In the News

NIAR shows off freighter conversion program

Wichita Business Journal | Daniel McCoy

In a first step stakeholders believe can be a transformational addition to the production-heavy aerospace industry in Wichita, a Boeing Co. 777 passenger jet formerly used by Emirates has arrived for conversion into a cargo jet.

The work is being done by the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, which unveiled a 777 formerly flown as a passenger jet by Emirates at an event Wednesday at NIAR’s facility adjacent to Spirit AeroSystems Inc. on the Air Capital Flight Line.

The “Air Capital of the World” moniker was the theme for several of the event’s speakers, who said the NIAR program is an important step in making Wichita and Kansas a major player in the lucrative maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) industry.

“We want to be the MRO capital of the world,” said John Tomblin, NIAR’s executive director and senior vice president for industry and defense programs at WSU.

After announcing plans for the conversion work last year, NIAR in May was granted approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to be a Part 145 repair station and officially stood up the new WERX lab, headed by Dave Jones, to preform the work.

The NIAR WERX team in total consists of around 200 engineers, 100 aircraft mechanics and 45 students.

“This is a rare opportunity for students to gain experience working on an industry program alongside and under the guidance of NIAR’s seasoned team of experts,” Jones said. “Our engineers have the unique chance to pass their combined 7,500 years of experience in design, production and testing on to the next generation of aviation professionals.”

The employment numbers are expected to grow significantly in the years ahead as the organization brings in more work on freighter conversions and other programs.

‘We’re growing our own workforce at the same time we are producing,” Tomblin says.

To do the work, a company had to be formed. That resulted in the creation of the Kansas Modification Center, which is led by Jim Gibbs.

On Wednesday, Gibbs said the goal of KMC is in turn create an avenue for Wichita’s aerospace industry to generate generational opportunities.

And the company is thinking big, with Gibbs saying that KMC has submitted a proposal with the U.S. Air Force for a 777 conversion program that could be used to supply refueling tankers.

Gibbs and Tomblin said what is being done with KMC has been a statewide project, including the involvement of the Salina Airport Authority and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

“This opportunity is tailor-made for our state and our aerospace assets,” Kelly said Wednesday. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Concluding the media event was U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., whom Tomblin credited for continuously connecting the dots that help Wichita and Kansas attract new aerospace work.

In the case of the WERX lab, that’s included around $6 million from various federal agencies to help stand up the organization.

Moran remembered Wednesday saying several years ago at a Textron Aviation event that he feared Wichita was in danger of losing the Air Capital title.

But, he said, the work to diversify and grow in recent years by local manufacturers and other companies in the industry gives him confidence that Wichita will hold claim to the name.

However, he added, the formation of WERX is an example of how the city and state still has to keep pushing forward.

“We can never rest on our laurels or our assets, because the competition is great,” Moran said.