Boeing to build drones in St. Clair County

Hundreds of jobs in the works

Illinois Correspondent

A PROTOTYPE of the MQ-25 Stingray takes to the air.

Mascoutah, IL – MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, just east of Belleville in St. Clair County, is the site for a new Boeing manufacturing plant that will occupy the region’s construction workers and create permanent industrial jobs to make a remarkable new aircraft.

And what an aircraft it will be! The MQ-25 Stingray is the Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned aircraft – in other words, a drone. Its mission will be airborne tank operations – refueling aircraft, that is.

Construction of the 300,000 square-foot facility is to begin this year on a site adjacent to the airport. It is expected to take three years to complete.

Current plans are to hire approximately 150 mechanics, engineers and support staff to build the Stingray and to move 150 others in from Boeing’s St. Louis locations. Boeing already produces some aircraft components at the airport.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin attended an announcement of the project at the site along with local and regional officials on Friday, Sept. 17.

“Three hundred full-time jobs that are going to pay close to $100,000 a year is no small feat in this day and age, and we credit our great governor for being the jobs governor for southern Illinois,” St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said at the event.

The Navy has earmarked $2.16 billion for the program in the current fiscal year. It is now expected to build 72 of the aircraft at a rate of one a month

“It’s a combination of what the factory can do, which is very flexible, and what the Navy wants,” Boeing Program Manager David Bujold said in an interview, also adding that the plant could produce the aircraft for other customers.

The drone will help the Air Force because new, longer-range anti-ship missiles could force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate further from combat zones. The drones double their effective areas of operation, he said.

Also, Super Hornet fighters currently refuel in mid-flight, but the drones would let them rest for refueling, extending their life spans and giving pilots a break, he said.

Pritzker noted that the MQ-25 Stingray will be the Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned aircraft – and that there’s a reason it’s coming to St. Clair County.

“The world’s largest aerospace company is doubling down on Illinois because of our unparalleled assets in the transportation and logistics sector and the world-class talent of our people,” he said. “I want to thank the Boeing Company for their vote of confidence in Illinois, as well as St Clair County leadership and the MidAmerica Airport team for giving companies another reason to choose Illinois.”

One key to landing the project was an “Edge” agreement from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, a tool used to support companies making large-scale capital investments that lead to substantial job creation, in this case including $8.7 million in tax credits.

Durbin, like Pritzker a longtime Labor supporter, said he was delighted to get behind the project, both for the nation and for the St. Louis and Metro-East region.

“The MQ-25 Stingray represents the future of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier mission,” he said. “While vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Defense, I was proud to support more than $1.4 billion in Navy investments in this aircraft over the past four fiscal years.”

At first, the MQ-25 was seen as a combat drone that could carry out long-range attacks, but as development continued, it shifted into a refueling plane instead.

“I was proud to announce earlier this year — alongside my colleague, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) — that MidAmerica Airport had received a $12.6 million federal grant for its expansion project from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program and COVID-19 relief packages. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I look forward to continuing to invest in a robust domestic aerospace industry that brings jobs to Illinois.”

Durbin noted that Boeing is already a strong part of the St. Louis community. “Boeing has been an institution in the St. Louis region for decades, employing today more than 15,000 people who help spur the region’s economic growth,” he said.

He said the project refutes many years of scoffing about the airport as a “gateway to nowhere,” along with the recent success of Allegiant Air, which flies from Mid-America to 12 destinations including Florida vacation cities. “People said it’s worthless, it’ll be an eyesore,” he said. “But look at it now – ranked the fifth busiest airport in the state of Illinois.”

The plant will use state-of-the-art manufacturing processes, including robotic automation and advanced assembly technique, to improve product quality and employee ergonomics. Boeing has digitally engineered the MQ-25 aircraft and its systems, resulting in high-fidelity models that drive quality and efficient production.

“The team and state-of-the-art technology we’re bringing to the Navy’s MQ-25 program is unprecedented, and we’re incredibly proud to be expanding both as we build the future of autonomous systems in Illinois,” said Kristin Robertson, Boeing’s vice president and general manager of Autonomous Systems, Space & Security.

“We’ve received great support from MidAmerica Airport and countless dedicated employees, and we’re excited to build the Navy’s first operational, carrier-based unmanned aircraft right here in the Metro East.”

The airport, using $57 million in Rebuild Illinois capital funds, will provide taxiway and airfield enhancements surrounding the Boeing facility and make significant upgrades to the passenger terminal.

Airport Director Bryan Johnson said the project bodes well for the future of the airport, in addition to its commercial flights.

“These latest investments will generate significant revenue for the airport, increase operations, reinforce our strong relationship with Boeing, create local jobs, catalyze further development at the airport and create further synergies with Scott Air Force Base,” he said.

Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said the project shows Illinois’ prominence in the industry.

“A more robust, healthier system of aviation is one of the main reasons why Illinois continues to strengthen its status as the transportation hub of North America under Gov. Pritzker,” Osman said. “These improvements will position this region and the state to build stronger connections between the modes of transportation and to compete economically for generations to come.”

Kern said the county has been honored to work with Boeing for more than a decade. “The jobs and economic opportunities provided by Boeing’s presence and growth propel this entire region forward, and it wouldn’t be possible without the support and investment from the State of Illinois,” he said.

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, is one of 38 global companies based in Illinois that are ranked in the Fortune 500 – more than anywhere else in the Midwest. Pritzker earlier announced a new $10 million aviation training academy in Chicago to help Illinois keep pace and prepare its residents for evolving technology as well as growing jobs in the aviation sector.


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