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Bouncing back

Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services is expanding with a new hangar in Wilmington, OH, but the investment means a great deal to a local community bruised more than once by the aviation industry. Ian Harbison reports

The histories of Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services (AMES), and the Wilmington Air Park where it is located, are closely interlinked.


The airfield was a USAF base until 1972, when it was decommissioned and closed. This closure was the first major hit to be felt by the local community (1,500 military personnel and 800 locals worked on the base). However, the closure meant that there was a well-maintained airfield with a runway, maintenance hangars and other facilities ready to be converted for civilian use. A further advantage was its location, between major airports at Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton. Local government accepted the challenge and responded by establishing the Community Improvement Corporation, which took over the base and renamed it the Wilmington Industrial Air Park. Southern State College and the Laurel Oaks branch of the Great Oaks Vocational School were also set up to provide a trained workforce for any employers who took up residence in the park.


In 1978, Midwest Air Charter moved in, operating a mixed fleet of aircraft to move cancelled cheques on behalf of the US Federal Reserve and a number of banks. Two years later, Midwest was acquired by Airborne Freight Corporation (AFC), beginning cargo operations under the name Airborne Express, eventually becoming the biggest McDonnell Douglas DC-9 operator in the world.


In 1980, AFC also purchased 447 acres at the Air Park and began developing its airline hub. In January 1985, the freight corporation elected to use the trade name of Airborne Express, followed by a name change to ABX Air in 1988. A runway extension project was initiated in 1991, replacing 1,000ft of overrun with 1,000ft of new runway; an additional 700ft of runway was also added, plus 200ft of overrun. In the same year, a major expansion of the Wilmington Air Park was announced, including a new 9,000ft runway and a third maintenance hangar.


The introduction of the first Boeing 767 freighter into the fleet took place in 1998, when the maintenance department was involved in hush kitting the DC-9s and modifying DC-8s to meet Stage III noise level compliance. Five years later, it started a relationship with Innovative Solutions & Support, becoming the exclusive worldwide distributor for its DC-9 Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) technology.


However, the biggest event came in August 2003 with the acquisition of the company’s sales and ground network by DHL, including the Wilmington Industrial Air Park from CIC. As a result, ABX Air became an independent publicly traded company, entering into contracts with DHL to continue providing air service. In 2007, the business was reorganised into a holding company, meaning ABX Air became a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Transport Services Group (ATSG). At the same time, ATSG acquired Air Transport International (ATI), another cargo carrier based in Irving, TX.


A year later, things turned sour as the area received its second, and biggest, hit: DHL abandoned the US domestic package delivery market and moved its international business to the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport with UPS – this resulted in the loss of over 8,000 local jobs and the retirement of the DC-9 fleet. Despite the loss of DHL business, ABX Air survived and, in 2009, was again restructured by ATSG, with its maintenance and engineering organisation being spun out as a new wholly owned subsidiary: the current AMES.


The community also made a valuable gain. The Mayor of Wilmington was actually in Bonn at DHL headquarters to be told the bad news in person by the president of the company; luckily he had the presence of mind to ask that DHL consider donating the Air Park to the community to allow it to rebuild once again. In early 2009, discussions began and, in June 2010, in one of the largest public donations of private land in the state of Ohio’s history, the Air Park was duly handed back to the Clinton County Port Authority, which had been established in 2004 to promote economic development and job creation.


Jim Savastano, Vice President Technical Operations, says AMES is responsible for heavy maintenance of 40 Boeing 767-200s, nine 767-300 freighters, eight 757-200PCF/Combi aircraft and one 767-200 passenger aircraft. These are operated by ABX Air and ATI, or alternatively leased by another ATSG subsidiary, Cargo Aircraft Management. The latter includes 13 aircraft leased to DHL. ATSG owns a total of 36 of the 767-200s, the remaining four being owned by DHL but operated by ABX Air. >>

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