Airborne Systems Group
Airborne Systems Group
5800 Magnolia Avenue
Pennsauken, New Jersey 08109-1399
Telephone: (856) 663-8120
Fax: (856) 663-8159
Web site: http://www.airborne-group.com
Incorporated: 1919 as Irving Air Chute Company
Sales: $70 million (2007 est.)
NAIC: 314999 All Other Miscellaneous Textile Product Mills; 336413 Other Aircraft Parts and Auxiliary Equipment Manufacturing; 336419 Other Guided Missile and Space Vehicle Parts and Auxiliary Equipment Manufacturing; 336999 All Other Transportation Equipment Manufacturing; 541710 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Airborne Systems Group is an assemblage of leading parachute manufacturers. Focused on the military market, its products are used to deliver troops and supplies by air. It also makes rescue and survival gear and inflatable products. Airborne Systems maintains plants in Pennsauken, New Jersey; Santa Ana, California; Belleville, Ontario; and Llangeinor, Wales. The group includes some of the leading parachute companies in North America and the United Kingdom, including Irvin Aerospace, Irvin-GQ, and Para-Flite. In 2007 Airborne Systems realigned the businesses to operate as a single global enterprise with headquarters in New Jersey and south Wales.
The oldest company in the Airborne Systems Group is Irvin Aerospace. It was founded in Buffalo, New York, in June 1919 by Leslie L. Irvin, who had recently become the first to complete a free-fall parachute jump.
The original corporate name, Irving Air Chute Company, included a misspelling due to a clerical error; cash was reportedly too tight in the early days to pay the $25 fee to fix it, so the name stood uncorrected until 1968 when the firm was renamed Irvin Industries Inc.
In 1920 the company won a $10,000 competition to produce a safe parachute; its winning entry was demonstrated in Atlantic City by pioneering Army Air Corp jumper Master Sergeant Ralph W. Bottriell.
The International Caterpillar Club, whose membership is composed of people who successfully bailed from disabled aircraft by one of the company’s parachutes, was launched by Irvin in 1922. Its name refers to the silkworms that supplied the raw materials.
Irvin developed many important safety innovations over the years. In the 1930s it developed the quick-release harness, allowing downed flyers to separate from their chutes after landing. This important feature found more acceptance abroad than in the United States, noted a World War II column lamenting deaths caused by landing on water or in high winds with the older triple-release design, which required two hands to undo.
Irvin introduced the design in the early 1930s after testing it in Britain. Finding more success marketing the new chute to the Commonwealth, Irvin moved its plant across the border to Fort Erie, Ontario. By this time, the company also had a plant in Los Angeles, California.
In 1968 Irvin Air Chute Co., Inc., was renamed Irvin Industries, reflecting its diversification into fabricated metal products, seat belts, vending machines, and about ten other areas. It received a grant to study air-bag design from the Canadian government in 1970. By this time, it had a headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, and its shares were publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange.
Irvin Aerospace Inc. relocated its production to Hope Mills, North Carolina, in 1996 in a bid to make use of lower costs in the area and be closer to suppliers and Fort Bragg, a large Army training base. However, it was not satisfied with the productivity of the garment workers there compared to the pool of immigrant laborers it had in California. The North Carolina employees voted for union representation, but the plant there was ultimately closed and manufacturing operations returned to Santa Ana.
During the 1970s, GQ was owned by RFD Group Limited, a Surrey-based maker of textile and inflatable products for the marine and aerospace markets. A plant was added in Tyneside in the early 1970s; GQ relocated to Llangeinor, South Wales, just before its sale to Wardle Storeys in 1987. GQ revenues were £8 million by the mid-1990s.
Strategic acquisitions followed Wardle Storeys’ purchase of GQ. In February 1995 Wardle Storeys acquired Para-Flite Inc. for $5 million in cash and stock plus up to $1.5 million in assumed liabilities. Wardle Storeys’ GQ unit had a wider product range but had been unable to develop a lasting relationship with the U.S. military. Based in Pennsauken, New Jersey, ParaFlite dated back to 1969 and specialized in steerable, ram air canopies. Its HAHO subsidiary produced oxygen systems used in the special forces’ high altitude, high opening jumps.
Wardle Storeys made another significant acquisition in 1995, paying about £8 million for Airborne Logistics Limited (ALL) and its subsidiary, Aircraft Materials, Limited (AML). AML, a producer of aerial delivery systems, parachute components, safety equipment, and industrial fasteners, had been partnering with GQ Parachutes on certain projects for a few years. It had revenues of about £7 million.
Wardle Storeys Limited, owned by British investment group Alchemy Partners, acquired Irvin Aerospace Ltd. (U.K.), Irvin Aerospace Inc. (U.S.), and Irvin Aerospace Canada Ltd. from Hunting plc for about £18 million in June 2001. Hunting was divesting them in order to focus on its oil services business.
The acquired Irvin units became part of Wardle Storeys’ Airborne Systems Division. The British operation was combined with GQ Parachutes and became known as Irvin-GQ. It soon added a second plant in south Wales. Irvin-GQ had revenues of about £20 million and more than 200 employees.
Irvin Aerospace was transferring its manufacturing from North Carolina to Santa Ana, California, where it had engineering and marketing operations. The company’s Red Springs, North Carolina, plant had become unionized a few years earlier. The Santa Ana facility subsequently moved to a larger, 63,000-square-foot building and the company’s headquarters was also moved there from North Carolina in 2003.
Airborne Systems Group includes five of the world’s leading parachute companies, Irvin-GQ, Irvin Aerospace, Irvin Aerospace Canada, Para-Flite and Airborne Systems Global. Each company is known for particular capabilities, products and industry leading technology.
Irvin Aerospace Inc. made a wide range of products with military applications, and revenues surged with the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The unit’s sales doubled to more than $30 million in 2004. Foreign sales accounted for just 5 percent of the amount, an official told the Orange County Business Journal. In addition, the Army had been planning to replace its standard paratrooper chute.
Military orders fell after the initial assault operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A round of layoffs followed, but Irvin Aerospace eventually found a couple of major new projects with the space program. By 2006 the unit was developing parachutes for NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, a reusable spacecraft intended to replace the space shuttle. Separately, it was designing an air-bag landing system for Rocketplane Kistler’s supply vehicle for the International Space Station.
Airborne Systems’ Para-Flite unit was also trying new things. This unit made steerable parachutes, and adapted the concept to airdrops of cargo for the military. By 2001, it was testing an example that could guide a 2,000-pound load safely to earth. In December 2006 Para-Flite unfurled the largest gliding parachute yet flown, dubbed MegaFly. The 9,000-square-foot ram air canopy boasted a capacity of 13 tons. Its 170-foot wingspan compared to that of an airliner.
Airborne Systems continued to grow via strategic acquisition. It buoyed the British business by purchasing Advanced Inflatable Products (AIP) in September 2005. Based in Essex, the relatively small company made balloons used in parachute instruction, amusement rides, and other military and civil applications. It was relocated to the Irvin-GQ facility in Wales after the acquisition.
Airborne Systems Group announced a realignment of its businesses in April 2007. Its five main brands were lumped into two divisions: Airborne Systems North America, based in New Jersey, and Airborne Systems Europe, based in south Wales. The company was aiming to operate them as a single global enterprise. The Airborne Systems Global unit, based in Belleville, Canada, served to represent the various companies’ products in the world market.
Frederick C. Ingram
- Parachute pioneer Leslie L. Irvin forms company in Buffalo, New York.
- Canadian subsidiary is established.
- GQ Parachutes is launched in the United Kingdom.
- Irvin Air Chute Co., Inc., is renamed Irvin Industries to reflect its diversification.
- Para-Flite is established to produce gliding canopies.
- Wardle Storeys acquires U.S. ram air parachute manufacturer Para-Flite Inc. and U.K. component producer Aircraft Materials Limited.
- Irvin Industries is renamed Irvin Aerospace, Inc.
- British investment group Alchemy Partners acquires Irvin Aerospace.
- Irvin Aerospace wins contracts to design parachutes, air bags for future space vehicles.
Irvin-GQ Ltd. (U.K.); Irvin Aerospace, Inc.; Irvine Aerospace Canada, Inc.; Para-Flite, Inc.; Airborne Systems Global, Ltd. (Canada).
Airborne Systems North America; Airborne Systems Europe.
FXC Guardian Corp.; Paranetics Technology Inc.; Pioneer Aerospace Corp.; Mills Manufacturing Corp.
“’Chute Jumper Expert Tells of Thrills; Kelly Field Man’s Work Saves Many Lives in Air,” San Antonio Light, March 15, 1932, p. B1.
Coiled Spring Takes Paratroopers’ Chutes to New Heights of Safety—Irvin Aerospace, Letchworth,” Professional Engineering, July 23, 1997, p. 46.
Cziborr, Chris, “Irvin Shifts HQ from N.C. to OC,” Orange County Business Journal, July 7, 2003, p. 3.
________, “Parachute Maker Irvin Aerospace Billows in New, Larger Space,” Orange County Business Journal, January 28, 2002, p. 2.
“Lack of $25 Forced Chute Firm to Use Wrong Name for 25 Years,” Bridgeport (Conn.) Telegram, January 19, 1968, p. 43.
Luna, Nancy, “People’s Lives Hang by Their Threads,” Orange County Register, Bus. Sec., September 5, 2005, p. 1.
Pearson, Drew, “Dangerous Triple-Release Army Parachute Responsible for Many Paratroop Deaths,” Troy Record (N. Y.), March 8, 1944, p. 10.
________, “Parachutes to Blame,” Tucson Daily Citizen, March 8, 1944, p. 6.
“Portable System to Aid Canadian Police Against Chem-Bio Attacks,” National Defense, December 1, 1999, p. 14.
Smale, Will, “Irvin-GQ Parachutes in 53 New Jobs at Second Plant,” Western Mail, January 25, 2002, p. 17.
Taylor, Paul, “Wardle Storeys Edges Ahead After Land Sale,” Financial Times, November 15, 1994, p. 23.
Tolkoff, Sarah, “Parachute Maker Rebounds on NASA Work,” Orange County Business Journal, November 20, 2006, p. 3.
“Wardle Storeys Acquires Airborne Logistics Limited and Creates Unique Capability in Serving the Military Airborne Market,” Regulatory News Service, May 23, 1995.
Whitfield, Robert, “Santa Ana Firm to Design NASA Landing System,” Orange County Register, June 12, 2006.
Womack, Brian, “Parachute Maker Eyes Military, NASA for Flight,” Orange County Business Journal, May 16, 2005, p. 3.