Tucson Is The Place Where Planes Go To Heal

The dry climate cuts down on corrosion and makes it possible to work on planes outdoors. No earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural threats makes it a safe place to store valuable equipment outdoors.

Tucson is a spa for airplanes.

They come here to get healthier, prettier or even to get some rest.

And like the spa industry, the aircraft maintenance and repair firms are in a growth mode, doing some hiring despite the airlines' woes.

That's good news for Tucson's skilled laborers, and those who would like to learn aircraft trades.

"It is a skilled job," said Pete Stogsdill, chair of Pima Community College's aviation department. "Once you get your foot in the door there are so many areas where you can branch off. I know a lot of people making six figures and they started off as an A&P (airframe and power plant) mechanic."

Why here? The dry climate cuts down on corrosion and makes it possible to work on planes outdoors. No earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural threats makes it a safe place to store valuable equipment outdoors. The presence of the largest aircraft storage facility in the world, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is testimony to that.

Pay for qualified Federal Aviation Administration-certified mechanics starts around $13 an hour and goes up to about $30, with bonuses for some specialized skills, said Stogsdill and Paul Worthington, director of heavy maintenance sales for Evergreen Air Center Inc. at Pinal Airpark near Marana.

But these jobs can mean hot, dirty, demanding work. And, worse, the business can be cyclical, with periodic layoffs. But Tucson continues to draw aircraft maintenance, rebuilding and aircraft-related businesses.

Evergreen is probably the best-known local operation.

Hamilton Aerospace Technologies, a subsidiary of Global Aircraft Solutions, Bombardier Inc. and DunnAir Business Jet Completion Center -- all at Tucson International Airport -- are some of the other major firms doing commercial aircraft work.

A manufacturer of aircraft insulation, Glass Fiber Inc., announced this month it is opening a Tucson plant.

Evergreen Air Center

A growing forest of giant 747 tails at Evergreen Air Center indicates hard times for the airline industry, and good times for Evergreen.

The bankruptcies of Northwest and Delta airlines are responsible for a lot of the new tails, said Worthington. Northwest's red livery is seen all over Evergreen's 1,600 acres at Pinal Airpark and can be spotted from Interstate 10.

Storage is only about 15 percent of of Evergreen's business, Worthington said. He estimates 75 percent comes from mechanical work, much of it the heavy work known as MRO, for maintenance, repair, overhaul. The rest comes from recycling and parting out planes.

Inside Evergreen's wide-body hangar last week, Bruce Hartel, 58, and his crew were muscling the piston from a 747's huge landing gear back inside its housing. The landing gear, which weighs tons, was pulled apart during a heavy maintenance routine.

A&P mechanic Berhane Mesfin, helping the others muscle the landing gear into place, is from Eritrea and trained in Ethiopia. "I've been in aviation for 16 years," he says. "Yeah, I got the good job."

Next year, he said, he applies for U.S. citizenship.

Hamilton Aerospace

Bad times are good for John B. Sawyer.

When U.S. air carriers dump good, older jetliners for newer, more fuel-efficient models, Sawyer's company buys them at bargain prices and resells them at a profit to new owners overseas.

"All those airline execs are sheep, following each other," Sawyer said.

Sawyer is president of Hamilton Aerospace Technologies, operating out of leased space at Tucson International Airport selling whole planes and parts and doing maintenance and refurbishment of jetliners.

First-quarter results for Hamilton's parent company, Global Aircraft Solutions, suggest the company is doing well at it. Net income was $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2006, up from $658,000 in the first quarter 2005.

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