Twin Ports aviation industry flying high

In July 1999, I was a young reporter in Duluth working at KDLH-TV. I covered just about everything as you do on the general assignment beat. One of my most memorable stories was about a burgeoning Duluth-based aviation company called Cirrus Design. Cirrus had created a unique and innovative product – a small airplane equipped with a parachute.

I can remember very clearly traveling out to Cirrus, which is still located near the Duluth International Airport. After years and years in the development, design and manufacturing process, Cirrus was about to deliver its first parachute plane – the SR20. If I remember correctly (it has been a while after all), the new owner’s name was Walt Connelly, a businessman who loved to fly.

In the years since, Cirrus has also released the SR22 and its various generations. The company, which was founded by brothers Alan and Dale Klapmeier, has also changed ownership. There have been tough times there – very tough times, as I’ll explain later. But today, Cirrus is working on something I find fascinating – a jet. This Cirrus video shows the jet prototype.

Duluth’s aviation industry has come a long way since that rookie reporter covered the very first customer delivery of a Cirrus airplane and witnessed a little slice of the Twin Ports’ storied transportation history.

Like many small to midsize cities, Duluth was hit hard by the economic downturn, but folks in the Twin Ports are looking ahead to new economic prosperity as a result of a current job growth boom in the region’s aviation sector.

Let’s start with a big building Northwest Airlines left behind.

More than 200 airplane mechanics are now working at what was once the Northwest Airlines maintenance facility. They work for AAR Aircraft Services, a Chicago-based company that does maintenance on commercial airliners. And dozens more jobs need to be filled there as demand for maintenance services goes up.

Mechanics service jet at former NWA Maintenance Base in Duluth, Minn. 2013 (KARE-TV/MPR News photo)

It was a combination of what the city could do, the facility and the availability of people. That’s truly what drives us to go to where we go,” says Danny Martinez, who is Vice President of Technical Services with AAR.

After sitting almost empty since Northwest Airlines went bankrupt in 2005, AAR has brought life and jobs back to the old Northwest maintenance base. The city of Duluth owns the facility and when Northwest wasn’t using it anymore, had to pour about $100,000 into it every year, just to keep up the building.

The company worked out a financing deal with Duluth to lease the facility and received some incentives from the state. AAR has hired 230 people since last fall. Many working there today are former Northwest mechanics who lost their jobs during hard times in the industry and a strike several years ago.

AAR is now servicing Air Canada jets in the hangar, which is located at the Duluth International Airport. The building was originally built for $52 million to specifically service Northwest’s Airbus aircraft.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness helped bring AAR to Duluth at a time when other cities were vying for the business.

“We won the competition based on the quality of the facility as well as the availability of the quality workforce,” says Ness. “Duluth is becoming a premiere aviation town.”

The maintenance base, combined with the rebounding of Cirrus, and upstart airplane maker Kestrel in Superior, are expected to account for 1,500 aviation-related jobs in the Twin Ports over the next five years, according to Mayor Ness.

So let’s look at Cirrus – a story about ups and downs.

The company hit very tough times during the recession, as demand dropped dramatically. Sales fell 60 percent in the 2007–2008 timeframe. Hundreds of people were laid off as a result.

Manufacturing planes at Cirrus Design in Duluth, Minn. 2013 (KARE-TV/ MPR News)

“We did have considerable changes in our employment through the period…We were producing 600 airplanes annually. We had over 1350, close to 1400 employees in the company and so when you talk about demand level dropping down by 50-60 percent, you see a likewise drop in employment as well,” says Cirrus President Patrick Waddick. “The good news…as we grow again, it’s really been exciting to see some of those people be able to come back into the Cirrus family.”

A leaner Cirrus currently has approximately 640 employees and is working on the small jet airplane project. Waddick says Cirrus is expected to hire at least another 100 people in the next several months as the jet project ramps up.

Across the bridge in Superior, Wis., startup airplane builder Kestrel plans to hire about 600 people over the next few years as it starts to manufacture its small airplane.

“Started building a first airplane while I was in college,” says Cirrus founder Alan Klapmeier, who left Cirrus after not seeing eye to eye with Cirrus’ new owners. Klapmeier is now leading a new venture designing another aircraft – the Kestrel turboprop, which is designed in part for corporate flyers.

New Kestrel aircraft computer model in Superior, Wis. 2013 (KARE-TV/MPR News)

The design is now undergoing the long FAA certification process. It will be manufactured in Superior with the first airplane delivery by 2016.

“The need for personal transportation is only going to grow and the technology has been matching that. We can do it better than we did in the past. Better performance, easier operation, safer,” says Klapmeier. “The design that we’re working on has tremendous utility.”

This Kestral video shows the turboprop prototype.

Along with those bigger aviation companies, the industry is growing in other ways. Duluth’s new terminal building opened earlier this year and several other smaller aircraft service businesses as well as parts suppliers are also located in and around Duluth.

“We have established some roots as an aviation industry hub…and once you have established those roots and established a reputation of having both businesses and jobs and having a nice place to live it starts building on itself and that’s what’s happening,” says Don Monaco, who is president of the Duluth Economic Development Authority and is well-known in Minnesota’s aviation community. He is also an aviation business owner and member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

You can see my story on Duluth aviation tonight at 10 on KARE 11, and see it online later tonight at kare11.com.