recalled. "Now it's a much bigger company and more specialized."
But Sasser said one thing hasn't changed from the early days.
"We all still do whatever it takes to get the job done," he said.
For many of the former Aviation Depot employees, and retired military avionics technicians, LSI's commitment to Pensacola is a dream come true.
"My father worked at the Naval Aviation Depot, and I always knew I would move back home when I retired from the Navy," said Terry McClain, a LSI aviation electrician. "When they offered me a job here I jumped at it, and as it turns out this job is probably the most fun I've ever had in my career.
"Everybody here works hard, and we're just one big family. I'm just happy to be here."
And so is Cindy Sartwell, who manages LSI's tool inventory.
Sartwell was a 22-year employee of Wayne Dalton until the garage door manufacturer at Ellyson Industrial Park closed down a couple of years ago.
She learned of openings at LSI through family connections and was hired shortly after getting laid off at Wayne Dalton.
"I got extremely lucky," she said. "I got to be very familiar with tools while at Wayne Dalton, and so I really have gotten to enjoy this type of work. I've learned so much over the last three years. I just love working here."
Recruited by LSI executives to manage the Pensacola operation, McNair said the company is owned by the employees.
"LSI has great benefits, a health plan, a 401(k) program, and, it just treats us very well."
What's more, LSI enjoys an excellent reputation within the military community and continues to win large service and maintenance contracts from the Department of Defense and other foreign governments.
Fortunately, McNair said, Pensacola is the company's primary site for the manufacture of helicopter training platforms.
"I don't see anything but growth here in Pensacola for LSI," he said.