The sky’s the limit for our regional aerospace industry

By Charlotte Weber

Next time you’re cruising in an aircraft at 35,000 feet, consider this: The engines humming outside your window may include parts manufactured right here in West Virginia, Ohio or Kentucky. Or the wings keeping your plane aloft may just as easily have been made by Tri-State manufacturers.

Our region boasts a dynamic aerospace industry, from clusters of major manufacturers to smaller suppliers scattered across the three states. The industry is ripe for growth. That’s why Marshall University, the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI), leaders in the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, as well as businesses and academia have joined in a unified, unprecedented effort to expand the regional footprint and develop a vibrant aerospace corridor in the region.


RCBI AERO, RCBI’s Aerospace Proof-of-Concept and Training Center, is assisting state companies in an effort to greatly expand and enhance the region’s aerospace industry.

As the first program with this goal in West Virginia to earn an award from the U.S. EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program, RCBI AERO is uniquely positioned to develop an aerospace corridor that serves the needs of prime contractors and suppliers, boosts the region’s workforce, identifies areas for growth, increases the rate of product development and connects manufacturers to funding and contracting opportunities in the aerospace industry.

The RCBI team is assessing capabilities of existing manufacturers and the current skills of our workforce, identifying those that can retool to become aerospace suppliers and assisting those that already manufacture aerospace components. Meanwhile, our Quality Implementation team is helping other manufacturers secure quality certifications required to supply major aerospace companies.

Appalachian Sky

One of the most exciting aspects of our efforts is the regional focus we are placing on economic development. Representatives from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky have joined the forward looking Appalachian Sky, a multi-pronged approach with a singular mission: to expand the aerospace footprint in the Tri-State, which will boost the economy and create higher-paying jobs.

This new spirit of cooperation was on display during RCBI’s inaugural Appalachian Next Generation Aerospace Conference, where more than 200 individuals from across the three-state region came together to network, share best practices and chart a course for aerospace expansion.

With strong support from Appalachian Power, an AEP Company, the Appalachian Sky group has identified existing regional assets and infrastructure that include:

  • 150 aerospace industries and service providers in the region, including the recently announced $1.3 billion Braidy Industries aluminum mill in eastern Kentucky
  • An abundanceof skilled labor, particularly in the metalworking sector
    • Readily available natural gas, coal and low-cost electricity
    • Existing higher education institutions, including Marshall University, Morehead State University, Shawnee State University and an extensive network of community colleges
    • Plentiful prospective building sites, including 90-plus acres of developable land next to Huntington Tri-State Airport, 25 acres at Yeager Airport for an aviation school and other development, and 150-plus acres at North Central West Virginia Airport in Bridgeport.
    • Robust transportation infrastructure that includes Interstates 64, 77 and 79, the nation’s largest inland port, Tri-State Airport’s designation as a primary commercial service facility, the Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility and two major railroads that serve our region
    • The Tri-State’s geographic proximity to markets, with more than 43 percent of the U.S. population within a 500-mile radius.

Maintenance & Repair Operation and Pilot School

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert has stressed that higher education can – and must – play an instrumental role in economic development. Gilbert says he believes the aerospace industry has great potential to transform the economy throughout the region, working hand in hand to enhance our current assets and attract new investors.

This is why Marshall University, RCBI, and others are joining with Huntington Tri-State Airport and Yeager Airport to study the feasibility of establishing a Maintenance and Repair Operations facility and an FAA-certified flight school. There’s a demonstrated need for these facilities. An October 2018 Boeing Global Services study found that between 2018 and 2037, more than 205,000 new civil aviation pilots and 189,000 civil aviation technicians will be needed, and that’s just in North America.

Aerospace Corridor

Federal designation of our area as an aerospace corridor could be a real game-changer. U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia recently joined with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Kentucky Sens. Rand Paul and Mitchell McConnell to request that President Donald Trump designate 19 counties in western West Virginia, southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky as an official aerospace corridor. This would provide tax incentives and other assistance to aerospace companies that locate or invest in the region.  West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice also is on board, personally appealing to President Trump to approve the designation.

Fourteen of the 19 counties across the Tri-State have been deemed AeroReady, which means they have the infrastructure and assets in place to support aerospace expansion. The other five counties are expected to achieve AeroReady certification by the end of 2018.

Further recognizing the vital strategic resource that aviation is for West Virginia, Gov. Justice issued a Proclamation declaring October 2018 as “General Aviation Appreciation Month.”

As you can see, exciting initiatives are underway to propel the aerospace industry in our region. Expansion does not mean moving companies from county to county or state to state; rather, it means creating a vibrant ecosystem that is inviting for new investments. Expansion of the sector provides the opportunity we need to diversify, grow our economy and provide good paying jobs – right here at home. Together, we will make it happen!