Wednesday, June 12, 2024

First in Flight: Ready for takeoff

Honda Aircraft’s assembly line at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro is approaching full capacity, when it will build as many as eight jets a month. Called the business jet of the future, the HondaJet cruises at 423 mph at higher than 43,000 feet and has a price tag of about $5 million. Photo provided by Honda

Appeared as part of the First in Flight sponsored section in the February 2018 issue of Business North Carolina

By Kathy Blake

North Carolina catapulted back into the top 10 most attractive states for aerospace manufacturing in 2017, jumping 14 spots from the year before.

The state benefits from the lowest corporate tax rate in the U.S., low electricity rates and access to deep-water seaports and an extensive rail network, says accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. Its ranking places North Carolina at No. 4, behind Georgia, Michigan and Arizona. Companies are taking notice, including newcomers like Los Angeles-based DAE Systems, which plans to build a $7.3 million headquarters in Catawba County, and familiar faces such as Spirit Aerosystems driving a $55.7 million expansion over the next five years at the state-owned Global Transpark in Kinston. Kinston is producing both the massive fuselage panels used in Airbus planes and the operators who fly some of the smallest aircraft — Lenoir Community College was first in the state to launch a degree in drone piloting.

From Kinston to Asheville, more than 1,000 companies make up a thriving aerospace supply chain.

In between, Kevin Baker knows his way around every acre of Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro. As executive director since 2010 and deputy director before that, Baker has watched PTI’s metamorphosis from small airfield to global aerospace destination. Today, it’s the Triad’s ninth-largest employer with 5,225 workers and an economic driver for the companies that surround it. “You can really see the economic impact all around you,” Baker says. “You cannot go to lunch within 5 miles of this airport and not see someone dressed in a Honda uniform in their white overalls.”

Honda Aircraft Co., one of several aerospace companies that call PTI home, is ramping up production of its HondaJet as CEO Michimasa Fujino hinted late last year at the possibility of a second, larger aircraft. HAECO Americas plans to open its new, $60 million aircraft-maintenance hangar early this year at PTI, where it expects to add 400 employees.

Jim McArthur works to recruit new aviation companies to the region as senior director for Triad aerospace development, a position created last year. “The effort by the Greensboro Chamber, Piedmont Triad International Airport and the Piedmont Triad Partnership to combine resources for recruiting aerospace to the Triad tells you how serious we are about economic development and the aerospace industry for our region,” he says. With about 15,000 employed in the Triad’s aerospace industry, “Our region has the largest percentage of manufacturing jobs in North Carolina and ranks fourth in the Southeast.”

While the Triad’s role in aerospace manufacturing is well-known, perhaps less visible is Buncombe County, more famous for its mountain tourism but also home to one of four N.C. facilities for Evendale, Ohio-based GE Aviation. Plants in Wilmington and West Jefferson produce internal components for a new jetliner engine called the LEAP, which is built in Durham. The Asheville plant is the aerospace industry’s first to produce ceramic matrix composite (CMC) components, a space-age material that may one day replace metals in GE’s machines.

“No one knows the exact recipe except the people at GE,” says Clark Duncan, director of business development for Asheville-Buncombe County. “What’s important is the ability to make parts that are stronger than steel and a huge percentage lighter than metal. So the implication is you have safety and strength, but you have [that] ability with a lighter aircraft.”

Training many of those GE workers is Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Within weeks of GE opening the CMC facility in 2014, A-B Tech opened its Composite Training Center of Excellence. “There are conversations right now for expanding what GE does in composites and taking on more,” says Kevin Kimrey, the school’s director of economic and workforce development.

Duncan predicts the county’s identity as an aviation hotbed will expand. “Population growth, talent and tech continue to be the primary economic drivers in Asheville — GE Aviation is central to the region’s success. The innovative and open-door culture of the company has been a real asset to regional manufacturing and a significant draw to our prospects in aerospace, advanced materials and related technologies.”

Aerospace manufacturing has turned Union County into an industry nucleus, growing from three companies in 2002 to 23 supporting 4,000 jobs within an 8-mile radius of Monroe. Cyril Bath, part of France-based Aries Alliance, fabricates large components for companies like Boeing. Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Technologies Inc. is one of Union County’s largest employers with a Monroe operation that makes titanium alloys for the aircraft and aerospace industries.
“In aerospace, we are the largest cluster in the state, according to the Department of Commerce,” says Chris Platé, executive director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development. “We have an aerospace academy at one of our high schools. It’s in our community college. It’s part of the fabric of the community.”

Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport has fueled Union County’s economic development and not just in aviation. Nearby Monroe Corporate Center has attracted international companies including Austria-based Greiner Bio-One, which manufactures plastic medical equipment. At the airport itself, manager Peter Cevallos says, “We have no room in the inn. We have four hangars at 10,000 square feet, and they’re full. We have over 70 parking spots, mostly for small twin-engines, and they’re full. We also have T-hangars, which are elongated buildings with individual garages, and all 20 of those spots are full. We have over 100 airplanes permanently based at the airport.”

Construction on a new 12,000-square-foot hangar with office space should be complete by late summer. About 40 acres of the 460-acre airport are in use, Cevallos says, and consultants are working on ideas for how to utilize some of the space for service hangars and manufacturing and cargo operations. The new hangar is sure to be a boost to Monroe’s Aerowood Aviation flight school.

“The world of global business in aerospace is a seven- or eight-year cycle,” Platé says, “and we’re in a super cycle, with 15 years’ growth that continues to look strong. We caught the wave at the right time.”

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