Within months of moving into its expansive addition at its facility Chattanooga Airport in Tennessee (CHA), West Star Aviation already has had a full hangar, backlog of work, new authorizations, and long-range plans for even more growth.
West Star opened that expansion late last fall, adding a newly built hangar, paint facilities, and initial backshop and administrative space spanning more than 110,000 sq ft, bringing its total footprint at CHA to more than 175,000 sq ft.
Plans for that addition began shortly after West Star moved into Chattanooga. The company laid out a vision to build the site into another major center that could provide an anchor in the Eastern U.S.
West Star gained a foothold in the Chattanooga market with its 2015 acquisition of a hangar formerly owned by Jones Management Services Company. Even before West Star was ready to reopen that facility for its MRO operations in early 2016, it already found a need to ensure that a second shift was staffed there. When West Star held its open house that spring, it announced plans to construct another hangar on a 13-acre tract on the opposite side of the airport, along with a paint facility that would rival that at its major Grand Junction, Colorado location.
East Coast Foothold
For West Star, building a base at the small city on the southeast corner of Tennessee was a key part of its future growth strategy, because it gave the company a presence that could be easily accessed by operators in the East and the South, said Steve Goede, who stepped in as the new general manager of West Star’s CHA facility late last fall as the expanded facilities came online.
West Star had built up a presence in the West and Mountain regions with its Grand Junction location and has augmented that with satellite locations. In the Midwest, West Star has its major facility in East Alton, Illinois, as well as in Perryville, Missouri. These, too, are augmented with satellite facilities. The MRO chain further has expanded into the Southwest, along with its specialty services, with its acquisitions in recent years of companies including Dallas Aeronautical Services, Avant Aerospace, and Flite Components.
CHA offered a chance to build up an East Coast presence. “We have a big customer base coming from the East Coast. They had flown over a lot of our competition to get to [Grand Junction or East Alton]. So Chattanooga was a desirable location. You have Nashville, Knoxville, Huntsville, and Atlanta all within two hours. This location has easy access.” Further, it provides a draw for international customers, he added. “Florida is kind of a touching point for international customers to come in for U.S. Customs clearance. Chattanooga is not far away."
Local and regional authorities made the location even more attractive to West Star. Goede pointed to strong support from the city of Chattanooga, the state of Tennessee, and the local airport authority. This was critical in the decision because the company previously had had a smaller base in Columbia, South Carolina, but a lack of support from the region caused the company to move out of the area.
“Chattanooga is one of the fastest growing airports in the eastern region. And within Tennessee, it was the most developed and brought on the most workforce last year,” he added. “There was the vision that Chattanooga is really willing, wanting, and able to work with us. ”
Along with the strong support for its presence at CHA, another draw was the support for the company to build up the labor force, an effort helped by plans for Volkswagen to also expand in the region. “We kind of piggyback off of each other in a sense is that Volkswagen has a lot of painting need, as do we,” Goede said, adding the companies also shared the need for mechanical expertise. “We're both driving a lot of labor into Chattanooga and creating opportunities that have been pretty successful. It's challenging at times. But we've been pretty successful in doing so.”
This effort has included building partnerships with local schools. One such partnership involving Brainerd High School in Chattanooga provides an internship with a path to repairman certification. The company also is investing by donating aircraft skins, scrap accessory components, wheels and tires, and other parts to schools to spark interest in maintenance among younger people and to help develop skills.
With this outreach and other recruitment efforts, West Star has built up an employment base of roughly 140 at CHA, and Goede said the company has been hiring. He added that he could see the base eventually grow into the size of Grand Junction or East Alton, which each support about 450 employees.
But the foundation began with the shift of about 20 employees from Columbia to Chattanooga. West Star also shifted initial tools and equipment from Columbia to its new CHA site.
The MRO began in the original Jones hangar with a range of capabilities, but initially, the company would “cross-utilize” assets of its other locations for certain work such as those involving avionics, interior, and paint.
“We weren't doing full detail or extravagant paint jobs. It was more touch-up,” Goede said. “We had the capabilities at other sites, and we had the vision and the direction that we wanted to go down here. So we got our feet wet.”
That original hangar mostly focused on the midsize and smaller aircraft, such as Hawkers, Citations, and Learjets, but it did accommodate some larger aircraft. That hangar is still in use, primarily for smaller and midsize aircraft.
Built for the Future
Significant to the location was that it had reached an agreement in 2017 with Embraer to become an authorized center for Phenoms, Legacys, and the Lineage over time. This agreement factored into West Star’s design considerations as it laid plans for the major expansion. Goede noted that the tail of the Lineage is nearly 34 feet. Few business aviation hangars can accommodate that. As a result, the new facility was designed with a 28-foot-high door, but also with an additional stacked opening, or “tail door” that can go up to 36 feet. The Lineage authorization was formally granted earlier this year, just a few months after the new hangar opened. “The relationship with Embraer is very strong,” he said, adding that its presence on the East Coast has led to the authorizations across the OEM’s business aviation lines.
But the design considerations weren’t limited to Embraer aircraft. The new 40,000-sq-ft hangar was designed to accommodate the largest and latest lines of aircraft, he added. The Gulfstream G650 and Bombardier Global 7500, he said, “are visionary planes that require a lot of thought. Those aircraft take up a lot of real estate.” They not only require width for the wingspan but like the Lineage, height for the tail, he said, adding all of this was taken into account. “When we went into thinking about the construction of this facility, we're long-term: what's the next business line, what's the next product, what are the OEMs building today and what are they going to release in the future. We want to be ready.”
The design goes beyond hangar size to tooling and capabilities. West Star is working with OEMs to support maintenance monitoring to efficiently diagnose problems. And while not ready to discuss details, he said, “there are a few things going in the background that we’re working on.” But he stressed it all comes back to the employees on the floor. “West Star has a huge commitment each year to training,” he said, not only for new hires but ongoing education for its technology to keep up with the latest technologies.
A jewel of the CHA campus is the 48,000-sq-ft state-of-the-art paint hangar. Based on the paint hangar opened in 2015 at Grand Junction, the CHA facility is built with a downdraft that pulls air directly down and prevents overspray and controls the direction of paint. The facility also uses a cross draft and more environmentally friendly chilled water. While these are not new technologies, the combination of these features “all play into the end product” improving efficiency and workmanship, Goede said.
Throughout the facilities are LED lights, which not only are more environmentally friendly but will reduce costs.
West Star is continuing to fill out its interior shops with new finish booths, eight new sewing operations, and a sanding downdraft either recently installed or coming shortly. “We're investing pretty heavily into our interior build out. That's an expansion that's currently going on and is going to complement the business very nicely.”
The company is seeing a steady flow of paint work from major operators—with a backlog that extends for several months—along with completions and refurbs. Like everyone else, West Star CHA is getting substantial inquiries for ADS-B upgrades. And while the shop prefers to bundle work, it also keeps space dedicated for just the ADS-B upgrade. “The backlog is an issue, but today we're not letting anything slip. We're not turning anything away.”
Another strong area is Wi-Fi upgrades “Everybody wants it and it’s kind of an expectation,” he said. West Star has been investing in sheet-metal technicians, a specialized expertise that is required for such installations. “It’s a very fine art,” he said, adding that such experts are not easy to find. “In order to [limit] downtime, we're doing multiple shifts with sheet metal,” he said.
Goede believes the opening of the newest facilities came at the right time, just as major milestone inspections are kicking in for Bombardier Globals and Embraer Phenoms. “We definitely want to have the capacity and the capability to be the one-stop shop and complete everything on site. “
To that end, West uses its own on-site designers and is adding structural and electrical engineers. The location already has numerous authorizations, including from the FAA, Transport Canada, and EASA, among others. In addition, it holds organization designation authorization and designated airworthiness representatives' approvals.
Goede expects the site’s expansion will continue. The new hangar was built with a second floor that for now is empty, but could provide space for immediate needs that might pop up. “With the needs of our business, oftentimes we need to expand quickly,” he said, citing work that materializes for accessories, avionics, interiors, and other back shop requirements. West Star already has 25,000 sq ft of back-shop space in use at the new hangar, but using the second floor could double that space.
“Because it's already in place, it's a less costly way to go. Going up is easier than going out, sometimes,” he said.
The company further sees land development opportunities both north and south of its existing hangars that would provide the ability to double or even triple the space they have now. “There are future plans,” Goede said, adding. “Obviously, it’s performance-based.”