The sky’s no limit for West Virginia’s dynamic aviation and aerospace industry. It’s big and getting bigger.
The industry’s most visible presence is the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex at Bridgeport. Anchored by the North Central West Virginia Airport, the complex offers first-rate maintenance, overhaul, manufacturing and training services. Combined, the airport and the aerospace complex employ 1,500 workers, with an annual economic impact of $1.1 billion.
Dozens of other aviation and aerospace companies, including major manufacturers and smaller suppliers, are scattered across the state.
Major aviation and aerospace companies that make up the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex include Aurora Flight Sciences, Bombardier, Pratt & Whitney Engine Services and Lockheed Martin. It’s also home to an advanced manufacturing technology center operated by the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) and the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center.
Aurora, a Boeing company, is a leader in the development and manufacturing of advanced unmanned systems and aerospace vehicles. Its Bridgeport facility is the center of its composite manufacturing work for military aircraft, including the RQ-4 Global Hawk/Triton and the CH-53K King Stallion.
First established in 1994, Aurora’s operation has steadily grown over the years and now occupies multiple buildings at the complex, MAAC President Tracy Miller said.
Canadian aerospace company Bombardier long has operated a regional aircraft services facility at the Bridgeport complex. It offers maintenance and overhaul for the 1,300 Bombardier CRJ aircraft now in service. In June, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced plans to purchase Bombardier’s jet program. The deal is expected to close next year, Miller said.
Pratt & Whitney Engine Services in Bridgeport has supported the needs of Pratt & Whitney engine operators for more than 35 years. In recognition of its quality of service, it has been designated by Pratt & Whitney Canada as the “Center of Excellence” for corporate turbofan and turboprop engines. The company’s senior management anticipates that fan engine growth will carry the facility through the 21st century.
Although located in Clarksburg rather than at the airport in Bridgeport, Lockheed Martin is an integral part of MAAC, Miller said.
Lockheed Martin began operations at its site in 1962. From the first day, the plant’s primary workload has been building subassemblies for Lockheed Martin’s venerable workhorse — the C-130 Hercules transport.
The plant’s employees produce approximately 7 percent of each C-130. The assemblies include a major portion of the aircraft’s forward fuselage, the cargo ramp, leading edges of the wings, major wing components and the wheel well fairings into which the main landing gears retract during flight.
Miller said MAAC works closely with the Byrd National Aerospace Education Center. A component of Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community and Technical College, the center offers associate and bachelor degree programs in aviation technology.
“As we work with the state to attract aviation and aerospace companies to invest in West Virginia, you have to be able to tell them that you have a skilled labor pool that you’re constantly training,” she said. “The Byrd Aerospace Education Center is really the center nucleus of everything we do.”
Mill said she is enthusiastic about the future of the North Central West Virginia Airport and the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex.
She noted that Gov. Jim Justice announced on Aug. 7 that he has requested $20 million to undertake a major expansion at the airport that will include building a new terminal and developing sections of nearby land for industrial use. The governor also announced the planned construction of a direct road between Interstate 71 and the airport.
“It’s a plan to maximize the potential of the airport,” Justice said. “Every community’s growth starts with the airport, that’s all there is to it. When the project is completed, you’re going to have 100 acres of a level land within a rock’s throw of the airport and interstate.”
Meanwhile, work already has started on the first phase of another project aimed at attracting businesses to the airport property.
Plans call for the new Bededum Logistics Park to be built one building at a time. Ultimately, Miller said, the five-acre plot could hold as many as five structures of as much as 20,000 square feet each.
Eighty percent of the cost of the first building is being funded by a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The remaining 20 percent ($426,000) is being provided by the Benedum Airport Authority.
Miller said the plan for the new industrial park envisions that it will provide a home for smaller companies that support the aviation and aerospace industry.
“These are the folks who are doing business with our world-renowned companies,” she said.
New jobs coming to Rocket Center
The Allegheny Ballistic Laboratory (ABL) at Rocket Center in Mineral County has been engineering and manufacturing sophisticated weaponry for the U.S. military for decades.
Now Northrop Grumman, the giant defense and aerospace company, is predicting a bright future for its Rocket Center operation, which designs and produces rocket motors, warheads, composites, munitions, metals and electronic systems.
Northrop Grumman says that over the next five years it will add 500 new jobs at the industrial facility, while retaining an existing 1,100 jobs.
Rocket Center previously was operated by aerospace and defense company Orbital ATK. Northrop Grumman recently acquired Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.
According to Kevin Clark, executive director of the Mineral County Development Authority, economic incentives offered by West Virginia state government enabled Rocket Center to beat out other states that were attempting to land the new jobs.
Clark said the state will buy $5 million in new equipment for ABL that will be leased to Northrop Grumman.
West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Ed Gaunch confirmed the equipment lease and described it as a way to get around the state’s burdensome tax on inventory and equipment.
“Our Rocket Center team has engineered and manufactured technologies to support our military for more than 70 years,” said Mike Kahn, vice president and general manager, defense systems, with Northrop Grumman. “We are extremely pleased that the State of West Virginia will be supporting investments in both infrastructure and in our workforce to ensure we can continue to deliver the capacity and cutting-edge technology that our military services need to execute their missions for many years to come.”
“West Virginia has the workforce, business climate and infrastructure that manufacturers need to be successful, and this announcement shows that Northrop Grumman recognizes that value,” Gaunch said. “The Department of Commerce is committed to working nonstop to help businesses located here succeed on the global manufacturing stage.”
Northrop Grumman is a leading global security company, providing systems, products and solutions in autonomous systems, cyber, C4ISR, space, strike, and logistics and modernization.
It’s the largest defense contractor and third largest manufacturing employer in West Virginia.
“We appreciate the opportunity to work in tandem with Northrop Grumman to generate jobs and expand their investment in West Virginia,” said Mike Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Development Office. “The economic development impact and their decision is a testament to the value, hard work and commitment of their employees and the local support they receive from the surrounding communities.”
RCBI AERO is key player
A key player in West Virginia’s growing aviation and aerospace sector is RCBI AERO, the Robert C. Byrd Institute’s aerospace proof-of-concept and training facility.
The goal is to expand the aerospace footprint in Cabell and Wayne counties by connecting local manufacturers to the supply chain, attracting new companies to the region, and establishing an FAA-certified aircraft maintenance and repair facility that will benefit southern West Virginia.
According to Charlotte Weber, director and CEO of RCBI, the new center has a tri-fold mission.
“We are working to develop a first-class aerospace prototype center,” Weber said. “Second, we are providing assistance to regional companies — especially those affected by the downturn in the coal industry — by helping them to transition to suppliers for the aerospace industry. And, we are working to bring large aerospace primes to the region to discuss new technologies in aerospace markets and talk about potential partnerships — which would create jobs and new opportunity.”
In partnership with the West Virginia Development Office, Marshall University Research Corporation, Marshall’s Lewis College of Business, the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, Huntington Area Development Council, the Wayne County Economic Development Authority and Region 2 Workforce Investment Board, RCBI is delivering a broad base of client services that include:
access to advanced technology and expertise
market research, evaluation and business planning
technology transfer services (copyright, trademark, patent and intellectual properties protection)
connections to contracting and supply chain opportunities, both public and private
links to private investment partners
workforce training to meet specific industry demands.
A 2016 feasibility study commissioned by HADCO confirmed that Cabell and Wayne counties are well positioned to support and expand the region’s aerospace industry.
The study cited assets such as Tri-State Airport, the 95-acre Tri-State Aeroplex industrial and business development site near the airport, RCBI, supportive leadership in a variety of public and private organizations and the existence of established aerospace manufacturers such as Level 1 Fasteners and Star Technologies, both of Huntington, and Carbon Fiber Composites of Ona.
Following up on the study, RCBI sought and received a federal grant to establish RCBI AERO. The $500,000 Regional Innovation Strategies grant by the U.S. Economic Development Administration was only the second such award in the Mountain State.
Ona company crafts composites
Brian Alley had a good job in the tech industry. When he was laid off, he decided to go into business for himself, founding Carbon Fiber Composites at Ona.
Carbon fiber is high in strength, low in weight and able to withstand extreme temperatures. Those properties have prompted its widespread use in aviation and aerospace projects.
Since 2003, Carbon Fiber Composites has been producing composite airframe parts and fabricating and manufacturing aerospace components in West Virginia for customers nationwide.
Projects produced by the company, located at the Ona Airpark and Speedway, include an all-carbon fiber tail boom for the Safari 500 helicopter. It’s the only one of its kind. All other copters have metal tail booms that are much heavier.
Now Alley is working on developing a kit aircraft for sale to buyers intent on saving money by buying the necessary parts and assembling their new aircraft themselves.
Kit aircraft are increasingly popular and Alley is convinced he will find a ready market for his.
RCBI has awarded Carbon Fiber Composites a $10,000 grant to help the company develop its new kit aircraft. RCBI’s Early Stage Funding assistance is designed to enhance business development and innovation among West Virginia companies. Carbon Fiber Composites is the first general aviation company in the state to receive this award.
“With this award, RCBI will be providing not only technical and engineering assistance for the design process, but also manufacturing assistance through our facilities in Huntington and Charleston,” said Jim Smith, director of RCBI AERO.
“We are going to assist the manufacturer with airflow studies, computer-aided design and fabrication assistance,” Smith said. Our goal is to help Carbon Fiber Composites take its aircraft concept from design to testing for production as quickly and safely as possible.”
For more information about grant opportunities or other support from RCBI AERO, contact Jim Smith at email@example.com or 304-781-1668.
Appalachian Sky is regional effort
Four U.S. senators, including West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, have offered their support for Appalachian Sky, a multipronged approach with a singular mission: to expand the aviation aerospace footprint in the Tri-State, which will boost the economy and create higher-paying jobs.
The aim of the group is to attract aerospace and aviation companies — as well as related partners — to central Appalachia. The designated region includes parts of western West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio. In terms of the Mountain State, the designation would affect Cabell, Mason and Jackson counties.
“We’re looking for ways to reposition people out of the coal industry and out of some of the energy industry into an industry that can use their skills,” Capito said. “We think aerospace is the one.”
Joining Capito in backing the Appalachian Sky effort are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
With strong support from Appalachian Power, an AEP company, the Appalachian Sky group has identified existing regional assets and infrastructure that include:
150 aerospace industries and service providers in the region
an abundance of skilled labor, particularly in the metalworking sector
readily available natural gas, coal and low-cost electricity
existing higher education institutions, including Marshall University, Morehead State University, Shawnee State University and an extensive network of community colleges
plentiful prospective building sites, including 90-plus acres of developable land next to Huntington Tri-State Airport, 25 acres at Yeager Airport for an aviation school and other development, and 150-plus acres at North Central West Virginia Airport in Bridgeport
robust transportation infrastructure that includes Interstates 64, 77 and 79, one of the nation’s largest inland ports, Tri-State Airport’s designation as a primary commercial service facility, the Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility and two major railroads that serve the region
the Tri-State’s geographic proximity to markets, with more than 43 percent of the U.S. population within a 500-mile radius.
Marshall’s new School of Aviation
Marshall University’s new School of Aviation is rapidly taking shape and getting ready to take to the air.
On Saturday, a ribbon cutting was held for the new school at its future location at Yeager Airport in Charleston. If all goes as planned, the school will welcome its first students by August 2021.
The school will offer a Bachelor of Science in aviation sciences, fixed-wing, and a Bachelor of Science in aviation, rotor-wing (helicopters). The academic program will be housed at the university’s South Charleston campus with hands-on training at Yeager.
Fairmont State University is currently the only other public university in West Virginia to offer a professional flight operation degree, but it’s limited to fixed-wing aircraft. Marshall’s helicopter program will be the first in the state.
“There is a huge demand for pilots across the United States,” Marshall President Jerome A. Gilbert said. “As an industry, a commercial pilot is the only profession with a federally mandated retirement age. Marshall is poised to meet the educational requirements with these new programs.”
Yeager Airport will host new facilities for hangar space and FAA-required laboratories and computer facilities. The airport will also provide the necessary technical services needed to support the flight school, such as access to aviation fuel, air traffic control, security and similar necessities.
In collaboration with Yeager, Marshall will build a 12,000-square-foot hangar that will allow for storage and maintenance for the university’s aircraft and an adjoining 10,000-square-foot building with space for classrooms, a computer lab and flight simulators.
The hangar is estimated to cost $2 million. According to the plan, Yeager and the university are “actively engaged in seeking corporate and private grants and gifts” to reduce the university’s expenses.
The hangar will house SR22 Cirrus Aircraft, a preferred model for flight schools for its avionics, safety features and resale value. It is the only manufacturer to include a parachute that the pilot can deploy in an emergency, preventing crash landings.