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Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

Big companies may have made the big airplanes, but it's the smaller companies in the aviation industry that help keep those planes aloft.

Often supplying aircraft manufacturers with parts that connect jet engines to wings, accurate fuel-gauge needles and lubricated brake systems, many of these companies have no more than 50 employees, operating in small warehouses that rely on rubber mallets to shape metal and soldering irons to fuse different alloys.

``The chain is no stronger than its weakest link,'' said Joe McKee, who started Piermont Industries Inc. two decades ago. ``The reality of the aerospace industry is that more and more people are relying on the smaller companies for supplies.''

McKee is an engineer by trade, designing valves that keep gases from combusting. His career began in the belly of a P2 airplane during World War II. The U.S. Navy assigned McKee to aviation duty and he soon became a technician for antisubmarine warfare.

``I was young and didn't know what I wanted to do at the time. But I liked my job. And here I am designing parts for some of those big companies,'' McKee said.

The big companies include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Instead of those firms manufacturing every part on an airplane, suppliers the size of McKee's four-person shop in Ventura County are hired.

Piermont generally manufactures parts that fit into a larger system, so McKee is usually not dealing with the big players directly. ``That's the way the aerospace industry is going, especially for small components,'' he said. ``But that doesn't mean we don't have the capabilities of the big boys out there. We have software that is just as good if not better.''

McKee's parts are also less expensive. He said on average his valves cost about one-third of what the larger companies charge.

Despite the lower prices, Boeing and other aerospace leaders are attempting to consolidate the industry. The glut in smaller suppliers is causing less efficiency for Boeing, according to Rick Roff, a spokesman for the company's commercial airplanes outfit.

``The more suppliers, the more complex it is for us. We definitely value our suppliers, but we're trying to become leaner,'' Roff said.

That could evoke some worry at Klune Industries in North Hollywood. The company manufactures a seemingly simple piece of metal that plays an integral role in propelling the space shuttle miles above Earth's atmosphere.

Shielding a pipeline that feeds the shuttle's engines liquid oxygen, the sheet metal is manufactured in a warehouse that has relied on contracts with industry leaders.

``It's always a good feeling to know that the parts we manufacture are appreciated by people outside of Klune,'' said James Clune, an Irish immigrant who built the company out of scrap metal in 1972.

Machines whistle and hum at Klune as they mold different materials into parts that are found on missiles and airplanes. Using giant bladders filled with hydraulic fluid to shape the parts, more than 200 factory workers meticulously operate the machines.

The pride at Klune resonates throughout the San Fernando Valley.

M.S. Aerospace in Sylmar manufacturers fasteners used in jet engines, rocket engines and on the space shuttle. The company has been in business since 1992, with more than 21,000 of its fasteners currently holding components together on the International Space Station.

``It's the little companies out there that are dealing with more responsibilities today. And I think that trend will continue into the future,'' McKee said. ``We just don't have to deal with the larger issues of some of the bigger companies.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 15, 2003

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