In a hangar at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, there exists a window to the world.
It’s in this massive space that more than 800 employees of Leonardo Helicopters, an Italian-based company with deep roots in Greater Philadelphia, design and build customized helicopters for both military and civilian use, as well as train the pilots who will carry commuters and medical patients, conduct search and rescue operations, fight fires, protect the environment, and perform many other missions around the globe.
It’s also where two distinct yet complementary cultures – one Italian and one Philadelphian – converge over a shared mission of precision-engineered manufacturing that speaks to the global nature of the region’s economy.
“Philadelphia is a city where character and quality mean something,” said Michael Cooper, Head of External Relations, Communications & Institutional Affairs for Leonardo. “And when you’re building something like a helicopter, you have to build them according to the highest quality standards because you’re building something that’s going to transport people and save lives.”
Leonardo’s success underscores the continued importance of manufacturing in Greater Philadelphia and the region’s attractiveness to multinational companies. It also reflects how the region has developed a burgeoning, though not always talked about, aerospace manufacturing sector with companies such as Boeing and Piasecki located here.
“Leonardo epitomizes how manufacturers prosper in Philadelphia because they have an educated and skilled workforce to choose from, access to a rail, air, and ground transportation hub, and the civic support that allows them to expand,” said James Medaglio, Director, Business Attraction and Expansion for the Chamber.
The helicopter company, formerly known as Agusta Aerospace and then AgustaWestland, is a key part of Rome-based Leonardo, one of the eight largest defense contractors in the world, with a 2022 annual revenue of €14.7 billion. With more than 51,000 employees worldwide, Leonardo produces a wide variety of products, from aircraft, defense electronics, space systems, automation, cyber security, and surveillance drones.
In Philadelphia, Leonardo’s Helicopter Division operates a 320,000-square-foot campus at Northeast Philadelphia Airport that produces and repairs commercial and military helicopters, including models such as the AW119, AW139, and AW609 Tiltrotor.
These helicopters are tailored to meet specific customer requirements with advanced avionics, mission-specific equipment, and proper cabin configurations. The company also operates a Flight & Maintenance Academy to train customers. This facility includes two full flight motion simulators, digitized classrooms, and a spacious maintenance training lab.
A sense of Europe
The Philadelphia site is home to a large team of skilled engineers, technicians, material and supply chain specialists, customer support representatives, and administrative business units for the U.S. and Central American markets. A fifth of this workforce consists of veterans.
The hangar and offices are also a melting pot for Italian nationals who come to Philadelphia on temporary assignment from the parent company, with many opting to stay longer, even permanently.
“Like Philadelphians, Italians are resilient; we easily adapt to complex situations, and we feel a strong sense of belonging, which often leads to a strong commitment to our company and community,” said Alessandro Volonte’, a Business Development Manager from Varese, Italy, who now lives in Philadelphia. “I think blending culture in a working environment is extremely important and allows us to learn the best from one another and to become not only a better worker but also a better person.”
Cooper said he hears from those who have come from Italy that Philadelphia “feels very European here in comparison to other American cities.”
“They enjoy the quality of life that’s here, the vibrancy and the accessibility,” he said. “A lot of our competitors are concentrated in small markets where it’s not as dense of a metropolis. For a lot of folks coming from Italy who want to experience America, Philadelphia has been a wonderful landing spot.”
Veronica Dal Corso, an aerospace engineer from Salzano, Italy, said Philadelphia offers a wealth of restaurants and events to attend yet remains more livable than other big cities.
“You can go around easily by walking or on bicycle,” she said. “Fairmount reminds me of home because there is a lot of green like my hometown in Italy.”
Leonardo Helicopters (then Agusta Aerospace) first came to the U.S. in 1980, initially as a storefront for sales and customer support and service. In 2003, the company began producing aircraft at the Philadelphia site. Now, pilots from all over the world fly to Philadelphia to attend Leonardo’s flight academy, staying upwards of four weeks learning to fly helicopters.
“The company knew that if it wanted to be a serious player in the United States it would have to be able to fully produce aircraft here,” said Cooper, who grew up in Cheltenham, PA., lives in Philadelphia and graduated from Penn State, Pennsylvania’s largest public university.
“So, at a time when you’re used to hearing about American companies offshoring their operations, this is a foreign company that’s significantly investing in its capabilities not only just in the United States, but in an urban environment like Philadelphia. As a local, that’s something I’m proud of.”
Learning from each other
Another attraction is the ready supply of engineers from nearby universities such as Temple, Drexel, Penn State, and Villanova. They work closely with aerospace engineers who cross the ocean to work in Philadelphia on Leonardo’s advanced technology. The work of designing and manufacturing helicopters is precise, sophisticated, and important.
“You have to make them safer,” Cooper said. “You have to make them faster. You have to make them lighter. You have to make them more agile. They must be able to withstand artillery or fly over a forest fire. They must be able to safely land in the field to transport a trauma victim or on an oil platform in the middle of the ocean with a full crew of workers.”
“And so, for what we do, it’s never about churning out a unit and having that be enough. It’s a constant evolution of technology and an obsessive focus on safety.”
Both the offices and on the factory floor, the Italians and the Americans bring out the best in each other.
“We’ve introduced our American colleagues to a proper Italian ‘pausa caffe’ and now every department has their own espresso machine,” Volonte’ said. “It may sound silly, but it represents an occasion to create a more personal relationship among colleagues as well as an opportunity to share information and get their instant feedback.”
Added Cooper. “I guess in the end it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking La Colombe and Wawa or Lavazza and Illy; good ideas and new relationships are forged over coffee.”
The Philadelphians also teach the Italians about the livability of the region.
“They want to experience everything when they come here,” Cooper said.
Well, almost everything. They don’t want to eat Italian.
“That’s the last thing they want to do,” Cooper said. “They want to do Philly stuff. They ask me where the good brew pubs are and where they can get burgers. They just want to put on some jeans and have a beer.”