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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Hydraulics Company Keeps Aircraft Soaring

Aviation: The 25-year-old firm does a booming business making pumps, testing equipment and other devices used in aerospace maintenance.

February 13, 2001|BOB HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CHATSWORTH — Keeping airplanes flying smoothly and landing safely means keeping an eye on hydraulic systems that operate the wing flaps, rudders and landing gear.

Making sure those systems work is one of the specialties of Hydraulics International Inc., a 25-year-old manufacturer of hydraulic pumps and testing equipment and a host of other parts and equipment used in aircraft maintenance.

Hydraulics International's products fall under the classification of "ground support," said company founder and President Nicky Ghaemmaghami. The firm recently won a $54-million U.S. Navy contract for up to 450 portable electric and diesel hydraulic power supply units for the V-22 aircraft.

Hydraulics International sells to military and commercial aircraft customers, including Northrop Grumman, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, and clients overseas.

Equipment like that manufactured by Hydraulics International is essential for keeping aircraft airborne, aviation experts say, because hydraulic systems operate critical flight controls.

Hydraulic controls operate on the same basic principle as automobile brakes. Tubes or hoses filled with fluid exert pressure, activating the controls.

But commercial and military aircraft hydraulics are much more complex. Aircraft typically contain a number of hydraulic systems, each of which operate a different set of controls, said Joe Escobar, technical editor for Fort Atkinson, Wis.-based Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine.

Hydraulic systems require regular maintenance to ensure that fluids aren't contaminated, that systems aren't leaking and that pumps are operating properly, Escobar said.

One of Hydraulics International's specialties is equipment that tests such systems.

"When a mechanic changes a water pump in your car, he can drive the car to make sure that the pump works," Ghaemmaghami said. "You can't do that with an aircraft. Every component that comes out of the aircraft to be repaired or serviced has to go through a certain amount of testing to make sure that it works properly before the aircraft is flown again."

Test equipment also provides a source of power to operate a jet aircraft's hydraulic systems during maintenance, said Ralph DeFilippo, manager of air vehicle systems at Northrop Grumman's Air Combat Systems Group in Palmdale. If crews didn't have test equipment, they'd have to start the jet's engines to test the hydraulics, which is impractical, especially when a jet is up on jacks for testing of its landing gear, DeFilippo said.

Ghaemmaghami's company also makes products for pressurizing and testing aircraft cabins for leaks--and more than 40 other types of parts and equipment used in maintenance and repair.

Ghaemmaghami, a structural engineer who has spent most of his career working as an electromechanical engineer, founded Hydraulics International in 1976.

Initially, the company focused solely on commercial aircraft, landing its first military contracts after two or three years in business, Ghaemmaghami said.

"Military contracts require some background, so it was essential for us to achieve a certain level of experience before we could bid on those projects," he said.

About 75% of his company's business is with military aircraft customers and 15% with commercial aircraft companies, Ghaemmaghami said. The remaining 10% is non-aircraft commercial business that Hydraulics International has developed by adapting its technology to other uses.

Like other defense-oriented contractors, Hydraulics International tried to expand the commercial portion of its business during the industry downturn of the 1990s.

"After the Berlin Wall came down, it was obvious that military expenditures would be reduced, so we concentrated on commercial products," Ghaemmaghami said.

One payoff from that effort is the 10% of the company's business that is non-aircraft-related, such as hydraulic equipment used in plastic injection molding.

Hydraulics International employs 235 workers and generates annual revenue of $18 million to $22 million, and has been profitable every year except 1994, according to Ghaemmaghami, who said the company lost money that year because the Northridge earthquake damaged production facilities.

"We could not ship any products for about three months," he said.

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Prospects look good for companies such as Hydraulics International, according to Mike Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based partner in the aerospace practice at Deloitte Consulting.

"There is more money being spent, proportionally, to maintain and upkeep the aircraft than there used to be," Goldberg said, because military and commercial customers are trying to extend the lives of planes they own rather than buy new ones.

Goldberg and Ghaemmaghami both said they doubt that decisions by the Bush administration will have much effect on maintenance-oriented companies such as Hydraulics International.

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