CEO Bianca Rhodes is making a new market for medical transportation by manufacturing modules that allow for in-flight treatment.
Founded by the late Alfred Knight in the early 1990s, Knight Aerospace spun off a separate company, Knight Aerospace Medical Solutions (KAMS), in 2014. Rhodes founded KAMS, then brought both companies under the same corporate umbrella with the acquisition of the legacy company in 2017.
Knight’s early focus on modules for VIPs to fly in style on cargo aircraft sparked KAMS to develop a medical module to allow for in-flight treatment. “KAMS was started just to do medical, and now, of course, we do all of it,” says Rhodes.
The common thread? “These are manufactured completely outside of the aircraft, because it rolls onto the aircraft and locks in. When they finish the mission, it just rolls off and the aircraft is free to go do something else.”
The module market is “a very specialized niche,” says Rhodes. “We still do VIP modules, but obviously there’s not as many heads of heads of state out there as there are medical customers. We have one that’s been flying in the United States for 20 years. The principle of it is the aircraft is flying incognito — you would not know who the aircraft is carrying. It’s got a private suite with a divan and bathroom and closet area, an office, and an area for the staff. We have some we provided to the Middle East that are very luxurious.”
She adds, “You would not think you’re on the back of a cargo aircraft. You’d think you’re on the back of a very high-end private jet.”
After seven years of R&D, the company’s fully-featured medical modules came to market in 2022 with the first delivery to Canada and a second order in production.
“We’re in serious negotiations with 12 other countries for medical modules,” says Rhodes. “One of the problems is they all want something a little bit different. You can imagine what the spectrum is when you’re talking to a Middle Eastern country on one side of the equation and an African country or a South American country on the other extreme. One of the things we’re doing this year is we’re designing a more universal patient module that will have a lot of different capabilities.”
The market for the medical modules is “mostly military” as well as humanitarian organizations for disaster relief, she says, with an eye on replacing what is now an ad hoc approach. “They’re built to the exact standards that the aircraft is built to,” Rhodes explains. “You can chain down a shipping container and put people in it and call it a module, but it’s not going to be safe.”
She adds, “Almost like an aircraft manufacturer, we have to provide things like environmental controls and acoustical controls and vibration and lighting and cabin management systems and things that you would find on an entire aircraft. We often talk about how we build an aircraft to go inside of an aircraft.”
Manufacturing largely takes place in-house, but leverages a notably complex and decentralized supply chain. “We generally start with extrusions and sheet metal,” says Rhodes. “We cut it and bend it and treat it and form it and put it all together here. We do everything from the design through the manufacturing process.”
The supply chain spans the aerospace, medical, and construction sectors. “We bought from 132 vendors in 22 states to make the first medical module,” she says. “We’re buying extrusion, we’re buying electrical parts, we’re buying lighting, we’re buying insulation — we’re buying all kinds of stuff.”
The medical modules requires an even broader set of capabilities. “We’re manufacturing these modules like a hospital room,” says Rhodes. “It has 20 air changes per hour — air quality is a big thing. It has negative pressurization or positive pressurization, so you can keep the contaminants in or you can keep the contaminants out, like you would want to have for burn patients.”
The end goal, she adds, is better patient care. “All of these things become very seamless and connected to the ground, whereas before it would be just transportation. You would have to wait for the patient to be stabilized before you could put them on an aircraft, and then you take them off the aircraft to treat them and stabilize them before they get on an aircraft again for the next leg. . . . Now we’re saying you can actually treat that patient as if they’re in a hospital from the moment you’ve lifted them.”
Knight Aerospace also manufactures a variety of ground support equipment. “We have a longstanding relationship with Lockheed Martin,” says Rhodes. “Over the years, they’ve asked us to support them by building a lot of the ground support equipment for the C-130, so we build all kinds of dollies and trailers for engines, for propellers, for communications equipment, for radomes, you name it, and we build things like mobile engine test stands and big cranes that are used to take engines off and all kinds of things that are supporting the C-130 primarily.”
With medical orders starting to surge, Knight Aerospace is setting the foundation for growth. After moving from a 40,000-square-foot space to an 80,000-square-foot facility at Port San Antonio in 2020, the company again doubled its footprint there to 160,000 feet as the staff grew from 20 to 60 employees. “Sales have mirrored that, and I think we have pretty good infrastructure at this point, to where we do expect pretty big growth this year,” says Rhodes.
She sees medical products accounting for about 30 percent of sales in 2022, and growing from there. “We’ve been asked to design all kinds of medical modules, from surgical to very versatile ones that can go on the back of a Chinook, then go on a C-130 then a C-17,” says Rhodes.
Challenges: “Hiring the right people,” says Rhodes. “It’s a tough environment, a very tough labor market.”
Not to say that Knight Aerospace is immune to supply chain issues: “It’s crazy. We have seen no lessening of that. We get notices daily from different suppliers saying they’ve extended their delivery dates.”
Opportunities: Supplying the post-pandemic planet. “I think COVID showed us we’re going to have pandemics,” says Rhodes.”We’re going to have to move patients, so I think every country will need to have the capability to move patients more efficiently and effectively than we’ve been doing. At the beginning of COVI, we moved patients from New York City to outlying hospitals one at a time on helicopters, which is really, really expensive. If you can put 20 of them on a medical module and move them that way, you’ve saved a lot of time and money — and lives.”
Needs: Employees. Rhodes says she expects to hire at least another 60 employees by late 2022. “I don’t know if we can do that, so we’re looking at all kinds of alternatives, like mirror sourcing and working with other vendors.”