Oshkosh Looks to Lure Aviation Businesses to Wittman Regional Airport
July 27, 2014
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  • Oshkosh enjoys a global reputation for aviation one week each year that local officials want to parlay into a thriving industry the other 51 weeks of the year.

    The Experimental Aircraft Association has ensured that “Oshkosh” and “The Spirit of Aviation” are synonymous for more than three decades now. It continues a connection that dates back to Sylvester “Steve” Wittman, a man who got his pilot’s license from Orville Wright, and continues today with innovators like Sonex Aircraft and Basler Turbo Conversions.

    For the other 51 weeks out of the year, Wittman Regional Airport bears no resemblance to the mecca of aviation it is today as AirVenture 2014 launches.

    Wittman’s direct economic impact — 548 jobs supported, $23.6 million in wages, $750,000 in tax revenue in 2012 — resembles that of the Central Wisconsin Airport or La Crosse Municipal Airport. The UW-Extension office’s ongoing study of Wittman’s economic impact found the number of jobs and the wages they pay declined from 2007 to 2012 while the statewide aviation industry has grown to $7 billion.

    Federal, state and local governments, as well as the business community, have funded efforts to develop an 80-acre aviation business park at the southeast end of Wittman Regional Airport, a related business accelerator program, regional coordination and studies to identify aerospace industry clusters to recruit to the airport.

    Local aviation industry partners applaud the effort, but also say it will require aggressive recruitment, careful planning, foresight and some luck as they pursue growth in an industry that’s showing signs of struggle in many sectors.

    “We used to be known as the Paper Valley. Now, our long-term vision is to become the Aerospace Valley,” AeroInnovate Director Meredith Jaeger said. “The opportunity is there. People know Oshkosh and aviation. They know EAA. It’s time we capitalize on that recognition.”

    Aviation training

    On a warm morning in late June, Fox Valley Technical College’s Spanbauer Center parking lots look like you would expect during summer break: Empty.

    The doors are locked. The halls inside unlit. It’s silent.

    But wind your way through a maze of classroom-lined hallways and you’ll find Aeronautics Pilot Training Lead Instructor Jared Huss and Instructor Jordan Tews busy with 16 future pilots. They’ll be busy with them most of the summer before another 22 students arrive for the fall semester.

    “We’re full based on our current resources. If demand kept up, we’d definitely explore doing more,” Huss said.

    Huss knows the Spanbauer Center will play a vital role in any effort to attract businesses to the region. That Fox Valley’s aviation programs produce pilots and airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics is going to be vital as the industry confronts a looming shortage of both pilots and mechanics.

    The Government Accountability Office, GAO, forecasts that 18,000 pilots from major airlines in the United States will reach mandatory retirement age by 2022. The GAO also forecasts that regional airlines will need about 4,500 pilots per year for the next decade to fill the void. The flight-training industry can only produce 2,500 to 3,000 per year.

    Sonex CEO Jeremy Monnett said FVTC is chief among the community’s assets as Oshkosh prepares to implement a Department of Defense-funded marketing report that will identify aviation clusters to pursue. He said pilots and mechanics are vital to almost every segment of the industry, from experimental aircraft kit designers like Sonex to large-scale production efforts such as Basler’s conversion of DC-3s for a variety of uses.

    “A lot of companies want to make sure the land, facilities and talent are all there,” Monnett said. “The aviation sector in general is hard-pressed to say they’re setting the world on fire. But Wisconsin has made positive moves in incentives beneficial to aviation. And we have a lot of benefits: Fox Valley Tech, two general service companies, two flight schools, one fixed base operator and manufacturers.”

    Basler Turbo President Tom Weigt is more blunt.

    “We need a labor supply,” Weigt said. “A supply of good labor is vital, so we need the school next door (FVTC) to be successful. Without good people, we won’t have a product.”

    Huss said the college is pursuing certifications and connections in the industry that have the potential to help draw students from a much larger area, which can only bode well for future growth.

    “There’s no reason we can’t enter the national stage to bring people to the area,” Huss said. “Students like to see a path to a job, what it looks like and how they can get where they want to go. And the more options we can lay out for them, the better.”

    Jaeger, the lead local liaison on the study, said sectors of the industry show promise and the region’s existing assets can appeal to several sectors of the aviation industry. She said it fits with AeroInnovate’s core mission to bring aerospace entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and established companies together to bring new technology and innovation to the market.

    “We want to help bring technology to the marketplace so flying can be more effective, efficient, affordable and fun,” Jaeger said. “There are challenges, but there are cool things happening, too. We just need to recognize our strengths and use them.”

    Jaeger isn’t waiting around for utilities and roads to be built in the aviation business park to get started on tapping into those cool things and waves of the future. She said the marketing study will be completed this fall and AeroInnovate has already started to engage early stage startups.

    Explorer Solutions provided the community with a different approach to the marketing study. As part of the contract, the Montreal-based company will recommend three targeted clusters the city can pursue, provide a list of several businesses to target and will help the community implement its recommendations through the end of 2015.

    Recruiting targets

    So what to go after?

    Monnett said avionics businesses that specialize in electronics, technology and equipment for aircraft displays continue to show very strong sales growth and could synergize well with other businesses in the region.

    Huss and Jaeger both noted non-military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles appear poised to explode and would dovetail perfectly with EAA’s experimental heritage.

    “The collaboration we can do between our programs and a UAV manufacturer would be great. There are a lot of programs at the college that could help a company like that,” Huss said.

    And Weigt said an aircraft engine and parts manufacturer would go a long way toward making the region more attractive to a variety of users.

    But the cluster approach isn’t the only avenue to potential businesses the effort will use, Jaeger said.

    The AeroInnovate accelerator program will welcome four to six aviation startups to Oshkosh for a “business boot camp” in April 2015 to aid startups with validation, development, building relationships and business planning.

    The idea, Jaeger said, will be to “create so much value for them here that they don’t want to leave.” And with 80 acres of land being prepared, opportunities could be plenty.

    Still, Jaeger estimated it could take five years of consistent effort, investment and support before things start to take root. And therein lies the most daunting challenge for Oshkosh.

    Local ties

    Sonex President John Monnett remembers when Oshkosh came to visit him in Elgin, Ill. Monnett Experimental Aircraft was, peculiarly enough, based miles away from the nearest airport back then, in 1980, and that was OK with Monnett.

    But Monnett said representatives of Chamco Inc. and the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce had a good story to tell — and an aviation legend to boot. Steve Wittman himself made the trip.

    Oshkosh was the new home of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The agencies could introduce him to companies and bankers to help with financing and manufacturing, who welcomed the experimental aircraft designer with open arms.

    It worked. And in 1981, the company moved its operations to the east side of Wittman Regional Airport. Monnett Experimental was sold in 1986 and the Monnett family founded Sonex a short time later.

    John Monnett is excited for the potential bringing fellow innovators could generate, but he also cautions that he is a “realist.”

    Winter is a drawback, he said. Other communities are aggressively recruiting businesses to the south with unbelievable offers. The Oshkosh story has to be comprehensive and enticing to stand any chance of working.

    “An aggressive mindset is vital,” John Monnett said. “But what do you put in the (incentives) package? How do you build that positive synergy?”

    But Oshkosh has only shown brief flashes of that right mix of coordination, support and pursuit of aviation companies in the years since. Basler found its way to Wittman in 1990 and few other outside innovators have heard Oshkosh’s call.

    A fair portion of the stall in the city recruitment efforts can be attributed to a shortfall of land for a long time. The city counted available acres near the airport in single digits. But Jaeger said the aviation business park fills that void.

    Monnett is also a realist about Wittman’s assets, however.

    “This airport is great for testing and development,” Monnett said. “Anyone EAA-oriented would jump at the chance to be here.”

    Weigt said EAA’s huge impact on key areas of the aviation industry can serve as the city’s trump card. There’s already evidence that strategy could pay dividends as D’Shannon Aviation has announced plans to relocate its engine overhauling business to Oshkosh because of the opportunities to be close to EAA and to collaborate with the aviation businesses already here.

    “AirVenture naturally focuses a lot of attention on Oshkosh,” Weigt said. “It’s an event. It’s the thing. It’s a very big deal, which makes it the ideal place for a company like ours or Sonex to do business.”