Boeing in talks to sell south Wichita site, move Dreamlifter flights to Mid-Continent Airport

Boeing workers load a 787 composite forward fuselage section onto Boeing’s Large Cargo Freighter, the Dreamlifter for delivery to Everett, Wash., for final assembly.
Boeing workers load a 787 composite forward fuselage section onto Boeing’s Large Cargo Freighter, the Dreamlifter for delivery to Everett, Wash., for final assembly. Eagle file photo

Boeing, which has closed its Wichita site, is in discussions with a prospective buyer for its sprawling facilities in south Wichita.

As it works on a sale, it’s also looking at a potential move of its Dreamlifter operations to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Boeing is being mum on details of a potential sale of its property at 47th Street South and Oliver.

“We are still in discussions with a prospective buyer for the site, but cannot disclose any further details while contract negotiations are underway,” Kathleen Spicer, a Boeing spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Sources say a deal is getting close, however.

Boeing now flies specially modified 747s, called the Dreamlifter, to Wichita to pick up 787 Dreamliner forward fuselage sections built by Spirit AeroSystems. The planes land at McConnell Air Force Base and are loaded with the sections there.

Those operations may have to move if there’s a sale of the Boeing facilities, which are adjacent to McConnell.

Boeing announced in January 2012 that it would close its long-standing Wichita facility and move work to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Seattle area. Wichita operations ceased last summer. A handful of workers are still in Wichita to keep up the site until it sells.

Boeing and Wichita Airport Authority officials are talking weekly as Boeing considers its options for Dreamlifter operations, said Victor White, Wichita’s director of airports.

Boeing has asked the airport to provide a business proposal outlining the potential facilities available at the airport and the costs. White said he expects to have a proposal to them this month.

In the meantime, Boeing has hired a consultant to help analyze a move to Mid-Continent.

It would be a complicated move. The consultant is analyzing routes a specially modified truck would need to take to get the large fuselage sections from Spirit to the airport, White said.

“Coming from the Spirit plant on Oliver Street all the way to Mid-Continent is not a straight shot,” White said. The forward fuselage of the 787 is long, wide and tall and will take a large vehicle to move it.

“That’s what they’re looking into – finding the best route of streets to get them here,” he said. “ … They’ve already identified power lines that go across the top of the roads, signal light arms that go across the roads and signage. They’re looking into finding the path that has the least amount of those.”

Boeing will have to work with the various localities and entities involved – such as Westar, the City of Wichita’s traffic department and Sedgwick County – to determine what would be involved to make a route feasible for transporting the fuselage.

The best site at the airport for Boeing’s operations is the North Cargo ramp, White said.

“You’re talking abut a couple of 747 aircraft and having a parking place for them on a ramp and the loading operation alone is almost the same length as the airplane,” White said. “We’ve only got one place that it could conceivably fit.”

Large airplanes have flown into Mid-Continent before. But the airport has to make special accommodations when the mega Antonov, an enormous cargo plane, flies in once or twice a year.

“That’s a special occasion,” White said. When it does, “we close the taxiway.”

Boeing is talking about flying in 747s several times a week for 30 years, he said.

The runways and taxiways are OK. But a parking area and an access road for the vehicle transporting the fuselages would have to be built inside the airfield.

“We have to have an exclusive, guaranteed spot that won’t interfere with anybody else,” White said. “That’s been our challenge and is why we haven’t given them a proposal yet.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in this thing.”

Should the operations move, the airport would potentially earn significant revenue each year from rent, landing fees and fuel sales needed to support the center.

White thinks there’s probably a 50-50 chance that the operations will move to Mid-Continent Airport. Staying where they are may be an option as well, he said.

But Boeing isn’t talking about the sale, White said.

“It’s all top secret,” he said.

If Boeing decides to move its Dreamlifter operations, it will not happen overnight.

“All we know from our standpoint is that they have said that if they come over here, they’d like to do it probably sometime in 2016,” White said.

It will take time to make the decision and complete a transition to make it happen. For one, Boeing will have to design and build a special loader transport vehicle, White said. That would take a year or so.

Still, the move would be welcome if things can be worked out.

“It would be an exciting thing to make this happen at the airport,” White said. Watching the 747 Dreamlifters fly in “would be like an air show every week.”

The site is close enough to the new terminal building that passengers at the far north-end gates could watch them being loaded in the early mornings, White said.

“It’s a great story, and we’re hopeful that we can make it work,” he said.

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