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Wichita Tries To Boost Its Aviation Industry With Smaller Planes


Wichita, Kansas calls itself the air capital of the world, but sales of the business jets made there plunged during the recession, and they've struggled since. A couple of fresh business ideas may help - one is get more people to travel in small, private planes. The other - use business jet technology to build a fighter plane for customers in the developing world. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Wichita has been through some tough years recently, and so has Kevin Bell.

KEVIN BELL: Yeah I've had my ups and down. So has aircraft. It has its ups and down.

MORRIS: Bell sits outside his trailer house smoking. His face shows a lot of wear. He was laid off six years ago. He took advantage of vo-tech classes and put in dozens of applications, but nothing worked.

BELL: My unemployment ran out. I'm thinking, crap, now what do I do?

MORRIS: The mayor of Wichita, Carl Brewer, knows the feeling. He remembers the day a letter hit his desk announcing aircraft industry layoffs - 3,000 of them.

MAYOR CARL BREWER: And, you know, I thought surely that has to be a typo. And you made the phone call, and they said no, there's no typo. And, oh, by the way, confidentially, there'll be more to follow.

MORRIS: Lots more.

JEREMY HILL: We've lost about 16,400 jobs, and that's the net, not the total.

MORRIS: Jeremy Hill, an economist at Wichita State University, says fear and tight credit shot down small plane sales. Now money is flowing again, but small plane manufacturers are still shedding workers.

MORRIS: The solution for Wichita might be right here in New York - Times Square, in fact, where a company called Wheels Up is located.

KENNY DICHTER: We found a new market. It's robust. It's a great niche.

MORRIS: Kenny Dichter says Wheels Up makes flying on business planes cheaper and easier. Instead of owning a plane or leasing a percentage of one, his customers pay a membership fee plus about four grand for every hour they fly. Dichter is even rolling out a phone app for booking.

DICHTER: The amount of travel that we could stimulate through Wheels Up can be very, very meaningful in terms of kick-starting certain lines of business out in Wichita.

MORRIS: He's talking mainly about this line - the enormous old factory where they build Beechcraft King Airs, a twin-engine turboprop

CHRISTI TANNAHILL: We've been making these airplanes for 50 years.

MORRIS: Christi Tannahill runs the whole King Air operation. She says Dichter's order of 105 new planes really helps.

TANNAHILL: We know every year that we're going to continue to produce more airplanes than we've built before because we've got a large customer and partner, such as Kenny, purchasing our airplanes.

MORRIS: But the small plane industry isn't counting on just one venerable old turboprop to tow it out of the doldrums. It's also gunning for a whole different type of customer with a brand-new jet.

DALE TUTT: This is a Scorpion aircraft - designed, developed here at Textron AirLand over the last two-and-a-half years.

MORRIS: The guy standing here beaming at this mean-looking craft is Dale Tutt. He leads the design team that's cobbled together a warplane mainly from business jet parts. At 20 million bucks a piece, the Scorpion is several times cheaper to buy and to fly than, say, an F-16, but a lot slower, too. Tutt says it's designed mainly for developing countries that can't afford more advanced attack planes.

TUTT: We can fly all of those same missions with the Scorpion at a much more affordable cost.

MORRIS: I don't see a gun.

TUTT: We don't have a gun. We have ability to put a gun pod on the airplane. So this is like every engineer's dream.

MORRIS: Every unemployed engineer, especially. And Tutt says there are plenty of them here from Cessna, Beechcraft and Boeing to staff the Scorpion design team. Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst, says repackaging Wichita business jet parts and know-how is great but...

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: ...Here what they're doing is imagining a theoretical market and creating a product to meet that market. But I'm not so sure this market exists at all.

MORRIS: Aboulafia is also skeptical that Wheels Up alone can spark a surge in airplane manufacturing. Still, he says things are looking up for Wichita.

ABOULAFIA: You know, all the numbers look great.

MORRIS: Corporate profits - up. Used planes on the market - down. Aboulafia says sales and eventually jobs should follow. Kevin Bell is back in the game. He's landed a job building nose sections for Boeing 787s in Wichita as the city and the aviation industry here try to get ready for takeoff again. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.

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