Up close with Duluth’s aviation cluster

Cirrus Aircraft -- The now-Chinese-owned private aircraft manufacturer keeps its headquarters and main production facility in Duluth, with additional production in Grand Forks, N.D., and a new customer-centric aircraft delivery center opening soo...

Clockwise from left: Eddie Echevarria, a prepper, Zach Wohlstrom, a painter and Tom Carroll, a detailer, finish off the exterior of a Cirrus SR22T. Bob King /

Cirrus Aircraft - The now-Chinese-owned private aircraft manufacturer keeps its headquarters and main production facility in Duluth, with additional production in Grand Forks, N.D., and a new customer-centric aircraft delivery center opening soon in Knoxville, Tenn. The company that revolutionized the private aircraft with its composite elegance and whole-airplane parachute is awaiting final Federal Aviation Administration approval on its Vision Jet. Cirrus just received FAA approval on a special missions platform for its single-engine SR22 and SR22T models, opening up a world of defense and law enforcement possibilities. Bill King, executive director of business development, said Cirrus competes not only with other aircraft manufacturers, but with luxury sedans and exotic sports cars in a race to tantalize people’s sense of transportation possibilities. Cirrus’ advantage, he said, is that it makes the world a smaller place for its users, who can board a Cirrus plane and avoid clotted weekend cabin traffic on the highway. “It’s about what people do with their time,” King said. “What we offer is something totally different. It’s a time machine.”   

AAR - Beyond the airplane hangar that can harbor up to four Airbus passenger jet aircraft is a bay full of toolboxes in every shape but only one size: big. The maintenance, repair and overhaul outpost - the smallest of five MROs for the international aircraft services provider - houses 375 workers, many of them A&P mechanics. Their private toolboxes are sacred. Some of the Airbus A319, A320 and A321 visits are maintenance checks and some monthslong stops for aircraft to be stripped to the bones and put back together for updating prior to leaving with a clean bill of health. Mark Ketterer, 59, vice president of operations at the facility, got the aviation bug young and spent a first career working with Northwest Airlines before it merged with Delta Air Lines. “My dad was a B-17 pilot in 1942 for the Army Air Corps,” he said.  

Hydrosolutions of Duluth - President and owner Dan Larson played tour guide through a labyrinthine one-story manufacturing complex at the airport. “They used to store warheads here,” he said. His company produces 140 parts in just its Cirrus package and does 93 percent of its business in the aviation sector, including supplying Boeing parts for its iconic Apache helicopter. The parts are cut to precision using high-pressure hydrojets or formed seven ways from Sunday using hydroforming. One piece of metal shaped and formed 16 different times into the skull of a headrest is lighter than multiple pieces fastened together. “We’re like an engineer’s dream,” Larson said. “If you can conceive it, we can build it and make the first part useable.”     

SCS Interiors - Father and son Dave and Mike Hudyma are owners in charge of one of the city’s oldest businesses, formerly Brigham Upholstery, and newest manufacturing facilities on Prosperity Road near the airport. Always looking for people who can sew, SCS has adapted around an aviation core, getting back into doing restaurant furniture and even private jobs, like classic car interior restorations. “You can lose business as soon as you can get it,” Mike said. “You can’t get too comfortable.” The company started out doing one plane a month for Cirrus, then two, then up to five a week and 10. “At best we were up to 18 airplanes a week,” Mike said. In 2016, Cirrus business has settled in at seven planes a week, while the company also does work for other aircraft manufacturers, including Cessna and Mooney International.

Ikonics - As CEO and president of Ikonics Corp., Bill Ulland could have played it safe. The head of a decades-old Duluth company specializing in the “awards and recognition” industry, Ulland chose risk and expanded the company using its core technologies - ultraviolet chemistry, film construction, industrial ink jetting and precision sandblasting - to create “sound-deadening technology for jet engines.” He brought in Sue Boudrie early on as operations manager, prizing her career in aviation and the connections that came with it. Side-by-side they’ve forged new contracts, creating acoustic liners out of composite materials sent to them by jet engine manufacturers. Like a lot of aviation manufacturers, Ikonics is a subcontractor, making a single part to be part of something bigger. The panels have hundreds of uniform holes sandblasted to precision in a newly expanded manufacturing facility in Gary-New Duluth. Sand grit is blasted through a template of holes in company-made masking film. As a measure of its the precision quality that is a defining characteristic of the local industry, Ikonics’ products “are 99 percent acceptable,” Ulland said, “with only a 1 percent reject rate.” Added Boudrie, “We’ve defined this process. We don’t make too many errors.”      


SEH - Short Elliott Hendrickson is a St. Paul-based engineering and architectural firm with an office in Duluth. Long a consultant for smaller airfields in places such as International Falls, Cook, Tower and Orr, it recently entered into a five-year consulting deal with the Duluth International Airport - its biggest airport to date. SEH is overseeing a $43 million restoration of the airport’s main runway that is being done in phases and will take until 2018. A controversial decision earlier this year to delay the extension of the airport’s shorter cross-wind runway in favor of restoration of the main runway temporarily upset officials at AAR. But workarounds are now in place that will allow AAR’s Airbus aircraft to continue to fly in and out during reconstruction. “The focus right now is preserving the existing infrastructure,” said Benita Crow, SEH project manager for aviation based in St. Paul.    

Duluth Airport Authority - For a long time, explained Executive Director Tom Werner, commercial airlines weren’t as profit-sensitive as they are today. It was more important for airlines to display a broad footprint, so flights in and out of Duluth didn’t need to be full so long as they illustrated the reach of the airline. With the recession and mergers, it’s become a margins game and securing direct flights to places beyond Minneapolis, Chicago and seasonally to Detroit is the biggest challenge facing the local airport. While constantly in talks with airlines in an attempt to draw new flights to Duluth, Werner said the airport will need help from local residents who have been conditioned to drive to the Twin Cities for their flights. With a $78 million passenger terminal upgrade completed in 2015, including a skywalk from the parking ramp. “People don’t even have to go outside in the winter,” Werner said. Built for future growth, now it’s up to the people to come. Said Werner, “This is a community issue as much as it’s an airport issue.”  

Lake Superior Helicopters - Nobody in the local aviation industry cluster does what Eric Monson does - work solely with helicopters rather than airplanes. Primarily a flight training outfit with four helicopters in hangars skirting the airport, Monson started his business at the start of the recession in 2009. “I figured if I could do it then I could do it anytime,” he said. With Vietnam-era helicopter pilots reaching retirement age, the world is ripe for a new wave of helicopter pilots and Monson’s group is meeting the need. Monson’s goal is to reach 100 employees and he’s more than a fifth of the way there. He’s mesmerized by helicopter flight and how the bubbled cockpit puts a pilot right out in the open. The company has a contract with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for fire suppression, and he and his pilots also provide service for surveying work, photography, a variety of North Shore tours and air rides at community events. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “We average 300 passengers in a weekend.”

Monaco Air - By the time he bought a Cirrus SR22 in 2003, Don Monaco had lived a first career as a senior executive and consultant from Accenture. The first time he was in Duluth was to pick up his aircraft, and he liked what he saw. He bought the assets of North Country Aviation and established Monaco Air, which services commercial and private planes with fueling, maintenance and de-icing, and passengers with an array of services including customs, catering, limousine service into the city and more. Monaco just finished renovating its facility and hangar that’s now both modern and cozy, featuring private showers and sleeping rooms, full-service business offices, a kitchen, lounge, living room and more. “I wanted to start something fresh,” said Monaco, a Chicago native, on his motivation. He’d like to see the airport add more direct flights, including to Denver. Of de-icing and refueling commercial airliners, he said, “That’s a big part of our revenue stream.”

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