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Aerospace industry in W.Va. beginning to take flight

by Stephen Singer

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BRIDGEPORT -- An old patched blacktop road at Benedum Airport leads to the promise of West Virginia's fledgling aerospace industry.

The airport -- home to six airline maintenance and service shops, a National Guard training center, a manufacturing training site and aerospace school -- is at the center of economic development efforts in a state starved for high-tech jobs.

At the heart of the development program is the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex, a job-training cooperative launched in 1988 that is now turning its attention to West Virginia's public schools to train prospective employees in airline maintenance and technical work.

"This is the most important skilled level in the aviation business and is what everyone needs today," said James Skidmore, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic complex. "This is your basic beginning."

To fill a worker shortage in the growing airline industry, the program trains entry-level workers sought by Lockheed Martin, Bombardier Aerospace and others that have located at Benedum.

As many as 250 jobs are available at Benedum, one-fourth of the number of employees at companies based at the airport.

The Mid-Atlantic complex promotes cooperation to find workers at Benedum rather than undercut competitors.

"Businesses here don't compete directly with each other," said Charles Koukoulis, president of KCI Aviation. "Here at the airport, we complement each other."

The need for workers extends beyond Benedum, where the number of passengers has dropped by 21 percent drop since 1998.

In the Eastern Panhandle, as many as 400 jobs will be needed by 2003 when Sino Swearingen Aircraft Co. starts production of its $4.8 million, six-passenger SJ30-2 jet.

Tiger Aircraft in Martinsburg, which plans to produce 70 single-engine private planes by the end of the year, would welcome increased training to help fill 70 production slots, production manager Rick Wood said.

Nationally, the industry needs at least 10,000 aerospace workers.

The Mid-Atlantic complex is broadening its efforts with a public school curriculum that could be available next September to promote aerospace as a career to students in West Virginia's 55 counties.

Preliminary plans, backed by $625,000 over five years from the state, call for the Mid-Atlantic complex to hire a statewide coordinator to work with the state Department of Education to draft a curriculum.

Further up the education ladder, the Robert C. Byrd Aerospace Education Center at Benedum graduates about 20 aviation management and certified technicians a year.

Pieter Blood, who directs the center operated by Fairmont State College, said the worker shortage at companies at Benedum makes it easy to place all graduates. Beginning in spring 2002, the number of graduates is expected to more than double to about 45.

And plans for remote campus training sites in six high schools offering associate and bachelor degrees could boost the number of graduates to between 150 and 200 annually within six years.

Graduates will qualify to inspect aircraft engines, air conditioning, pressurization, control surfaces, brakes, landing gear and electronics. Entry-level pay is about $14 an hour, which Blood says will rise to $18 an hour before the end of 2001.

"They're not a run-of-the-mill mechanic," he said.

The expansive airport dotted by hangars and squat office buildings is surrounded by rolling hills of grass and shuttered farms. Nearby land, plowed under to make way for an industrial park, an Interstate 79 extension and new homes, is ripe for development, officials say.

So is the state's aircraft industry.

Airplane maintenance and servicing loom large in West Virginia where Toyota Motor Corp. in Putnam County is among the few major well-paying industrial employers in the state.

"We have to get people trained if we're going to attract new businesses," Skidmore said.

Jan Dickinson, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Development Office, said state officials targeted the industry for development potential in 1993. She cited relatively low electricity costs, which account for 55 percent of utility costs, available supplies of fabricated metal products and plastics and easy access to highway transportation on nearby Interstate 79.

"They were here and we looked at why they were here and discovered there was a really good reason," she said.

Since 1993, Northrop Grumman's Aurora Flight Sciences, which manufacturers the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, has moved to Benedum.

Federal funding comprises a large part of the mix. For example, FMW Composite Systems Inc., which is producing the wing for NASA's high-altitude research plane, received nearly $2.3 million last June to manufacture fuel bladders in battle tanks used by the Egyptian military and U.S. armed forces.

In addition, the Mid-Atlantic complex has received $35 million to extend Benedum's runway and purchase land to expand the airport. And a $950,000 grant is being used to promote, market and expand the work of the complex.

Extension of Benedum Airport's runway by 40 percent, to 7,000 feet, and the addition of up to 200 acres to accommodate anticipated growth is spurring growth in the area.

Benedum is about 100 miles north of Charleston, and about 80 miles south of Pittsburgh.

The industry also is active at Yeager Airport in Charleston, Wood County Airport, Tri-State Airport in Huntington, Hart Field in Morgantown and Martinsburg Airport, Blood said.

"There are little things going on throughout the state," he said. "There's room to develop."

The aviation complex at Benedum is not a secret in West Virginia, said Dickinson of the state Development Office. "But if you're not in the economic development business, you probably know less about it than you should," she said.

by Stephen Singer

The Associated Press

BRIDGEPORT -- An old patched blacktop road at Benedum Airport leads to the promise of West Virginia's fledgling aerospace industry.

The airport -- home to six airline maintenance and service shops, a National Guard training center, a manufacturing training site and aerospace school -- is at the center of economic development efforts in a state starved for high-tech jobs.

At the heart of the development program is the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex, a job-training cooperative launched in 1988 that is now turning its attention to West Virginia's public schools to train prospective employees in airline maintenance and technical work.

"This is the most important skilled level in the aviation business and is what everyone needs today," said James Skidmore, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic complex. "This is your basic beginning."

To fill a worker shortage in the growing airline industry, the program trains entry-level workers sought by Lockheed Martin, Bombardier Aerospace and others that have located at Benedum.

As many as 250 jobs are available at Benedum, one-fourth of the number of employees at companies based at the airport.

The Mid-Atlantic complex promotes cooperation to find workers at Benedum rather than undercut competitors.

"Businesses here don't compete directly with each other," said Charles Koukoulis, president of KCI Aviation. "Here at the airport, we complement each other."

The need for workers extends beyond Benedum, where the number of passengers has dropped by 21 percent drop since 1998.

In the Eastern Panhandle, as many as 400 jobs will be needed by 2003 when Sino Swearingen Aircraft Co. starts production of its $4.8 million, six-passenger SJ30-2 jet.

Tiger Aircraft in Martinsburg, which plans to produce 70 single-engine private planes by the end of the year, would welcome increased training to help fill 70 production slots, production manager Rick Wood said.

Nationally, the industry needs at least 10,000 aerospace workers.

The Mid-Atlantic complex is broadening its efforts with a public school curriculum that could be available next September to promote aerospace as a career to students in West Virginia's 55 counties.

Preliminary plans, backed by $625,000 over five years from the state, call for the Mid-Atlantic complex to hire a statewide coordinator to work with the state Department of Education to draft a curriculum.

Further up the education ladder, the Robert C. Byrd Aerospace Education Center at Benedum graduates about 20 aviation management and certified technicians a year.

Pieter Blood, who directs the center operated by Fairmont State College, said the worker shortage at companies at Benedum makes it easy to place all graduates. Beginning in spring 2002, the number of graduates is expected to more than double to about 45.

And plans for remote campus training sites in six high schools offering associate and bachelor degrees could boost the number of graduates to between 150 and 200 annually within six years.

Graduates will qualify to inspect aircraft engines, air conditioning, pressurization, control surfaces, brakes, landing gear and electronics. Entry-level pay is about $14 an hour, which Blood says will rise to $18 an hour before the end of 2001.

"They're not a run-of-the-mill mechanic," he said.

The expansive airport dotted by hangars and squat office buildings is surrounded by rolling hills of grass and shuttered farms. Nearby land, plowed under to make way for an industrial park, an Interstate 79 extension and new homes, is ripe for development, officials say.

So is the state's aircraft industry.

Airplane maintenance and servicing loom large in West Virginia where Toyota Motor Corp. in Putnam County is among the few major well-paying industrial employers in the state.

"We have to get people trained if we're going to attract new businesses," Skidmore said.

Jan Dickinson, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Development Office, said state officials targeted the industry for development potential in 1993. She cited relatively low electricity costs, which account for 55 percent of utility costs, available supplies of fabricated metal products and plastics and easy access to highway transportation on nearby Interstate 79.

"They were here and we looked at why they were here and discovered there was a really good reason," she said.

Since 1993, Northrop Grumman's Aurora Flight Sciences, which manufacturers the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, has moved to Benedum.

Federal funding comprises a large part of the mix. For example, FMW Composite Systems Inc., which is producing the wing for NASA's high-altitude research plane, received nearly $2.3 million last June to manufacture fuel bladders in battle tanks used by the Egyptian military and U.S. armed forces.

In addition, the Mid-Atlantic complex has received $35 million to extend Benedum's runway and purchase land to expand the airport. And a $950,000 grant is being used to promote, market and expand the work of the complex.

Extension of Benedum Airport's runway by 40 percent, to 7,000 feet, and the addition of up to 200 acres to accommodate anticipated growth is spurring growth in the area.

Benedum is about 100 miles north of Charleston, and about 80 miles south of Pittsburgh.

The industry also is active at Yeager Airport in Charleston, Wood County Airport, Tri-State Airport in Huntington, Hart Field in Morgantown and Martinsburg Airport, Blood said.

"There are little things going on throughout the state," he said. "There's room to develop."

The aviation complex at Benedum is not a secret in West Virginia, said Dickinson of the state Development Office. "But if you're not in the economic development business, you probably know less about it than you should," she said.

- - -

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