Robbins Growler Plant Marks Milestone
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
What sounded like a locomotive in the sky rumbled over Robbins Wednesday.
The Marines were coming - landing a V-22 Osprey to celebrate the 100th Growler produced at the Green Street plant.
A crowd of workers, kids and dignitaries craned their necks and peered upward to glimpse its huge silver shape through the trees. Clearing the forest, the tilt-rotor aircraft hovered briefly before settling gently down.
Its landing pad wasn't originally built for that purpose. It is actually the end of a long concrete test strip that is one part of the rigorous shakedown every vehicle has to pass before shipping out.
These are not qualification tests. Growlers long ago passed those with flying colors, as co-owner Terry Crews told the crowd. He pointed to the 100th Growler, where it stood near a limp windsock, waiting for the Osprey's arrival. It looked somewhat flattened.
"It's completely ready to fight, but this is what it looks like when it goes into the airplane," Crews said. "It completely breaks down."
The Osprey takes off like a helicopter, Rolls Royce jet engines powering rotors in nacelles that then rotate 90 degrees to fly the V-22 as an airplane. Its speed more than doubles that of the fastest helicopter, and it travels at a much higher altitude.
The Growler is a Jeep-like vehicle built in various configurations. Along with a complement of Marines, it stows inside the Osprey to allow Marines to reach mission targets without having to make dangerous shore landings. With Growlers to tow 120-mm cannons or carry Marines in fighting gear, Ospreys leap from ship to battle directly.
The celebration this week heralded the 100th deployable Growler, but inside the plant, workers were already building No. 117.
"We have orders for 150 more this year," Crews said.
Earlier, inside the plant, he had shown visitors how a Growler is prepared for flight.
"Everything breaks down, because (gesturing at a flattened Growler) this is the height inside the airplane - 60 inches wide, 60 inches high," he said. "That's the box we have to fit in."
Crews and Bill Crisp brought the company to Robbins a few years ago, taking over the shell of an old textile plant as the site of a facility that now has 75 workers, including the town's former police chief, Danny Brown, who oversees production.
"This is a real milestone," said Ray Ogden, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. "I remember coming into this place four years ago when it was an empty building, and now it is employing so many. It was an empty textile place, junk everywhere. Now it is just great to see."
The move to Robbins from Florida meant the company would have better luck finding an experienced, dependable work force.
"That's what we told them, and that's how it worked out," Ogden said. "Up here in Robbins, there is a great manufacturing ethic."
Back in the 1700s, Robbins had been called Mechanics Hill, known even then for military production of the long Kennedy rifles that are prized collectibles today.
Outside, as the rotors slowed to a halt, the yellow tape went down and the crowd began to roll in toward the Osprey, kids running ahead. People lined up to tour the aircraft. Inside, children took turns trying seats on for size as a Marine sergeant described various features.
Jim Bernicken was one of the more interested spectators strolling down to tour the Osprey. He paused to point out a number aspects of the V-22 engines that he helped design. Bernicken retired from Rolls Royce four years ago and married well-known county librarian Clara Bryson, better known around October as "Clara the Witch" for the programs she does for local children.
"I sort of miss this thing," he said with a grin. "I was around it when it was different, all 'test' colored. Getting to see this airplane land among a bunch of civilians as it has - it's a proud moment for me."
Tim Lea, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, wanted a ride, but said he was turned down.
"I tried to get the guy to let me take a separate flight here," Lea said. "He said, 'Nah, I don't think we can do that.' I said, 'I'd just sit in your co-pilot's seat,' but that didn't work either."
State Sen. Harris Blake and state Rep. Jamie Boles were all smiles as they greeted supporters, then climbed aboard the V-22 to take a look inside.
Representatives from the office of the governor and the Commerce Department took the tour, as did four retired Marine generals. Mayor Theron Bell, former Mayor Mickey Brown and most of the town commissioners were also there.
After a barbecue lunch provided by American Growler, everybody trooped back up the hill to the test track to watch the Marines depart. A rumble, then a roar and leaves scattered before the force of the jet backwash.
It seemed then to lift effortlessly away, tipping slightly before disappearing quickly past the tree line. Some minutes later, its engines now in airplane mode, the Osprey returned in a farewell swoop and vanished at high speed almost in an instant.
Contact John Chappell by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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