Colorado aerospace nexus backed by Hickenlooper, Boeing, Harrison Ford landing at Centennial Airport

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AURORA |  Wings Over the Rockies has set course for an entirely new  journey and has top state officials, some of the biggest names in aerospace and even movie stars on board to make Colorado a Mecca for aerospace in the same way California became the nexus for tech.

“We want to create Colorado’s own aerospace alley,” said John Barry, Wings Over the Rockies president and CEO.

Honorary co-chairs of the Exploration of Flight project are Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and actor Harrison Ford.

The Lowry-based museum is set to open a second campus, the Exploration of Flight, at the Centennial Airport this summer. The 15-acre campus will serve as the home to two galleries, focused on the future of aviation and space travel, and a school that will serve middle and high school students looking to make their career among the clouds. Creators plan on the campus drawing together the state’s already-vast aerospace industry to create jobs, tourism and a new direction in air and space travel.

It’s not a museum, it’s a launchpad

The first phase of the ambitious project by Wings will be the 18,000-square-foot Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery, which will open up this summer and showcase the present and future of aviation in an interactive environment, including the potential for real-life airtime. Yes, plans call for patrons to make reservations and take a ride in the sky. The second phase in 2019 will bring the Ozmen Black Sky Gallery, a 12,000-square-foot facility, which will focus on the final frontier, the solar system and space travel.  

Across that 30,000 square feet of aviation and aerospace-focused space, Barry said roughly 50 people — some full time, some part time — will be employed once those two projects are complete.

Already, the project’s fundraising arm, dubbed the Wingspan Capital Campaign, has raised about $14 million toward their $24 million goal for the project, Barry said.

Barry said the expansion of the organization onto Centennial Airport makes it only the second air and space museum in the country to have two campuses. But while Wings’ Lowry location will remain focused on being a museum on the history of flight, Barry doesn’t consider the Centennial project to be a “museum.”

The former superintendent of Aurora Public Schools and retired two-star Air Force general said the new project will focus not only on educating the public on aviation and space travel, but inspiring the next generation to enter the aerospace workforce.

“Our mission is to educate and inspire persons of all ages about aviation and space, from the past the present and the future. To stay true to our mission, we want the Lowry campus to be about the past and Centennial to be about the present and the future,” Barry said. “It’s not a museum though. It’s meant to be focused on the current technology in aviation and space travel as well as the future.”

Part of the allure of this new campus is its location at Centennial Airport, the busiest general aviation airport in the state. The ability to intertwine the campus with an active aviation hub, and the multiple businesses that are centered around the airport, makes this a perfect place to launch this new project, Barry said.

“That makes this unique, the fact that it’s on the airfield,” Barry said. “This is a unique environment because it has a public and a private partnership, and a partnership between a museum, an airfield and an educational facility.”

Flight school before driver’s ed

While Wings is starting the project with the galleries, one of the biggest pieces of the project is the independently operated aerospace-focused charter school. The school will serve middle- and high-school students with an eye on training the next generation of pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and other aviation staff, Barry said.

“The intent is to help solve the problem of pilot shortages, aircraft maintenance shortages, air traffic shortages, engineering shortages,” Barry said. “This (school) will be about project-based learning.”

Part of why Wings wants to start this school is to help open the door for a career in the aerospace industry to students from all demographics and income brackets. Too often the notion of taking to the sky is one only reserved for “elites.”

“We want to open up the possibility (of a career in aviation) to all young people of all ages, in all locations, whether they’re rich or poor. We want to open it up to all diversities,” Barry said.

Barry said Wings is currently in discussions with area school districts and national experts as potential partners for the charter school that will integrate students’ education into the aerospace industry. The ability for a charter school to receive waivers from the state on education requirements means this school could create unique approaches for educational subjects.

For example, Barry said a student who’s interested in aviation might not have much interest in a history or a civics class. But if the class is centered around the history of manned flight or on the creation of the National Aeronautic Association, it’s meeting the student where they have the most interest.

Barry envisions a place where a student is able to get experience in the cockpit and be able to fly before they can even take their driver’s test.

The location of the school in the environment of an active airport means that not only will students have the opportunity to have hands-on experience, they’d be in perfect position for internships and externships with companies that populate the airport, Barry said. And students could leave with their pilot’s license, certifications in airplane mechanics, flight control operations or any other number of positions in the industry, all without incurring student debt.

And while there are still a lot of boxes to check before the school gets off the ground, Barry said Wings’ envisions this project as one capable of being replicated across the country. All it requires is an educational institution and an airfield.

“We want to serve as a catalyst to make this happen,” Barry said.

For an aerospace industry facing a dearth of skilled labor in the future, aerospace schools popping up across the country to address this issue is welcome news.

A growing industry with a shrinking workforce

In Aurora, aerospace has become big business in recent years, so any moves that could help the industry — be it pointing more students toward aerospace careers or a museum that sparks interest in aviation and space — would be welcomed by economic development officials.

According to the Aurora Economic Development Council, just four aerospace companies employ nearly 4,000 people at their Aurora locations.

Raytheon leads the way with 2,360 employees in Aurora, making it the second-largest private employer within the city’s borders. Northrop Grumman also has 750 employees in Aurora, Lockheed Martin has 600 and Boeing has 240.

Aerospace’s economic impact on Aurora goes far beyond what the private sector pumps into the economy every year.

As has been the case for decades, Buckley Air Force Base is the city’s biggest employer — public or private — with more than 12,000 employees.

According to the Metro Denver Economic Development Council, Colorado and the metro area in particular have become a hub of aerospace activity, by one measure trailing only California when it comes to that sector’s power in the economy.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the aerospace community in Colorado is a crucial one for the state.

“The whole notion of flight and being on the leading edge of space exploration depends on a pipeline of young, curious, excited kids,” Hickenlooper said. “Aerospace plays a huge role in developing more STEM students in our schools and creating quality jobs in our communities.”

The reason why Colorado is so attractive to the aerospace industry is rather simple, according to Jay Lindell, an industry champion for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

There’s a lot of talent based in the state, Lindell said.

“It’s not only degree talent, but also talent at apprenticeship technician level availability,” said the former Air Force Major General, who worked closely with Barry in the Air Force and on the Wings project.

Also reportedly backing the project is actor Harrison Ford, who’s the namesake sponsor of the Harrison Ford Theater at the Lowry Wings museum.

“We’ve got to encourage young people to be part of aviation if we want to preserve the freedoms and opportunities that we all enjoy,” Ford said in a statement to the campaign.

In terms of economic development, Lindell said the galleries will be significant.

“When you say aerospace in Colorado it’s really about capability,” he said. “(It’s) propelling the economy and national security. It’s just asking the question what’s out there that we don’t know?”

So, inspiration has been a large part of the entire project. Between a charter school and the two new museums, the entire project is meant to energize the future of the industry.

“It takes the whole ecosystem working together to propel growth. It’s local government, investors, trade resource and telling the story to the general public,” Lindell said. “This is where the museums are so important. It’s what the future holds. And that’s a big part of this, telling people how important it is to our society and economy.”

But even as Aurora and the rest of the metro area leans heavily on aerospace — AEDC has singled that sector of the economy as one of their main targets when they try to lure companies to town — the industry has faced the same challenge many high-tech industries have: A dearth of qualified employees around the country.

The Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group that represents defense and aerospace companies, said last year some projections say the industry could be short close to 85 million skilled workers worldwide by 2020. While the AIA report noted others say the issue isn’t quite that dire, many specific sub sectors of the industry, including aviation, have sounded the alarm in recent years about a lack of young people pursuing their careers.

“(The lack of aviation employees) is created by baby boomers retiring and the fact that a lot of our young people think this is an elitist occupation which they can’t aspire to, which is not true,” Barry said. “They need to know what the art of the possible is and that’s what we want to create in this aerospace alley.”

Barry said with all of the resources and advantages Colorado has to offer, with the right investments and a homegrown workforce the state can become the leader in the aerospace industry.

“The freedom of flight”

At the end of the day, Barry knows first hand the effect flight can have on a person. He’s spent much of his lifetime in the clouds and the excitement he has for sharing that experience with a new generation is palpable when he talks about this new project.

In just over 100 years, man has gone from a 12-second flight at Kittyhawk, NC to the Moon and back. And in the next 100 years, mankind will be able to accomplish the unimaginable.

“The freedom of flight is one of the most powerful things there is. (It’s amazing) to have an opportunity to have the tech at your fingertips and being able to master the air,” Barry said. “We’re just at the beginning stages. We’re not even at the beginning of the beginning. We’re going to be able to master this as a state, as a country, as a planet and be able to reach out beyond the stars. I don’t know anybody who can’t get excited about that.”