NIAR Werx's 777 Cargo Conversion a 'Beachhead' Program

 - September 10, 2021, 12:31 PM
NIAR Werx's first Boeing 777-300ER passenger-to-freighter modification project will be conducted inside the organization's 111,000-sq-ft hangar in Wichita. (Photo: National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University)

Officials behind the NIAR Werx and Kansas Modification Center's (KMC) new Boeing 777 passenger-to-freighter conversion program say it is the first of many modification programs to come. Werx and KMC took delivery in September of their first Boeing 777-300ER for the cargo conversion program. Werx director Dave Jones told AIN it is the first of three conversions of the Boeing widebody jet that the organization’s MRO program—in partnership with KMC—expects to complete and deliver by the end of 2023. More 777s will follow, added KMC CEO Jim Gibbs.

Werx is a two-and-a-half-year-old organization founded by the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University to provide a host of services to OEMs, suppliers, other businesses, and military aviation companies—especially startups—seeking to do projects as small as one-off parts manufacturing all the way up to retrofitting commercial airliners for special missions and other purposes. At the same time, it provides real-world learning and experience for WSU engineering students and students enrolled in the airframe and powerplant and avionics programs offered by the university’s technical college, WSU Tech.

Under the 777 project, Werx will assist in the development of an STC for the conversion, which along with the license for such a conversion will be owned by KMC, a new company founded by Gibbs.

Additionally, Dynamic NC, a Rose Hill, Kansas-based aircraft supplier specializing in one-off and complex parts, will provide the parts manufacturing required for the conversions. Gibbs told AIN that what makes the project unique is that all the companies and organizations involved in the 777 cargo conversion are located within a few minutes of each other. “If ever there’s a problem, we are 15 minutes away from touching everything in the system,” he added. “The only thing that we don’t have on-site today is paint. I anticipate that we’ll be able to offer that service on-site here within a year, well before [777] aircraft delivery.”

Jones said modifications will include cutting a hole in the side of the aircraft and adding a structure around it to support a cargo door, plugging the 777’s passenger windows, installing a new floor with rollers, and creating new space for extra crew and crew rest quarters.

He noted that the project will benefit engineering, A&P, and avionics students by giving them hands-on experience with a commercial aircraft, which in turn will help the school attract more students in those disciplines regionally. Jones also expects the project to boost Werx’s workforce in the coming years. “We’re seeing more than 1,000 [employees] working on this in years to come,” Jones added.

Werx currently employs about 200 engineers, 100 mechanics and technicians, and dozens of WSU students who work from a handful of former Boeing Wichita buildings that include hangars measuring 111,000 and 47,500 sq ft. A new, 70,000-sq-ft hangar is expected to open in mid-November.

Gibbs notes that the 777 cargo conversion is the first of the other programs KMC is working on that could benefit from “the same business process we’ve developed.”

“This [777] program right here is more of our beachhead program than anything else,” Gibbs said. “And while it will be a great program and last for years and years and years, truly it is the start of the first of many programs of this type.”