The sky's the limit for an emerging aerospace industry

Feb. 28—When Raleigh County Memorial Airport Manager Tom Cochran was growing up at Daniels, he could see airplanes flying into the airport in Beaver. They caught his attention.

There was little opportunity in Raleigh County for aviators, then. Many men in Cochran's generation went into the mines. Cochran, however, aimed for the sky.

He left West Virginia to train in aviation at Tulsa, Oklahoma. Later, he came home and spent his career managing the airport in Beaver where he can again — when he has time — watch even more planes fly into the airport thanks to pursuit of a particular vision of his.

As the underground jobs in his home state started to dwindle, and coal miners became unemployed, Cochran began to form a plan to bring more opportunities to the region.

In November 2019, he and Jina Belcher at the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA) began to lay groundwork for an aerospace industry in Raleigh County. Their plan is anchored by the airport but is already drawing federal educational funding into the region, along with other federal and state funds.

"This area needs the ability and the opportunity to be able to diversify ourselves into a different industry," said Cochran on Feb. 23. "Aviation is a great opportunity to do that."

Just outside of Beckley, the airport hosts 105 acres that Cochran believes would be prime property for development. He worked with Belcher, now executive director of the NRGRDA, to develop an infrastructure delivery plan at the site and to use the available space for development of aerospace industry jobs.

His vision led Appalachian Electric Power (AEP), the Tucson Atlantic Consulting and Common Sense Economic Development, and the University of Southern Mississippi awarding the region the AEROReady Community Certification in October 2019.

Federal, state and local agencies contributed $4.85 million to build the project, and, earlier this month, Cochran and Belcher secured the final $1.75 million in the form of a federal Economic Development Agency (EDA) grant.

Construction is anticipated to start at the airport this spring, according to a project engineer, and full-blown marketing could start next year.

The plan will allow for 16 new seven-acre sites, with at least four of the sites having access to the airport's runway.

On Feb. 23, New River Community Technical College President Dr. Bonny Copenhaver announced that New River CTC and West Virginia University-Institute of Technology would introduce companion programs to train workers for a career in the aerospace field.

New River CTC is developing a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified Aircraft Maintenance Technician School (AMTS) with an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) rating.

The program will dovetail with a corresponding bachelor's program in Aviation Management at West Virginia University-Institute of Technology, said Dr. Joan Neff, WVU-Tech Campus Provost-Beckley.

Displaced coal miners are a targeted demographic for the New River CTC program.

"We believe that the technical skills of those who work or have worked in the coal industry will transition to some of the skills that are needed for a very successful aviation mechanic," said Copenhaver. "Both of these fields are highly hands-on.

"Both of these industries need employees who can problem solve and then implement a solution, and both of these industries need employees who can see a potential problem before it becomes a problem and then take the appropriate steps so the problem never materializes," she added. "In short, we believe that there are many people in our communities that have the ability to do well in this new industry."

Copenhaver said that the college will seek state and federal grants, and private donations, to support the new program.

Local leaders are also hopeful that the industry will address, in part, the problem of southern West Virginia's steady population decline.

"This is going to attract not only individuals but also families to the area, to move here," Neff said on Tuesday.

Belcher credited Cochran's vision for the emerging areospace industry.

"We've known for 30 years since Tom's been at the airport that the transfer of ability, of skills, from the coal industry and aviation industry has long existed, but it gives me great pride and honor, leading NRGRDA and working with partners, to implement what I like to say is the vision that Tom has had for 20 years," Belcher said.

Broadband development is already being developed for the site, Raleigh Commission President David Tolliver said.

In 2021, Cochran is seeing his personal vision of bringing jobs within his industry to his home state.

"This is certainly a historic event for me," Cochran said of the pieces falling into place for the new industry.