Latisha Catchatoorian WRAL
Nash County has soaring industry in aviation and aerospace
April 14, 2021
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  • With one of the largest manufacturing workforces in the Southeast, the lowest corporate income tax in the nation and two deepwater seaports, North Carolina is an aerospace industry leader.

    North Carolina is home to over 200 aerospace companies including Honeywell Aerospace in Nash County. Because of the state’s nationwide status and potential, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina is committed to maintaining this trajectory through a statewide plan to promote North Carolina as an aerospace industry leader and grow its presence.

    “Our network of 72 publicly owned airports, and the aviation and aerospace assets that rely on them, move our economy forward by creating jobs, supporting business growth and connecting people and companies to markets around the globe,” said Bobby Walston, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation Division of Aviation.

    Nash County in eastern North Carolina is a major contributor to the state’s aviation and aerospace industry. With the presence of Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport located in Nash County and local companies like Honeywell Aerospace, the county is making its mark. In fact, the N.C. Department of Transportation Division of Aviation reports RWI provides 450 jobs and $2.9 million in tax revenue annually, as well as creates a statewide economic impact of $70.5 million.

    “The general aviation airports in our state are vital to the quality of life and economic well-being of the communities they serve. This is especially true for those that serve more rural and economically disadvantaged communities,” said Amanda Conner, aviation business development manager for the N.C. Department of Transportation Division of Aviation. “They support the vital industries that these areas have. People also need to remember that not all industry is found in large metropolitan cities. Companies need convenient access to the factories, plants and offices that are located outside those urban areas.”

    With a large advanced manufacturing and agricultural presence, Nash County is the perfect place for a regional airport like RWI, a public airport that covers 364 acres. RWI, which won the 2019 FAA General Aviation Safety Award, is home to 24 aircraft and conducts 29,810 operations annually.

    Its location just three miles from I-95 makes it convenient for those conducting business locally or in nearby Raleigh or Durham, as well as allowing for the seamless flow of distribution along the east coast. RWI is located five miles from one of three Nash County-owned industrial properties, the 142-acre I-95 N.C. Distribution Site.

    “Nash County, this area is a prime location, demographically and geographically because of its location where I-95 and U.S. 64 come together. We’re just East of Raleigh and every day we’re seeing more business come through this corridor,” said Dion Viventi, director of Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport. “There’s also less traffic congestion here, which makes it appealing for people who want to utilize the airport.”

    “The uncongested nature of these airports is attractive for companies looking to house their aircraft fleets. These private planes, especially jets, are significant tax bases for many of our areas. A single jet, for example, can generate the property tax revenue of an entire subdivision of homes without the need for much of the supporting infrastructure like roads or schools,” added Conner.

    The airport is a hub for businesses with national and global reach, transporting both goods and services. Customers include companies like Cummins, Bridgestone Americas, Pfizer and Clayton Homes — some of the biggest employers within and surrounding Nash County — as well as corporate business executives, engineers, air ambulances and noncommercial pilots out for weekend flights.

    “The services that are being provided by the airport can be to service nearby industrial parks, as well as other industry sectors elsewhere that are looking to operate efficiently and effectively,” said Conner. “A mile of highway takes you a mile down the road. A mile of runway can take you to anywhere in the world, depending on the aircraft and its capabilities.”

    Thanks to $20 million in state, federal and local funding over the past few years, RWI in Nash County has undergone several upgrades and has more on the horizon. New construction of hangar facilities, a taxi runway rehabilitation project and self-serving farm fuel stations are already underway, while plans for above-ground fuel storage are forthcoming.

    “The City of Rocky Mount, the City of Wilson, Edgecombe County, Nash County and Wilson County all came together unanimously and partnered up with the N.C. Division of Aviation and the FAA to fund all of these improvements for the airport because we realized that there is growth happening here,” said Viventi.

    However, RWI isn’t the only aviation or aerospace economic driver in Nash County. Honeywell Aerospace, which employs 270 people, is one of Nash County’s and the state’s industry leaders. The Rocky Mount, Nash County site produces fuel controls for commercial and military aircraft.

    “These controls provide fuel flow to the engine for an efficient burn,” said Stephanie Lewis, the Rocky Mount Plant Director for Honeywell Aerospace. “These fuel controls are used for a wide variety of aircraft and helicopters — business jets, commercial jets, military jets and various other aircraft. We also make an engine that goes on a U.S. Army tank, as well as some other accessories like pumps and actuators. However, our primary business at the Rocky Mount site is fuel control.”

    Honeywell’s presence in Nash County is a reflection of Eastern North Carolina’s development and overall growth across several industries. Honeywell’s Aerospace group, which generated more than $11 billion in revenue in 2020, chose Nash County due to its growth potential and ideal location. As an EDPNC brochure put it, aerospace companies like Honeywell “choose North Carolina for its winning combination of location, world-class workforce, existing industry strength and business-friendly environment. Top-tier customized training programs support the industry’s continued success.”

    To put the impact of Rocky Mount’s Honeywell site into perspective, a Rocky Mount supplied fuel control helped pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger famously land on the Hudson River safely in 2009 after both engines were disabled by a bird strike. All 155 passengers aboard survived.

    “When Sully lost the main engine due to a bird strike, he powered up a Honeywell APU [auxiliary power unit] and that fired a fuel control that comes only from this facility. When he lit that engine, he then had electrical power to control the flaps, which allowed him to take the plane — a tin can at this point, and essentially turn it into a glider to land safely,” said Lewis. “This story is the pride and joy of this facility. We talk all the time with our employees about the quality of the work that we produce and how lives are counting on our product. This is an example of our product in action.”

    TheRWI regional airport and aerospace manufacturing presence in Nash County is but one moving part of a statewide industry that is primed for expansion and development in the coming years.

    “Nash County is open for business, especially for aviation and aerospace and we welcome all future development to the county”, said Andy Hagy, Nash County economic development director.

    “We have a history in aviation and aerospace with being the first in flight going all the way back to the Wright brothers,” said Conner. “Through our efforts and the state’s economic industry, we’ve been able to maintain that legacy and Nash County is a part of it.”