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Small crew ties up loose ends as Boeing prepares to close Wichita site

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at 8:01 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014, at 3:22 p.m.


The final Air Force jet to receive maintenance at Boeing Wichita, an E-4B, flew out of Wichita last Thursday.

Now, a small crew is working on finalizing the move of the equipment, closing out programs and tying up loose ends as Boeing closes its Wichita site.

Once that’s finished by the end of July, Boeing will keep fewer than a dozen workers on site to maintain the massive facilities until the Boeing property is sold, said Boeing spokeswoman Yvonne Johnson-Jones.

That will make it easier to turn the keys over to a buyer.

“There is vital equipment there that has to stay running,” Johnson-Jones said.

The next E-4B needing maintenance will fly to Boeing’s facility in San Antonio instead of Wichita, the Air Force said last week. That will happen in late June.

Future work on VC-25s, commonly called Air Force One when the president is on board, will be done in San Antonio as well, it said.

Boeing has been a fixture in Wichita since 1927 and once employed as many as 40,000 people.

It was a vital center of military production during World War II, building trainers and the B-29 Superfortress and helping the city become known as the Air Capital of the World.

In January 2012, Boeing announced it was closing its Wichita facilities and moving engineering work and program management to Oklahoma City, maintenance work to San Antonio, and tanker work to the Puget Sound area in Washington.

The transfer of work is about 95 percent complete, Johnson-Jones said.

The decision to close was made as military programs at the plant matured, came to a close or were winding down with few prospects for new work.

“It’s been very difficult to watch,” said Bob Brewer, Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace Midwest director.

“To drive down Oliver and not being able to see that Boeing sign is something that myself and thousands in Wichita didn’t think we would ever see,” said Brewer, who joined Boeing in 1973. “There’s been a lot of careers come through those doors over the last 85-year period.”

In 2005, Boeing sold its commercial airplane division in Wichita to Onex Corp., which formed Spirit AeroSystems.

At the time Boeing announced the closure of its military operations in Wichita, it employed 2,160 people here.

That included about 560 engineers.

Many of the engineers retired or went to work for Spirit, Brewer said. About 150 moved with Boeing to Oklahoma City.

Fewer than 10 engineers are still working for Boeing Wichita, he said. A few, six to eight engineers, will work virtually from Wichita because a statement of work will extend beyond the closure date.

Boeing has issued layoff notices each month during 2014 as it winds down work.

“We’re losing people right and left,” said Frank Molina, Machinists union District 70 president and directing business representative. The Machinists represent Boeing hourly workers.

Some of those hourly workers retired, and others were laid off. Some moved to Boeing jobs in Seattle or St. Louis. Others have left Wichita for jobs with other companies.

Only two Machinists transferred to Boeing’s maintenance facility in San Antonio, but they’re on loan and coming back, Molina said.

Boeing didn’t offer Machinists a relocation package to move to San Antonio, and the move would have meant pay cuts and lost benefits, he said.

Some of them leaving the company hold desirable high-level security clearances known as “Yankee White.”

“Those are hard to come by,” Molina said of the clearances. “There’s a lot of money invested in a Yankee White.”

Some companies are trying to recruit some of those who retired and hold the clearances, Molina said.

San Antonio is ready to take on the transfer of work, Johnson-Jones said. The Air Force agreed.

“Boeing has demonstrated to the USAF the San Antonio facility is prepared to support the June 2014 E-4B PDM (Programmed Depot Maintenance),” Air Force spokesman Daryl Mayer said in a statement.

Boeing enlarged an existing hangar there to take on the VC-25 and E-4 work, which are modified 747s. The expansion is complete, Mayer said.

“Contract actions are moving forward as planned to support maintenance operations at San Antonio for the VC-25 and E-4,” he said.

Property for sale

Boeing has seen good interest in the sprawling site along South Oliver. It includes a 325-acre flight line with hangars, storage and other buildings and an 85-acre office complex.

Tim Chase, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, is optimistic there will be a sale. But it could take time.

“The property is so unique, there will come a buyer that just fits them perfectly,” Chase said. “But it’s going to take longer than perhaps a more generic building might take.”

Boeing listed the facilities with real estate firm CBRE last year.

Chase and GWEDC officials have been meeting with interested parties about the Wichita community and about incentives available for businesses.

There have been some serious suitors.

“I thought we were getting close a couple of times,” Chase said of completing a deal.

The property should generate and has generated a lot of interest, he said. “But it is a complex piece of real estate.”

The hangars and the flight line facilities are large buildings with tall ceilings, he said.

They don’t have an enormous amount of electrical power for buildings of their size. But they have “good power” and the ability to add more, he said.

“You really need to find a user that has to have that enormous tall ceiling with very wide open space,” Chase said. “That kind of narrows the next generation of users.”

The facilities would be well suited for a company in the maintenance, repair and overhaul business, he said.

“We have been attending events around the country, and internationally, for that matter, to make sure the folks who are in the MRO business are very well aware that this is an asset that is going to be available,” Chase said.

Multiple parties have been looking at the real estate and saying, “Hmmm. That could really work well for our business if this contract comes through or that contract comes through,” Chase said.

Others have been interested but don’t have enough demand right now.

They will keep the site in mind if they get a contract, need to be operating quickly and need space, he said.

“We don’t know when or if they might receive a contract,” Chase said. “They know there’s a potential of a place to go.”

Others have been curious about the property and want a look, he said. They may have a possible use for the property or know about the buildings and want to see how they might develop a use for them.

Boeing’s 85-acre office complex, which has a lake and three large office buildings, has generated less interest than the hangars and flight line.

“That said, I think the office buildings are extremely good assets,” Chase said.

Some of the space on the east side of Oliver also could be used for manufacturing, depending on the product.

“If you‘re talking about subassemblies that need a lot of space, you’ve got a great asset,” he said. “If you’re talking about automotive bumpers, that’s not the highest and best use.”

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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