It was a bird nest on the ground.
Or — put another way — it was a confluence of events that occurs perhaps once in a generation.
That was the situation in which the principals of Emerald Aerospace found themselves about two years ago.
While the market for generic business aircraft had been flat for years, the demand for VIP and VVIP transport category aircraft had surged during the same time frame. Boeing and Airbus were (and are) cranking out wide-bodied air frames for heads of state and wealthy clientele and enjoy robust backlogs.
But when someone gets out the checkbook for the equivalent of an airborne Rolls-Royce, they’re looking for something more than an AM radio and naugahyde seats on the interior. And that’s where they can hit a brick wall, because there are only so many completion centers in the world with the expertise to transform that naked wide-bodied plane into a flying work of art. Indeed, an expensive aircraft can languish in the queue for months before getting a slot in a completion hangar.
That’s when the bird’s nest appeared on the ground for Ahmed Bashir, Chairman & CEO of Emerald Aerospace. Bashir had been in the completion and aircraft maintenance business for almost two decades, and had been looking for an opportunity to kick-start a new facility to serve this undeserved market. It was in that context that Boeing entered (or rather exited) the picture in Wichita.
Wichita is to aerospace what Las Vegas is to gambling. Beechcraft, Cessna and other OEMs call it home, and Boeing had been there for upwards of seventy years, building hundreds of B-52s along the way. They had long operated a massive military modification center in Wichita at next to McConnell AFB (think Air Force One here), but in 2012 the company decided to consolidate those functions into their San Antonio and Seattle venues. That left them with a massive 400-acre facility of empty hangars and offices, so they put it on the market.
The potential wasn’t lost on the EA management team. Larry Pope, EA’s vice president for business development, said, “Those hangars — in every way — are perfect for the completion business.” Such as, the north hangar alone – a 230,000 nearly 300,000 square-foot monster – has working bays that can accommodate three (count ‘em, three) 747-800s simultaneously. And, yes, that is a big deal. The current worldwide capacity to handle wide bodied custom modifications (like 777s, Airbus A340s, 787s and 747s) is perhaps 14 to 15 slots. With the Wichita facility, Bashir and Pope knew they could create four to five additional slots, thereby increasing worldwide capacity by about a third in a single stroke.
Working with a local real estate developer who acquired the facility from Boeing, Emerald executed a long term lease on the property and set to work to spin their magic, for a facility is just that – an amalgam of bricks and mortar. It’s much like an artist’s studio without the artist. And that’s where the combination of Emerald’s experience and Wichita’s talent pool came together. Drawing on their decades-long contacts throughout the completion industry and tapping into the very deep bench of Wichita’s aerospace infrastructure, they began recruiting the seasoned artisans and technicians who bring a custom interior to life; and by the end of 2016 the company’s projected headcount is estimated to be 500. Besides the other aerospace companies in the area, Emerald will also be able to tap expertise locally at one of the top aviation research centers in the world, the National Institute for Aviation Research, which is associated with the school of engineering at Wichita State University’s renown College of Engineering.
The only thing missing now is the first customer, and a “green” 747-800 should be wheels down at the new Emerald facility in December. Following that there are five more multiple other aircraft in the pipeline, which raises even more challenges. Customers of completion centers tend to be – to put it charitably – somewhat inflexible, and Bashir noted, “It is important to manage their expectations throughout the process. Otherwise it can lead to problems down the line.” Every project is one of a kind with infinite variables, and the customer is often emotionally invested in the outcome — as well as sensitive to security.
Pope pointed out that Emerald possesses the highest level of security of any completion center in the United States. “Other completion centers are located on public access airports. Emerald is housed in a security envelope within a security envelope. The facility itself has a security perimeter, and that is located within the security confines of McConnell Air Force Base. Nobody is going to be there who is not supposed to be there.”
Clearly, this Emerald has found the perfect setting.
Did You Know? The first aircraft to ferry a President was a C-54 Skymaster dubbed the “Sacred Cow.” It transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
Did You Know? Bill Lear, the inventor of the first business jet, also invented the 8-track stereo tape cartridge.
Did You Know? Wichita is home to the longest running aircraft production line in the world. The venerable Beechcraft Bonanza began production in 1947 and has been in continuous production ever since with over 18,000 aircraft built, most of which are still flying today. Some of the original tooling and equipment is still in use.
Did You Know? Modern General Aviation was born in Wichita when Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman all came together to form Travel Air Manufacturing Company in 1925. As the economy deteriorated, Travel Air was merged into Curtiss-Wright and the three pioneers each went on to start companies in Wichita under their own names.