Buckling into an ejection seat for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, listening to a demonstration about military manpower-reducing technology and seeing a biometrics center lab in action — politicians from both sides of the aisle were touring exhibits at the 23rd annual Showcase for Commerce Thursday and touting the region's accomplishments.
The events were a prelude to a press conference Friday to announce defense contracts, along with a public exhibition at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday.
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said area defense contractors are flexing their muscles.
"I have said that I consider Showcase both a noun and a verb," he said. "It's a chance for them to demonstrate the unique capacities of our region and the depth of the defense industry here."
More than 150 exhibitors participated in this year's event.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, toured the exhibits inside the arena with Rothfus.
On his first trip to Showcase for Commerce, Thornberry, R-Texas , said the event is flourishing while some others around the country diminish.
"I think that's happening because of the budget," Thornberry said, adding that Johnstown's event is distinct.
"There are unique features here," he said. "You have the top representatives from the Pentagon, congressional support and defense contractors. Bringing all those elements together, I think this show has a real advantage."
Thornberry was among the speakers at the event's briefing Thursday morning.
"I've heard about this show for some time," he said. "I'm really impressed by the cutting-edge technology. I didn't realize how much of that innovation was based in the Johnstown area."
While defense contractors highlighted their best products at Showcase, talk of smarter spending in the face of sequestration — a series of mandatory federal budget cuts — became a focus.
"Everybody is concerned about defense budgets and sequestration," Thornberry said. "Hopefully in Washington there can be an agreement to get our spending under control without hurting defense.
"In the meantime, you have to make smart budget decisions."
Contractors such as Ultra Electronics were touting technology that saves manpower. Gregory Thom, the company's corporate development vice president, spoke to Thornberry and Rothfus about remote single point keying — a tool that would eliminate on-location manpower from the process of activating military radios.
"We're really trying to show how our technology can help us do things with more agility, especially in light of reductions in the budget," Thom said.
Rothfus, who attended his first Showcase last year, said he's been making the rounds at area contractors in the past few months, but he still was surprised by some of the innovation and technology on display.
"I've developed a very deep appreciation for the high level of skill we have here," he said. "This is a great way to market our region and the work force that we have."
Other contractors, including longtime exhibitor BAE Systems, took an opportunity to plead for reprieve from impending budget cuts. The company's York facility manufactures the Bradley fighting vehicle, which carries soldiers into battle alongside tanks. The U.S. Army budget includes a three-year shutdown in manufacturing the vehicles, beginning in 2014. The move would hurt not only BAE but the vehicle's industrial base from more than 44 states, including companies in Johnstown, said Roy Perkins, the company's Army markets vice president. The cables inside the vehicle, for example, are made by DRS Technologies in Johnstown.
"We're trying to develop a plan to prevent the shutdown by restructuring how they would pay for what they have now," Perkins said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the event's congressional co-sponsor, was touring the exhibit area Thursday. He said he understands these are challenging times for the defense industry.
"We need to work with BAE and others directly connected to what happens," Casey said. "It's one of the budget issues in Washington. We would all be better off if we repealed sequestration. My premise has been that it's bad public policy."
The Johnstown region's resiliency, he said, will shine under pressure.
"Despite all that, Showcase is doing well and people here will continue to do well," he said.
Bipartisan support for Showcase, Casey added, makes the event stronger. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., also joined the list of congressmen participating.
"People know you can't recover the economy if everything becomes a partisan battle," Casey said. "Anything we can do to try to counter the impression people have of Washington — and the reality in Washington — anything we can do to diminish that is very helpful."