People move through the halls of West Star Aviation’s front office. The phone rings and a receptionist answers while a hopeful candidate waits for his interview. Daily news runs on a flat-screen TV as coffee brews.
Behind the offices, a long corridor leads to West Star’s main hangar — holding at least a dozen private or executive aircraft from around the world. The sound of air tools and running hydraulics systems fill the hangar. Maintenance and repair workers duck under massive jet engine wings and climb through open aircraft. Some planes are stripped of paint, exposing their metal exterior. Others are meticulously taken apart for inspection or repair. This hangar is only one portion of West Star’s massive operational space. In other sections, the scent of sawdust and fresh varnish engulf the room as woodworkers craft shelves and custom works of cabinetry. Upholsters expertly stitch and sew elaborate patterns into cushions giving new life to old seats.
West Star, a maintenance and repair organization (MRO) for business, corporate and private jets, has operated in Chattanooga since 2015. Their services include repair and maintenance of airframes, engines and auxiliary power units, avionics installations and repair, major modifications, interior refurbishment, exterior paint, accessory services and part sales.
In six years of service, the company has grown to over 250 employees spanning multiple departments. Each year West Star sees approximately 600 projects averaging between seven and 30 days to complete.
In December, West Star announced a $17 million investment to expand its footprint in Chattanooga — bringing 100 of the best new jobs to Tennessee. The upcoming expansion will enable West Star to increase its clientele and take on about 850 projects per year.
This expansion retrofits one of the existing hangars to include a new design studio, designated customer accommodations, additional interior capacity and includes construction of a new 40,000-square-foot hangar with an additional 17,000 square feet of shop and support space. West Star also plans to lease an existing 20,000-square-foot hangar from Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, bringing their total operational footprint from nearly 180,000 square feet to approximately 266,000 square feet.
Walking through the already immense footprint of West Star’s main campus, it’s hard to imagine what the true scale of this expansion will be.
Steve Goede, general manager of West Star Aviation in Chattanooga, shared his insights into this expansion and how it affects our community.
Trend: What were some deciding factors behind this expansion? How far does West Star extend?
Goede: Demand from our customers and growing clientele is pushing this expansion today. We service a number of international airplanes that come in for maintenance, and the accessibility they have to Chattanooga is wonderful. We now have a presence here in the Southeast, which allows for better coverage.
In addition to our other primary facilities in East Alton, Illinois; Grand Junction, Colorado; and Perryville, Missouri, we also maintain satellite facilities at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Chicago Executive Airport, Centennial Airport in Denver, Colorado, Conroe-North Houston Airport and Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport. We also have an aircraft on ground (AOG) and mobile repair team that provides nationwide coverage — 24/7, 365 days a year.
Trend: This expansion brings 100 new jobs to Chattanooga. What type of talent are you looking to attract?
Goede: There are a few key positions and skillsets we’re looking to recruit. First, airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics. This certification requires mechanics to attend an FAA-approved aviation maintenance technician school or have 30 months of experience with airframe and power plant maintenance. We hired a technical trainer who helps mechanics achieve their A&P certificate through on-the-job training in lieu of traditional classroom-based schooling. This is a skillset we’re absolutely looking for and is critical to our growth. In addition, locally, we’re looking for paint specialists, interior upholsters, wood artisans with experience in veneer or finishing, and aircraft detailers. There are many opportunities to become a part of West Star locally.
Trend: What positions are available? How are you recruiting?
Geode: We’re accepting applications for A&P mechanics, painters, upholstery technicians and woodworking artisans. We’re actively seeking talent to join the team and have begun recruiting for our expansion, even though our facility’s completion is not slated until 2023. We’re starting to ramp up our community involvement around kids groups and veterans to get people interested in aviation while supporting good causes. We also have a very talented internal recruiting team that attends trade shows and school events to attract future talent. At capacity, this expansion will bring 100 new jobs — it’s going to be a diverse and fun team when fully staffed.
Trend: When is construction expected to begin? Will this coincide with Chattanooga Airport’s terminal expansion?
Goede: The steel building is slated to arrive in August of 2022. The site is prepped and developed in partnership with Terry Hart (president & CEO) and the Chattanooga Airport. The expected commercial operation date is May 2023. There is no connection with the airport’s terminal expansion. But, we fully support the airport’s expansion and are looking forward to having more opportunities for our customers to utilize the airport. The terminal expansion will complement the new parking garage and long-term parking additions, which will make the airport more accessible and be well-positioned for future growth.
Trend: Who are some of your community partners in this expansion? How did these collaborations start?
Goede: There are many partners from the State of Tennessee to the City of Chattanooga, as well as Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County. The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport has been very supportive and I could not ask for a better partnership between Terry Hart and his team. Also, TVA and EPB have incentivized additional job creation. These partnerships are invaluable to us and their support has been incredible. Their response to our growth has been very forward-thinking and we look forward to continuing those relationships.
Trend: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Goede: West Star has been voted No. 1 MRO by Professional Pilot Magazine for eight years in a row. That is a great achievement for our teams at every location, because this vote comes from the customers. Aviation is a fast-paced and high-energy career. Passenger travel would not happen without qualified people routinely inspecting, repairing and maintaining these complex and exciting aircraft. Pride comes with the work that my team delivers, which is ultimately fulfilling. Our expansion provides an opportunity to create competitive-paying jobs and advancement opportunities, and I’m very excited to add new employees to our winning team.
West Star’s growth in Chattanooga continues to expand a niche within an influential market. The company hopes this growth will ripple into our community in many ways, whether by supporting Chattanooga’s hospitality industry, sending patrons to bars and restaurants, or attracting a new market to our many outdoor amenities. This way, West Star aims to further our local economy while connecting Chattanooga to businesses across the country and around the world.
To learn more about West Star Aviation in Chattanooga, visit weststaraviation.com.
Images courtesy of West Star Aviation.
Rendering of upcoming West Star headquarters courtesy of Janice Ratner at Tectonic Management Group, Inc.