Taking Off

Aviation industry in northeast Wisconsin is taxiing down the runway to new developments

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Since the Experimental Aircraft Association moved its fly-in convention to Oshkosh in 1970 and opened the EAA Aviation Center in 1983, its presence has helped make northeast Wisconsin internationally synonymous with aviation among pilots and non-pilots alike.

What may be less widely known but also valuable to the region’s economy are the aerospace and aviation businesses located in the New North. Aviation-related educational initiatives are also offered. Fox Valley Technical College has three degree programs, while the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh created AeroInnovate, which links aviation-industry entrepreneurs with necessary capital and business services to help improve success.

It’s an industry that has been doing relatively well in the New North. Recently the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. collected 2001-2011 statewide data on the aerospace and aviation industry cluster to determine development and expansion opportunities.

“Aerospace and aviation have tremendous global growth projections of 3 percent annually over the next 20 years,” said Gail Towers MacAskill, WEDC sector manager. “This is due to projected commercial air travel increases resultant from middle-class population growth in India, China and South America. Wisconsin and its strong precision-part manufacturing skill saturation is very well-positioned to capture the emerging market.”

The WEDC’s Aerospace and Aviation Cluster Report in Wisconsin – released this past March – looked at wages, jobs, and establishments of private employers from 2001 to 2011. Key observations include an employment decrease in instrument manufacturing and nautical/aeronautical systems since 2007, while aerospace products and parts manufacturing saw an increase of 57.5 percent from 2001-11. Air transportation jobs in the state also increased in 2011, for the first time since 2007. Wages have also seen an increase.

“The results are just the first phase of identifying baseline measurements so that better methods for measuring Wisconsin’s strengths in the industry can be identified,” said MacAskill. “A large percentage of Wisconsin manufacturers who provide parts to the aerospace and aviation industry are not captured in this nationally recognized comparative study. Having this baseline allows us to customize reports in the future to isolate specific strengths and then market them globally. This is important for northeast Wisconsin which has regional strengths in these currently uncounted supply-chain manufacturers.”

These strengths include metal fabrication, composites, manufacturing process controls and navigation/avionics.

While the aerospace and aviation industry in Wisconsin is experiencing growth, current data doesn’t pinpoint the source. However, MacAskill said, “during the economic downturn the state increased aerospace parts manufacturing by 56 percent while the rest of the country experienced an average 6 percent decrease.”

This helped the state get noticed nationally and bolsters its aerospace identity.

“That opens doors for manufacturers wanting to bid on supply-chain opportunities,” noted MacAskill, adding that “EAA’s international recognition helps leverage that message to a larger audience. They also have wonderful STEM programming to inspire young people into aerospace/aviation careers. I believe last year they reached over 21,000 participants in their programming.”

As with other industries, there are gaps in the ongoing availability of skilled workers in the aerospace and aviation industry.

“Young people and their mentors need to understand the tremendous opportunities in manufacturing technology and therefore choose that early as an educational pathway,” said MacAskill.

 

Steady enrollment

Over the past decade, there has been a continuous demand among industry employers for the graduates of the two-year aviation programs at Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh – associate degrees in aircraft electronics and aeronautic pilot training, and a technical diploma in airframe and powerplant mechanics. Collectively the programs enroll 100 students annually, and jobs are waiting for many.

“The graduating class of 2012 had 100-percent placement for the aeronautic pilot training and the airframe and powerplant mechanics programs, with an 83-percent placement in the aircraft electronics program,” noted Deb Heath, dean of transportation and construction technologies at FVTC. Of those graduates, one out of three in the aeronautic pilot program, eight out of 10 in the airframe and powerplant program, and three out of five in the aircraft electronics program found employment within the FVTC five-county district, thus keeping those economy-building skills right here in northeast Wisconsin.

“Nationally, the outlook for employment in the aviation industry is very good as well,” continued Heath. “With the retirement of huge numbers of baby boomers, all aviation industries are forecasting a shortage, with pilots leading the chart for the greatest need.”

Salaries in northeast Wisconsin are competitive, she said, which further supports graduates’ desire to remain in the region and employers’ need for skilled workers. According to FVTC’s recent survey of 2007 and 2012 aviation program graduates, from six months to five years after earning their degrees, former students from the aeronautic pilot program reported earning as much as $47,528, while graduates from the airframe and powerplant program earned up to $52,000 and those from aircraft electronics earned as much as $49,920.

Regionally, Heath sees great growth potential in air transportation and aerospace product and parts manufacturing.

“Within the last year multiple communities in the region have commissioned extensive studies to guide economic development initiatives,” said Heath. “Aviation, and aviation-related industries, consistently appear as having a base as well as potential for further growth.”

 

Adding jobs in the Fox Cities

Some of that growth is already taking place at Gulfstream Aerospace facilities located at the Outagamie County Regional Airport near Appleton. The company recently expanded and is employing 840 fulltime workers in the Fox Cities plus 50 contractors, with more to come this year.

“Gulfstream’s recent growth is the result of numerous factors, including an increase in our international customer base and the introduction of two new aircraft in 2008,” said Heidi Fedak, senior manager of social media and external communications for Gulfstream. “Both of those aircraft entered service last year, prompting growth at both our completions facilities, where the aircraft are painted and outfitted, and our product support centers, which provide maintenance. Appleton has both a completions center and a service center, which is why we’ve committed to increasing employment there by 100 jobs in 2013.”

Gulfstream has had an Appleton presence since 1998, when it bought KC Aviation from Kimberly-Clark Corp. The subsequent expansion at that site included a large-cabin completion center and a service center for Gulfstream aircraft plus Challengers, Falcons and Hawkers; three hangars that can house up to 21 aircraft; and business space for final-phase and product-support operations, engineering and materials. These facilities total 275,200 square feet.

Fedak noted that northeast Wisconsin has been a positive environment for Gulfstream, and also mentioned the impact general aviation has on the local economy. Clients who come to Appleton for aircraft service use local hotels, restaurants and stores.

“In terms of growth for related businesses, Gulfstream spent more than $20 million with Wisconsin companies for supplies and services in 2012,” added Fedak. “We have a strong working relationship with the WEDC and look forward to continued collaboration with that group.”

 

Recreational flying growth

One area firm catering to private/recreational pilots is Sonex Aircraft Ltd. in Oshkosh. Sonex offers sport aircraft kits that are priced to be affordable to a broad range of flying enthusiasts, along with airplane engines, accessories and support. The 15-employee company also serves as an educational resource for the aviation homebuilder community.

Sonex was founded in 1997 by John and Betty Monnett along with business partner Pete Buck, as a successor to Monnett Experimental Aircraft which was sold to investors in the 1980s. Current CEO and son Jeremy came aboard Sonex in late 1998. Father and son have designed, built and/or restored numerous aircraft. A team of Sonex employees and volunteers have been involved in building each prototype at the factory, which currently manufactures 10 lines of aircraft including jet and electric models.

Recreational pilots who want to build their own planes are the core of Sonex’s business, Jeremy Monnett said. Some even build first then learn to fly.

“The demographic is mainly 50 and older and typically retired and male,” Monnett noted. “They finally have the time and money to pursue their dream of building and flying an aircraft.”

A do-it-yourself kit puts aircraft ownership within financial reach for a larger group of enthusiasts. The price for all materials, engine included, to build your own Sonex aircraft can go as low as $28,000. The company holds customer events like Sonex Builders Workshops and T-Flight Transition Training.

Monnett noted that since the recession, the aircraft industry is in a “recovery mode.” Like others who rely on discretionary spending from its customers, Sonex took a hit during the downturn. But, Monnett said, the company “hunkered down and survived, actually weathered the storm quite well. We continued to create new products and used the slower sales time to accelerate new developments. Our product line is now one of the most diverse in the industry and getting more diverse. We feel we offer one of the best values in the industry.”

Sonex’s market is both regional and global.

“Wisconsin has a good number of builders and a tight-knit pilot community at Wittman Airport (Oshkosh),” said Monnett. “We believe this segment will grow or at least be maintained by new customers pursuing their dreams.”

In terms of excellent supplier and manufacturing networks, Monnett feels northeast Wisconsin is a good environment for the aviation industry. On the other hand, the weather isn’t always so supportive. “The winter can be long and not friendly to regular flight testing,” he explained.

Northeast Wisconsin and the state could be made even better for the aviation industry through tax incentives, facility investments and long-term, low-interest loans, Monnett suggested, as well as “helping network the many talented and capable suppliers with aircraft companies.

“We did enjoy the Aerospace Consortium meeting that was organized by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and hosted at EAA earlier this spring. This is a very positive step in the right direction.”


Aerospace & aviation innovations

One source of assistance for aviation-related businesses comes via a unique aviation partnership through the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Since 2008, AeroInnovate has offered business services to start-up and established small businesses involved in new technologies.

“We passionately refer to our customers as aeroinnovators,” said Meridith Jaeger, director of AeroInnovate & Aviation Initiatives. “Our goal is simple: We want to see more innovative, aero-related technology start-ups develop, succeed and grow into quality business ventures.”

Financing for aviation-related start-ups is fragmented and tends to be dependent on serendipitous encounters, Jaeger said.

“AeroInnovate makes finding investors and entrepreneurial support easy and predictable for aeroinnovators. We have become a national leader in helping aeroinnovators learn, start and grow their ideas into successful business ventures in the aero-sector. Our target ‘customers’ are early- to mid-stage start-up ventures or small companies with innovative new technology looking to take the next step – usually involving raising money, building advisory boards and finding strategic partners/collaborators.”

AeroInnovate was the result of various needs, Jaeger noted. The EAA AirVenture fly-in needed a structured pairing of start-ups with investors and other resources – enter AeroInnovate’s Investor Roundtable dinner and Pitch & Mingle event. Then there was the regional need for new development of entrepreneurship and innovation. And with certain historical industries such as paper no longer as dominant as they once were, there is a need for new industry clusters.

“Putting all of these pieces together – and adding in the incredible assets we currently have with Wittman Regional Airport and EAA – we began to develop AeroInnovate which has grown exponentially year after year,” explained Jaeger. The organization wants to encourage other national companies to outsource to Wisconsin businesses – Boeing, for example, has 140 suppliers in Wisconsin – and to help new aerospace-related start-ups get off the ground.

Strategic partners include EAA, angel investors such as Space Angels Network, the Rockford Area Aerospace Network, and others.

“UW Oshkosh is working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Aerospace Authority to further develop an aerospace industry consortium in the state of Wisconsin,” said Jaeger. “The goal is to grow Wisconsin’s aerospace industry – including that in Oshkosh and the New North.

“AeroInnovate is a catalyst for recruiting aviation-related businesses to Oshkosh,” said Jaeger. “For example, several of the startup companies we work with have expressed an interest in locating their business operation in our area. It’s just one way that UW Oshkosh and AeroInnovate are influencing economic development in our region.”

 

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.