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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Global TransPark seeing more investments, interest

In my November magazine column, after I got a tour of the Global TransPark outside Kinston, I wrote that they should get more folks down to visit.  

And that has happened. Last week, around three dozen folks came down for a tour, most from state agencies and universities. I went along. 

We rode around for a couple of hours on a bus on loan from Lenoir Community College, which has a big and growing role at GTP. I was there even though I had been on a version of the tour in September, and I’m glad I went, for a couple of reasons. With something as strategic and complex as the TransPark, there is always something more to understand. And second, I caught a break. The tour got to go inside the helicopter overhaul hangar, a 70-worker satellite facility operated at GTP by the Navy’s 4,000-employee, 147-acre Fleet Readiness Center East maintenance and repair depot on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. I hadn’t been inside yet but I wanted to, because this is a very important part of the growing relationship between the TransPark and the Navy.

$350 million

It is easier to get visitors to drive down to the TransPark these days. The General Assembly recently allocated $350 million for new maintenance facilities the Navy hopes to lease for work on Navy and Marine C-130s, big transport aircraft – if all the pieces fall into place soon. That has gotten a lot of attention.

The bus was taking us through the 2,500-acre industrial park built around the longest runway in North Carolina, 11,500 feet long. The airfield dates back to World War II, when it was used to train military pilots. It was decommissioned in the late ‘50s and became a county general aviation airport. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s it had some commercial flights, but that went away. For the last 30 years, the state has tried to develop it as an economic development engine in the middle of eastern North Carolina.

Tour of Global TransPark.

After some early struggles, the TransPark has gotten some significant aviation and aeronautics tenants, which isn’t that surprising. It has the runway, hundreds of shovel-ready acres, and is near military air bases.

We drove by Spirit AeroSystems, which makes wing and fuselage components for Airbus, which are trucked down U.S. 70 to the port at Morehead City and shipped to France for final assembly. Sometimes, a giant Antonov cargo plane will land at the TransPark and fly the components to France. Spirit has around 700 employees. With additional work coming, that could ramp up to 1,000 “in another year or so,” says Preston Hunter, the TransPark’s executive director.

We visited flyExclusive, which is one of the largest charter-jet companies in the nation, headed by Jim Segrave. It does all the maintenance and repair work in Kinston, on around 100 jets.  The company has around 700 employees and by the end of next year, says Hunter, it may have 1,000. It could be trading publicly on the New York Stock Exchange this week. 

The legislature recently appropriated $30 million for a five-story headquarters and training facility for flyExclusive, which will be leased to the company.

Global TransPark leases space to flyExclusive, which provides maintenance of its planes there.

One of the challenges “is getting pilots trained,” says Hunter. “Each year, pilots have to have so many hours on a simulator. Right now, there’s one company that can provide that for the Cessnas that he flies, so, again, he’s got to wait in line to get it.”

“When [Segrave] agreed to purchase 30 new planes from Cessna, he worked out a deal where he can get those simulators to train his employees,” says Hunter.

The growth of flyExclusive, Spirit and other operations helps explain the importance of another tenant, Lenoir Community College. You may be familiar with LCC’s main campus, which is on U.S. 70. It also operates its Aerospace & Advanced Manufacturing Center near the Spirit complex at GTP.  It was originally built as a Spirit training facility

The next big LCC project will be a $25 million Aviation Center of Excellence, funded by the legislature, which will be built next to the GTP runway. Construction of the 100,000-square-foot facility should begin in 2024 and be completed by 2026.

It will train folks who can work for GTP tenants like flyExclusive, Spirit and Mountain Air Cargo, which is one of the oldest tenants. Mountain Air flies cargo for FedEx and GTP is its heavy maintenance operations center. 

The FRC East hanger 

Next to Mountain Air is a hangar where folks from FRC East overhaul Air Force UH-1N helicopters, Vietnam-era aircraft that still get a lot of use flying over missile silos and carrying VIPs. For several years now, FRC East needed more space, for V-22 Ospreys and H-53 heavy-lift helicopters and also because F-35s, the new fighters, are coming to Cherry Point for overhauls. GTP, a little over an hour away up U.S. 70, had a vacant hangar, and offered it for the UH-1N.

That was a big move. “They’ve never carried organic workload off the base,” noted Hunter. The turnaround time came down, because the work could be arranged more efficiently in a spacious hangar.

Allen Broadway, an FRCE East manager, says the turnaround time to overhaul one of the Hueys was around 260 days at Cherry Point. This was a problem, because the goal was 180 days.  Since coming to the TransPark, “We’ve actually gotten aircraft back to the customer within the 180 days, or at least at the 200-day mark.”

This success started folks thinking, says Hunter. “What else can we do?” The Navy wanted to bring the C-130 overhauls to FRC East from Utah to reduce cost and improve turnaround time. For several years, FRC East and GTP folks worked on this. They decided that the state could  build new facilities for the C-130 work at GTP and lease the buildings to the Navy, which would be faster than going through the military construction budget. It would also mean more jobs at the TransPark.

The deal is almost done. The legislature came up with the money. A letter of intent was signed with the Navy a month ago. An intergovernmental support agreement is being drafted, and it is possible that an announcement ceremony could happen by mid-January. HDR is working with FRC East on preliminary designs for the C-130 facilities and a joint venture of Barnhill Contracting and T.A. Loving has been selected as construction managers. If everything goes as planned, C-130s could begin arriving in 2026, along with new jobs. 

This partnership could pave the way for more. As more F-35s and other aircraft arrive for overhauls, FRC East needs more buildings. This creative new way of financing construction – with the state fronting the money and leasing to the Navy – could lead to new buildings at Cherry Point, leading to more jobs in Havelock. If this all happens, they should put a plaque on the UH-1N hanger at Global TransPark.

Ceremony at Seymour Johnson

One of the businesses we visited at GTP last week was Draken International. Draken pilots fly “aggressor” aerial combat missions against pilots training at military bases. One of those installations is near GTP in Goldsboro, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Seymour Johnson is the home of the 4th Fighter Wing. Aircrews from Seymour Johnson flew thousands of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It trains the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle pilots. 

The base, with more than 4,600 active duty personnel and 1,000 civilians, plays a major role in the economy of Goldsboro and Wayne County. It sits on 3,300 acres on the southeast side of Goldsboro.

I visited the base Friday. The occasion was a ceremony recognizing a distinguished Seymour Johnson pilot who won an Air Force-wide award. 

Capt. Morgan R. Curriden, a 335th Fighter Squadron pilot, was presented the Anthony C. Shine Fighter Pilot Award, which annually recognizes an Air Force fighter pilot who has demonstrated excellence and professionalism in flight and dedication to community service. The award is named for the late Lt. Col. Shine, whose plane went down in 1972 near the border of Laos and North Vietnam. Gen. Mark Kelly, commander, Air Combat Command, presided over the ceremony. 

The military is an important part of North Carolina. We have the fourth-largest number of active-duty and civilian personnel in the nation. Some of them are pilots, like Capt. Curriden. But a lot of them are working on the aircraft those pilots fly, in Goldsboro, Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Havelock, Elizabeth City and, now,  Kinston. At Seymour Johnson, around more than 2,000 military personnel and civilians work in the 4th Maintenance Group, which keeps more than 90 F-15E’s flying.

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