By Daryl Murphy
Like many Texas towns, Waco has long been involved with aviation. The city of 150,000, located halfway between Dallas and Austin, has been home to many aviation companies over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that some of its business leaders realized how big Waco had become on the international technology stage.
To be fair, the leaders didn’t discover that on their own; an informal group of local aviation businessmen brought it to their attention. The result was that in early September, about 30 local aviation companies convened to create the Greater Waco Aerospace-Aviation-Defense Industries Alliance to promote business and utilize synergies for contracts and business development.
On September 8, more than 400 business leaders attended a dinner event in Waco to hear Jack Olcott, the former National Business Aviation Association president and present head of General Aero Company, and James K. Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, speak about the city’s advantage in the trends of on-demand flying, particularly in the avionics and very light jet markets.
Coyne coined a line using the four letters of the city’s name that may have described Waco in a nutshell: a “Worldwide Aviation Commerce Opportunity.”
Waco is already home to two international avionics manufacturers, FreeFlight Systems (formerly Trimble Navigation), and L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (formerly Raytheon).
“The chamber of commerce attracted us to Waco four years ago,” said FreeFlight President Steve Williams, who chairs the alliance’s economic development committee. “They brought all of our employees here from Austin for the weekend, and then we put it to a vote whether or not to move. It was a unanimous decision, and even those who voted not to come said we should go ahead and move!”
One of the reasons FreeFlight liked Waco was that its existing aviation businesses offered secondary resources. Several aviation businesses met informally and determined what outsourced jobs were costing. When they informed the chamber, it went into action and secured local sources to fill the need.
Waco is not just an avionics kind of town. It’s home to battery manufacturer MarathonNorco Aerospace. RAM, Inc. overhauls and installs engines in piston aircraft, has engineered 110 supplemental type certificates for performance upgrades and has more than 760 parts manufacturer approval parts for piston twins. Blackhawk Modifications, Inc. offers STC’d upgrades to install 750 shaft horsepower PT6A engines on Conquest I, King Air 90s and Cheyennes, and CenTex Aerospace offers performance modifications. Brazos Helicopters has training and commercial operations.
Design and engineering firms include Advanced Concepts and Technologies International, Design Works and Steinbach & Associates. Parts support and Aurora Aviation, Dart Aircraft Parts, Haggard and Stocking, JAG Aviation, Servion, Myrisca Air and Wright Flight Solutions provide maintenance services. Defense contractors include Science Application International and McDowell Research Corp.
There’s no shortage of places to locate either a company or your airplane in Waco, either. It already has three airports and the prospect of a fourth, and the city’s economic development property includes 1,500 acres reserved for industrial use.
So far, the alliance has entered into discussions about relocation with 13 national and international aviation companies, six of which they consider advanced, and they promise that decisions will be made before the end of the year. At least one of those is an airframe manufacturer that is looking for a location for a regional jet service center.
Waco Regional has nearly 6,600 feet of runway, an instrument landing system and nondirectional radio beacon approaches. McGregor Executive has 5,500 feet of runway, and Texas State Technical College is a former airbase with an 8,600-foot runway and plenty of room for 747s, including Air Force One, which visits regularly to deliver people to the Western White House in nearby Crawford.
What’s on the horizon? Among other things, Steve Williams envisions a two-day annual trade show that has one day strictly for industry and the next for the public.
“Remember the Reading Air Show?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye.