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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Editor's Note: A Layered Approach

Bill Carey

North Carolina may be the “First in Flight,” as its license plate attests, but it’s back in the pack when it comes to state-by-state aerospace employment.

Recently, though, the Tar Heel state has notched some significant wins in this area, headlined by the Honda Aircraft Co. decision in 2007 to base its world headquarters and HondaJet manufacturing plant in Greensboro. That same year, Honda Aero broke ground on an engine production and overhaul facility in Burlington, N.C., for the HondaJet’s GE Honda HF120 engine. In 2008, Spirit AeroSystems settled on Kinston for a new composites manufacturing center to build the center fuselage frame section and wing parts for the Airbus A350 XWB.

I was fortunate to visit a pie-slice of the northwest section of the state recently as a guest of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a private, nonprofit economic development organization. The organization’s role is to promote a 12-county region encompassing the cities of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. The aim is to attract high-skill, high-wage jobs to an area experiencing double digit unemployment as it transitions from the legacy industries of textiles, furniture and tobacco.

Economic development is a favorite topic of mine; as a newspaper reporter in a past life I spent a good deal of time and energy covering the redevelopment of GE’s century-old brownfields site in Pittsfield, Mass. From that and other efforts, I know that attracting high-tech, high-paying industry to your neighborhood is a complex and highly competitive undertaking, reliant on a skilled work force, an efficient transportation infrastructure and good quality of life things that can’t be created overnight.

The Piedmont Triad’s layered approach to economic development involving industry, academia, foundations and government would seem the formula needed to succeed in these challenging times. Take the case of Honda Aircraft. Without a tradition in aviation and the embrace of the community, the region may not have persuaded a Japanese multinational corporation to base its aircraft subsidiary at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro.

Jim Spinder tells the story of how his firm Atlantic Aero, an engineering services and maintenance company started as a traditional FBO early on provided Honda with hangar space and engineering support to develop its business jet. Atlantic Aero’s vice president of engineering was aboard for the first flight of the experimental HondaJet on Dec. 3, 2003. The company is providing nacelles for the certification aircraft, with hopes of winning a production order.

Ed Frye, chairman of the Transportation Systems Technology Division at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC), picks up the story. Honda Aircraft looked to GTCC to provide corporate and FAA process training of its first employees. Honda required only 25 A&P mechanics for the start-up, so “cherry picked” from the college’s Part 147 aviation maintenance technician program to train systems, electrical and interiors installers, structures technicians and paint and prep workers, Frye said.

“As part of that, we said, if we’re going to train your electrical installers and your systems installers, we probably ought to get in bed with you on the systems you’re going to put in the airplane,” he recalled. “So we ended up building an avionics program based around the Garmin 530 and the Garmin 1000 (specified for the experimental HondaJet). We have trained 38 of their folks to install those systems.”

The education of future Honda Aircraft production associates students who have undergone training at GTCC on the promise of a job was subsidized by a state grant, part of the incentive package offered to Honda. Grants from the Duke Energy Foundation and Joseph M. Bryan Foundation paid for the equipment needed to start the avionics program. GTCC also has received funding for its aviation programs from the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation, established to manage the 1998 settlement of litigation brought by North Carolina and 45 other states against cigarette manufacturers.

With HondaJet certification and first deliveries delayed until 2012, additional state funding was being discussed to train future employees for full airframe and powerplant licenses. “Long story short, these folks started out with a customized training program,” Frye said. “They are going to end up getting basically an A&P program that is focused on Honda Aircraft.”

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