BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — The large jet engines are hoisted up by mechanical winches, moved into the large cement-lined test cells and cranked up to full power to make sure they can safely handle the rigors of flight.
Outside the sealed cells — literal wind tunnels for the fully-functioning engines — the noise of the accelerating turbofans can be clearly heard as the technicians sitting at a type of virtual cockpit run the aerospace technology through a litany of tests.
At the Pratt & Whitney Canada engine service center in Bridgeport, jet and propeller-driven engines from planes the world over are torn apart, inspected, repaired, reassembled and tested before being returned to whatever private owner or corporate customer they came from.
It’s a process repeated around 40 times a month, as the multi-million Pratt & Whitney engines are overhauled and readied for service on the aircraft they were pulled from.
With the repairs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for each engine, the facility’s customers list includes investment bankers, multinational corporations with company jets, the heirs to Hilton Hotels and even the Nigerian presidential air fleet.
The well-choreographed routine that Pratt & Whitney’s employees have perfected is just one example of the small but growing aerospace industry that calls West Virginia home. There are about 10 aerospace companies in Bridgeport, most surrounding the North Central West Virginia Airport, and those companies have become big players in the local economy.
At a time when other parts of the state are trying to find ways to diversify their economies away from extractive industries, Bridgeport is benefiting from continued growth in an aerospace industry that local and state leaders, including former senator Robert C. Byrd, have fostered over the past several decades.
Along with Pratt & Whitney, the 7,800-foot-long regional airport just east of Interstate 79 has been able to attract an impressive list of successful aerospace companies, including Aurora Flight Sciences, an innovative research and design company that has secured major contracts with the U.S. military, and Bombardier, the third largest commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world.
The success of the companies located in Bridgeport have made the region a small aerospace mecca in the hills of West Virginia, something that business leaders believe will benefit the region for decades to come.
An economic study looking at the impact of the airport and the surrounding businesses that are part of the Mid Atlantic Aerospace Complex have shown that the industry contributes an estimated $1 billion to the local economy annually. That same 2014 study reported there were more than 1,500 people employed directly around the airport, contributing more than $130 million in personal income each year.
“I have seen it grow a lot in the 10 years I have been in this industry, not just our company alone, but Pratt, Bombardier, Lockheed Martin,” said Eric Thompson, the general manager at Aurora’s Bridgeport facility. “There has been a lot of growth, and we expect to see continued growth.”
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A large model of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, one of the unmanned drones being used by numerous branches of the U.S. military, hangs from the rafters of one of Aurora’s buildings in Bridgeport.
Thompson, who has managed the plant for a little over two years, likes to call the Global Hawk the plant’s “bread and butter.” The dangling mock-up of the military aircraft is an emblem of the sophisticated work being performed by the company’s employees in West Virginia.
While much of the new research conducted by Aurora is done either at its headquarters in Virginia or its development center in Massachusetts, the Bridgeport location is the company’s primary center for creating the carbon-fiber structures that have become increasingly sought after in the aerospace industry.
With the strength and rigidity of steel and the weight of plastics, the company’s ability to design and manufacture carbon-fiber skins and parts for the Global Hawk, other military aircraft and commercial companies like Bell Helicopter, has made the Bridgeport facility a valuable asset in the world of aeronautics.
The company has invested millions of dollars in climate controlled clean rooms and large pressurized ovens that are needed to handle the carbon fiber fabric and harden it into valuable aerospace parts. In another portion of the plant, they also machine and assemble titanium parts and sophisticated flight systems that go into many highly-engineered machines.
The importance of Aurora’s facility in Bridgeport, which was started in 1994, is an example of the importance of the operations that have been set up in Harrison County.
In Aurora’s case, the facility is one of only two production plants that the relatively small company operates. Bombardier’s Bridgeport operation makes up one of three commercial aircraft service centers in the United States. And Pratt and Whitney’s engine overhaul center is the only one of its kind in the United States.
With many of the aerospace operations in Bridgeport playing key roles for national and global companies, the region has continued to see capital investments and employment near the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex increase over the years.
Pratt and Whitney, which got its start in Bridgeport more than 35 years ago, has around 400 technicians, engineers and support staff to tear down and fix the incoming engines, and company officials are expecting business to uptick as a result of the ongoing upgrades to the facility’s test cells, which will allow even larger engines to be throttled up inside the building.
More than 400 people currently work in multiple 12-hour shifts at Bombardier inspecting and overhauling around 20 of the company’s aircraft a month that are used by various airlines. That work has grown so much lately that Chad Hill, Bombardier’s director of operations, said they have had to add four temporary extensions to their hangars over the past two years in order to squeeze in more commercial jets.
And at Aurora roughly 120 West Virginians are employed, compared to the roughly 20 people it started with more than two decades ago. Thompson said more people could be needed in the near future if the company is able to ratchet up orders for new products, like the engine covers for one of Bell’s newest helicopters, the 525 Relentless.
“We have put together a five-year growth plan that shows us expanding fairly drastically,” Thompson said. “Which is great. It’s great for us. It’s great for the community, especially with the decline of coal and oil and gas, which have been drivers of the economy around here.”
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Bridgeport’s aerospace industry is a success story for West Virginia, especially at a time when parts of the state’s economy have been battered by coal mine layoffs and a dip in other energy markets worldwide. It’s evidence that West Virginia is capable of growing high-technology jobs in the Mountain State.
The area’s success, however, is also emblematic of the state’s need to reprioritize things like education and infrastructure investment, which has allowed the aerospace complex to take advantage of a global industry that is actually expanding.
Not all of the people working inside the sprawling hangar bays at Bombardier are engineers. Some are highly-skilled sheet metal fabricators that fix or replace the aluminum skin of the planes that stretches and contracts during flight.
A few are talented welders that are able to lay down precision beads, even with titanium. And others specialize in cosmetic fixes, retrofitting an aircraft’s emergency exits, upholstered passenger seats and even the cramped bathroom compartments.
Most jobs are not something that just anyone can walk in and do, but they are positions where talented people can be groomed if they have the right training opportunities.
That’s where the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, the only Federal Aviation Administration certified training center in the state, comes into play. The center, which is connected with Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community and Technical College, has been able to provide companies like Bombardier with a ready supply of skilled employees as their operations have grown.
In recent years, Hill, the director of operations, said Bombardier has relied heavily on graduates from RCBNAEC programs, including the Aircraft Structures Training Program, an 8-week technical training experience, in order to recruit people to help disassemble and repair the 70 to 90-seat passenger aircraft that they work with.
“Surprisingly we grow most of our own talent,” Hill said, adding that “This industry isn’t heavy lifting. It’s attention to detail.”
The rest of the aerospace companies in Bridgeport have also benefited from the local educational offerings and the pool of skilled labor that has grown in recent decades around the Bridgeport area. Many of the people employed by the aerospace industry in Bridgeport make good money, even the lowest paid employees make between $13 to $30 per hour.
The local industry leaders see the trained workforce and shared pool of talent as a major marketing point for their businesses and the region as a whole.
Thompson, a West Virginia University mechanical engineering graduate, said having a base of college-educated engineers is a major factor in attracting industries into a region, but with that, you need machinists, electricians and other skilled, if not highly-educated, employees.
“To have the same set of skills or similar set of skills in an area is a major draw,” Thompson, Aurora’s manager, said.
Reach Andrew Brown at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.
This story has been corrected. In an earlier version, the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center was wrongly referenced as the Robert C. Byrd Institute. They are two different institutions in Bridgeport.