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Tucson Firm to Hire 300 to Convert Airliners to Freighters for Israeli Company



Sep. 27—Tucson-based Ascent Aviation Services plans to hire about 300 workers at its Marana facility at Pinal Airpark, where it will convert passenger airliners into cargo planes for one of Israel's biggest aerospace companies.


Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Ascent's Marana Aerospace Solutions signed a 15-year agreement to establish a conversion site and carry out passenger-to-freighter conversions on twin-engine Boeing 777-300ER long-haul aircraft starting in 2024.

The local company has begun early work to erect two 90,000-square-foot hangars at its site at Pinal Air Park to support the conversion work, said Scott Butler, chief commercial officer for Ascent.


The prefabricated fabric-covered metal buildings, which will join an existing, somewhat smaller hangar for widebody planes, will go up relatively quickly after ground and utility work is completed, Butler said.


IAI launched its B777 conversion program in 2020 with partner AerCap, an Irish aircraft leasing company. Besides the Marana site, the company plans conversion centers in Seoul, South Korea, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


In March, IAI's Aviation Group completed the initial test flight of its first-of-its-kind B777 cargo conversion, known as the B777-300ERSF.


The company, one of Israel's biggest aerospace and defense firms, is in the final stages of the certification process for the converted planes and expects to receive required supplemental-type certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration and Israeli aviation regulators sometime in 2023.


IAI President and CEO Boaz Levy said in prepared remarks that the agreement will support the advanced capabilities his company offers customers to meet the growing demand for cargo aircraft around the world.


Levy expressed confidence Ascent can set up the hangar facility in time to deliver its first plane conversion next year.


Ascent, an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider at Tucson International Airport for decades as successor to the former Hamilton Aerospace, merged with Marana Aerospace in 2016 after expanding at TIA.

Ascent is one of North America's largest independent aircraft aftermarket services providers in the world, offering heavy maintenance, component maintenance, flight-line and reclamation services for widebody jetliners, as well as smaller narrowbody and regional aircraft.


Between the TIA and Pinal sites, the local operations now employ about 550 workers, Butler said. The company also opened a small maintenance operation last year in Roswell, New Mexico.


Lasting growth


"We look forward to getting started on our hangar buildout and bringing dozens of aircraft to Arizona to support the maintenance and modification services required," said David Querio, president and CEO of Ascent Aviation Services. "This long-term collaboration agreement will bring lasting growth to the Tucson aviation community."

Butler noted that IAI has been converting planes like four-engine Boeing 747 jumbo jets and Boeing 757 and 737 airliners for decades.

"They're leaders in the industry there, so it made a lot of sense when they approached us to work with them," he said.

And there should be plenty of work to do, as many older airliners are being retired in favor of newer, more fuel-efficient models such as Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

"As operators look to retire those 777s, it makes sense to give them a home in the freighter world, because two engines are more efficient than four engines on the ( Boeing) 747s companies are operating," Butler said.

Ascent already has begun some training with existing staff on IAI's conversion program, which involves cutting a cargo door in the aircraft and reinforcing the door area and the overall airframe to handle palletized cargo, Butler said, adding that some employees will be sent to Israel for training.


Wide hiring net


The company is seeking to hire for a range of positions, including licensed airframe and power-plant mechanics, but the company has its own training programs for less experienced workers, who can perform many tasks under supervision of a licensed mechanic, Butler said.


Ascent has hired many graduates of Pima Community College's FAA-accredited aviation technology program, located next door to the company's site at TIA, and Butler said Ascent is looking forward to more after the school recently completed a major expansion that will double its enrollment to about 250 annually.

But while Ascent got a temporary bump in business by storing commercial airliners grounded during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic has only worsened the shortage of skilled aircraft mechanics by prompting more older workers to retire, Butler said.


Entry-level wages will start at $22 to $25 per hour, plus overtime, and the company is hiring full-time workers with benefits, Butler said.


Experienced and licensed mechanics can earn much more — the median national wage for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians in 2022 was $34.01 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Butler said the company is working with the Arizona Commerce Authority to identify state financial incentives, which are conditioned on hiring and wage levels.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 520-573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz

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(c)2023 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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