Tucson Is The Place Where Planes Go To Heal

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.

"Everybody else is losing money," he said of the post- 9/11 aircraft industry. "Our niche," he says, are "countries that are industrializing because of oil and gas and finding it's cheaper to connect their cities through air taxies rather than roads.

"Venezuela has 25-cent-a-gallon gas," he said.

In some cases, he's buying U.S. airlines' 737s for a song, under $1 million and often half that, dusting them off and selling them overseas for half again as much. These airliners, he said, will find a new life as flying buses, trucks and freight trains in some parts of the world.

Hamilton Aviation, a longtime Tucson business, went into bankruptcy and was purchased by Global Aircraft in 2002. Global has applied for listing on the American Stock Exchange..

The majority of the company's roughly 300 employees are involved in maintenance and refurbishment of planes. What they're not involved in anymore, is the "Hamilton 500," said mechanic Bob Monbeck.

That's what employees called it when they would race to the bank on payday, fearful that their checks would bounce.

At DunnAir Business Jet Completion Center, they see how the other half lives -- or maybe half of 1 percent of the other half.

So far, the fledgling aircraft-refurbishment business barely takes up a corner of the huge hangar on the west side of Tucson International. A half-dozen planes have come through since work started late last year.

Two are Bombardier Challenger 604s, in for paint jobs and luxury interior makeovers. The planes were originally finished in Tucson, perhaps in this same hangar, before Bombardier closed its completion center last year.

DunnAir business jet center

There is also a Gulfstream corporate jet getting a minor cabin remodeling, and a Boeing 757 that's here to become a flying luxury apartment.

"It's going to have a conference room, bedroom -- a huge bedroom with a shower," says DunnAir spokesman Tim Kanavel.

No, he won't tell you who owns any of them. But, yes, he says, you'd recognize their names.

Last August, Kanavel predicted the company would have 150 employees within a year, and 600 within five years. So far, the company employs 51.

There's a strong market for refitting business jets, even ones that are only a few years old, says Kanavel.

"The sky's the limit," says Kanavel, but mostly, he says, DunnAir is working on relatively modest corporate jets.

Cabinetmaker Jim Doak is one of 41 former Bombardier employees on DunnAir's staff. He was laid off when Bombardier closed its completion plant here last year.

Last week he was installing contoured, tiger-maple veneer cabinetry with gold-plated hardware in one of the Challengers finished here a few years ago.

Bombardier Aerospace

Two years ago Bombardier Aerospace packed its Tucson business-jet completion center operation off to Kansas and Montreal, laying off about 800.

Now Bombardier has 650 employees at its Tucson corporate and regional jet-service center, said General Manager Eric Brammer.

The Tucson facility, on the west side of Tucson International, does maintenance and repair work on Bombardier's CRJ series regional jets -- 50- to 90-seat planes -- and its Learjet, Challenger and Global series corporate jets.

Corporate spokesman Leo Knappen says Bombardier's corporate customers often want to customize the interiors of their business jets after a few years of ownership.

After the two-year warranty period, he said there's no reason a customer has to come to Bombardier for service or modifications.

"The Tucson facility has such a strong reputation among our customers (that) they prefer to go to Tucson," says Knappen.

He said technical jobs at Bombardier's Tucson operation pay $15 to $23 an hour.

Placement rate around 98%

With the local industry doing well, "I'm scratching my head about why my classes aren't full. We have the capability to run three or four classes of 25 (students). Right now we're only doing one class a day," said Stogsdill of PCC.

He says tuition and books for the 19-month A&P program come to about $6,000. The structural-repair technician program takes nine months and costs about $3,200 for books and tuition.

"I have a standing order for 160 (structure and A&P mechanics) from Evergreen right now," says Stogsdill. "And 200 more when they get their new hangar.

"Our placement rate for structural-repair program (graduates) has been around 98 percent for 17 years."

And he says he gets calls from employers all over the country, some from places that pay more than Tucson.

Maintaining, repairing and storing planes around Tucson

--Evergreen Air Center Inc.

Location: Pinal Airpark, just north of Marana off Interstate 10

Web site: www.evergreenac.com/

Employees: 610 full-time-equivalents, with anticipated hiring of 250 more in early 2007

What do they do? Maintenance, repair and overhaul, storage and recycling of commercial airliners and air freighters.

What's new? Evergreen modified a Boeing 747 as the Evergreen Supertanker, a forest- fire-fighting water bomber the company is marketing.

--Hamilton Aerospace Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Global Aircraft Solutions.

Location: 6901 S. Park Ave., Tucson International Airport

Web site: www.globalaircraftsolutions.com

Employees: 300, no immediate plans for expansion

What do they do? Maintenance, repair and overhaul, interior modifications and sale of commercial airliners.

What's new? Doing a strong business in reselling U.S. air carriers' older planes overseas.

--DunnAir Business Jet Completion Center

Location: 1555 Aero Park Blvd. at Tucson International Airport

Web site: www.dunnair.com/

Employees: 51, with additional hiring as needed, mostly of former Bombardier workers.

What do they do? Interior refurbishment and painting of corporate and private luxury aircraft.

What's new? Just starting up, increasing marketing effort by visiting air shows with new luxury corporate jet mockup.

--Bombardier Aerospace, factory service center

Location: 1255 E. Aero Park Drive (Tucson International Airport)

Web site: www.bombardier.com

Employees: 650; some hiring, in particular looking for structural repair technicians.

What do they do? Maintenance, repair and overhaul, service, interior modifications and painting of Bombardier's corporate and regional jet series aircraft.

What's new? Strong sales of Bombardier's corporate and regional jets suggests plenty of customers for firm's Tucson service center.

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