On one end of the open bay at Building A on the Airbus campus sat two helicopters, which provided a backdrop for the company’s announcement of a new manager for the facility.
Before outgoing manager Mike Spears or his successor Johannes Dienemann spoke, the two helicopters had already told a big part of the Airbus Columbus story, which began in 2003 and has seen the plant build or assemble more than 14,000 helicopters since.
At one end sat a sleek twin-engine helicopter built for NASA to perform surveillance and security operations. At the other end sat a single-engine aircraft built for mosquito control for a customer in Florida.
“The diversity we have here is key for us,” said Spears, who is retiring after eight years as the Airbus Columbus manager. “We do everything from full assembly to customizing aircraft to fit the requirements or needs from law enforcement to medical and everything in between.”
The changing of the guard also reflects that diversity. Spears grew up farming in south Alabama. Dienemann, 42, was born in Berlin, Germany, and studied in Australia and Ohio, before beginning his career in France — when Airbus was known American Eurocopter — in 2007.
Although he is the new man in charge in Columbus, he is no stranger to the facility.
Since moving to the U.S., for good in 2008, Dienemann has spent much of the past two years shuttling between Dallas and Columbus.
“Now I get the opportunity to spend my time in Columbus and I’m excited about that,” he said. “It’s exciting what’s happening here and to be a part of it.”
Dienemann’s history goes back to a pivotal moment in the company’s history. In 2006, the company landed a contract with the U.S. Army to build LUH Lakota helicopters, which quickly became the Columbus facility’s bread and butter.
“When I first started (at Airbus) they sent me to Huntsville, Alabama, just as the Lakota program was ramping up,” Dienemann said. “So my connection to that aircraft goes back almost to the start.”
Spears said Airbus Columbus has produced about half of the Army’s current 463 Lakota fleet.
While Dienemann’s connection to the company’s Lakota production is traced almost to the beginning, Spears arrived in Columbus at a time when Army demand for the aircraft was waning.
“When I first got here eight years ago, the Army was talking about winding the Lakota down, so we realized we had to do something to stabilize what we were doing,” Spears said. “That’s when we brought the full assembly line for the H-125 from France. We got that up and running and then a few years later we moved our completion center here, which is where we customize aircraft for the customers’ needs. On top of that, while we had always done some maintenance work on the Lakotas for the Army, we’ve doubled, maybe tripled our maintenance work. So now we have two assembly lines, the completion center and maintenance going on.”
Dienemann said Airbus Columbus works on “six or seven” of the company’s 15 unique aircrafts, something he said is a tribute to the 270 employees at the Columbus facility.
“We have an almost endless spectrum of work,” he said. “We build some helicopters from scratch, some from parts and pieces, some fully assembled that we do completion work on and maintenance, so it’s a very diverse type of work. We have people in our shops that make wire harnesses, assemble engines, assemble gear boxes, paint on all those different aircraft. We have 60 to 70 aircraft come through here every year. So we have to make sure we cross-train our people for our production lines and completion center. That’s a tribute to the skill and talent of our workforce.”
While the backgrounds of the outgoing manager and his successor are different, they do share one common bond, and an unusual one at that.
Spears said he plans to fish and ride his horses in his retirement.
“And Johannes is a mule guy,” he noted. “You have to like that.”
“I got my first mule less than a year ago,” Dienemann said. “His name is Boss Hog and he’s really one stout animal. A few months ago, I got my second mule, which is being broken now. So, hopefully, in a few months I will be able to ride her.”