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Need for 'eyes in sky' creates jobs here Border Patrol, Army, NASA are among clients of Adelanto firm
by TATIANA PROPHET Staff Writer  |  30-Mar-2006
ADELANTO — In a steel warehouse surrounded by sand and Joshua trees, technicians, machinists and engineers build the fuselage, engine and wings for a plane that will carry no human being.

In technical terms, they are building an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The UAV is nothing new. The robot planes have been flying missions since the conflict in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. But demand is growing fast for UAVs with their capability to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and combat missions that are increasingly used in the Middle East.

Greater demand means more jobs for the Adelanto facility of San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, where the company conducts research and development and some production.

Story Photo

James Quigg / Staff Photographer
Jon Hernandez sands down a propeller spinner while working at the R&D facilities of San Diego-based defense contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems on Wednesday. The company is expanding and hiring new engineers and machinists.

"Our business really started to take off after 9/11," said Jim Machin, director of advanced development programs at the Adelanto plant.

The company, a subsidiary of General Atomics, has immediate openings for about 35 people in Adelanto, and 40 to 50 people at the Palmdale flight operations facility, Machin says. And they are almost certain to create more jobs in the future.

Openings include aerospace engi- neers, mechanical engineers, avionics technicians, machinists and pilots — who fly the plane from a control center on the ground and many times are hired by NASA, to name one agency that uses company pilots after delivery.

Hesperia resident John Fernandez, a painter at the Adelanto facility, used to work for an aerospace company down the hill. His commute was more than hour but now it takes him half that time to go to his job in the High Desert.

"It's a lot better working closer to home," said Fernandez, who got the job eight months ago after hearing about it from an employee.

Since 9/11, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has grown by about 50 percent every year, Machin said, going from about 400 to 1,700 employees today.

The latest expansion relates to a new $214 million contract the company has with the U.S. Army, says spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz.

While the Air Force and the Navy are regular customers for the company's Predator, Kasitz says the Army has ordered a new robot plane: the Warrior. It's a variation on the Predator, except General Atomics is designing it to handle diesel fuel.

The Army doesn't use aviation fuel like the Navy and the Air Force, so the company is redesigning the engine to accommodate the Army's needs. It went up against competitor Northrop Grumman in a "flyoff" in February 2005, after which the Army ordered 17 Warriors.

The company is expanding its business abroad, having already sold to Turkey and Italy, and is in talks with Canada, Australia, The Netherlands and the UK.

And the Predator B, which flies at 50,000 feet and is already patrolling the skies above the border between the United States and Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security bought one last fall for the border patrol and just ordered another one March 2, Kasitz says.

Agent Richard Rojas of the border patrol's public affairs office confirmed that the agency is getting another Predator B to add to the plane that is currently flying along a 110-miles strip of border in Arizona.

"The whole purpose of the UAV is for protecting the nation's homeland — the border - (from) illegal aliens, contraband or anything that would have to do with terrorism. It's our eyes in the sky," Rojas said.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is set to begin delivery of the Warrior to the U.S. Army beginning in April 2007.

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