Sky’s the Limit – Ascent Aviation: David Querio

Tucson may have the most diverse aerospace sector on the planet.

People fly planes, fix them, rebuild them, store them, mothball them, show them off and send them to Nigeria, Afghanistan, Saturn and Mars. Innovations for next generation aviation components abound in Tucson’s bountiful aerospace sector.

Of all the high-tech sectors in town, aerospace is the most mature, employs the most people and truly has the most entrenched world-class status. Yet, somehow, aerospace flies largely under the radar. Yes, we know Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Raytheon Missile Systems dominate the southern edges of town, but there’s no real buzz that aerospace flies sky high in Tucson.

“I think aerospace companies are very humble by nature,” said Joe Snell, chief executive at Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities. “They are closed lip by nature.” Tucson supplies missiles to more than 40 countries, trains F-16 pilots from 24 of the 25 countries that fly these fighter jets, supplies the Boeing 737 and MD-70 jets that fly the Third World skies, commands U.S. Air Force operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, houses the Air Force’s A-10 assault jet fleet and produces the flight management systems found in a large share of business jets. Down the road in Sierra Vista is the world’s premiere development center for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the aircraft of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is just a small sampling. In all, Tucson’s aerospace sector has nearly 200 companies or government agencies that employ upwards of 20,000 people with an estimated annual payroll of $992 million.

They make fireproof insulation, landing gears, electronics, fasteners, radio systems, lightning detectors, composite components, cameras and optics systems, black boxes, space suits, hydraulic systems and super-first-class seating. They completely disassemble and reassemble passenger jets.

“You look up and see something in the sky. Tucson does anything that has to do with the aircraft, the whole life cycle of aircraft — sales, research and development, manufacturing, training of pilots, service, storage,” said Steve Pagnucco, general manager at Universal Avionics, a Tucson firm that makes flight management systems and cockpit voice and data recorders.

“It’s extremely diverse,” said Mike Mullins, a Memphis-based site selector for aerospace companies. “We feel Tucson is a city where we could engage another 500 or 700 people in aerospace without any issue. By the end of 2010, we will see a significant turn in production with opportunities for Tucson to grow more aerospace people.”

“Business Facilities” magazine in August 2009 ranked Tucson No. 6 and Phoenix No. 8 as best cities in the United States in the aerospace/defense manufacturing sector. Earlier in 2009, Scottsdale real estate investment firm DMB Associates took the lead to establish an Arizona Aerospace Institute to arouse enthusiasm for aerospace and build upon the state’s strengths.

The aerospace industry doesn’t resonate much louder in Phoenix. “Arizona has the fourth largest footprint of aerospace. Nobody knows that,” said Karrin Taylor, DMB’s executive vice president and an advisory board member at the aerospace institute.

“We have Boeing, Raytheon, Honeywell. Yet we take that for granted.

“As a state, we need to coordinate business, political and industry to maximize the opportunities to grow a footprint that is already large. We have to become more cooperative. That will take definitive action by the political leaders of the state.”

Taylor declines to spell out what state government commitment is needed, but the aerospace institute had already brought together industry, government and business leaders, including five Tucsonans serving on the 26-member board.

Aerospace Epicenter

Tucson International Airport is the epicenter for the local aerospace sector with 11,500 employees, upward of half of the aerospace jobs here. Raytheon, Bombardier Aerospace, Ascent Aviation Services (the former Hamilton Aerospace), the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing and SkyWest Airlines’ maintenance center and crew domicile are all based at TIA.

Large commercial aircraft, and smaller regional and business jets, make up only 32 percent of the runway traffic at TIA.

“Most airports don’t have the diversity we have. Seventy-five percent of our revenue is not airline revenue streams,” said Jim Garcia, senior director of business development for the Tucson Airport Authority, which operates TIA and Ryan Airfield.

The airport has also amassed 8,343 acres of land, among the top two or three largest airport real estate holdings in the country, though only 990 acres have been developed. The vast majority will serve as buffer zone to prevent encroachment, but TAA has 230 acres ready for development with eyes on possibly developing considerably more acreage.

“We are having ongoing conversations looking at what land we have and the highest and best use,” Garcia said. “Coming out of the economic crises, there are great opportunities to get the wheels turning. We want to see more development to grow our non-airline revenue (in commercial, retail and industrial development).”

Raytheon, the world’s largest missile manufacturer, builds missiles for just about everybody except rogue nations. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines bear missiles from Tucson, as do the militaries of 40 countries. That adds up to Raytheon being the largest private employer in Tucson with $5.6 billion in annual revenue and 12,140 people split between TIA and the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park.

Any time your hear about Tomahawk, Sidewinder or Stinger missiles, they were designed and manufactured in Tucson by Raytheon. Since 1954 the company has produced and delivered more than one million missiles. But Raytheon is diversifying beyond missiles into a realm called Directed Energy, which includes the Active Denial System and Vigilant Eagle Airport Protection System.

Active Denial is a non-lethal protection system that uses millimeter wave energy to repel individuals without causing injury. The system emits a focused beam of wave energy that produces an intolerable heating sensation, causing targeted individuals to flee. Vigilant Eagle surrounds airports with an electronic dome of protection that diverts enemy missiles away from aircraft.

Raytheon’s economic fingers stretch all over Tucson with 237 local companies supplying the missile maker with $50 million worth of parts and services. This includes machine shops, facility services, engineering, harnesses and cables, castings, automotive services, raw materials and power supplies.

“Years ago Raytheon (actually Hughes) produced nearly everything on site,” Raytheon spokesman John Patterson said. “Over the years, we changed that to be much more of an upper-level integration and test house. Now we are much more reliant on our suppliers.”

Bombardier Aircraft Services had the most dramatic shift among Tucson’s major aerospace players since 2000. Bom bardier started the new millennium as a completion center, where the Tucson facility with 2,250 employees outfitted new Bombardier aircraft with custom interior furnishings.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks redefined the aerospace industry. In the case of Bombardier’s Tucson operation, employment plummeted to 300, and in 2003 the Montreal-based company announced it would move the completion center to Wichita and Montreal, which occurred in 2005.

What looked like the company’s end in Tucson turned into its rebirth in 2004. Bombardier established a Tucson Service Center in a neighboring building, where 650 employees today do tip-to-tail service on the company’s eight business jet lines, including Learjet, Challenger, Global and the CRJ 200, 700 and 900 regional jets.

The work includes airframe inspections, heavy maintenance, aircraft modifications, interior refurbishments and repairs, and avionics installation, modifications and repairs.

Tucson has the largest of Bombardier’s seven company-owned service centers, spokeswoman Haley Dunne said.

The Arizona Air National Guard with its 60 to 70 F-16 fighter jets account for 13 percent of TIA’s runway traffic. The Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing, with 1,000 full-time guardsmen and 4,000 one-weekend-a-month and two-weeks-a-year guardsmen, primarily trains pilots from 24 of the 25 countries that have F-16 jets.

The Guard has been at TIA since 1956, first as a Cold War interceptor patrol, then to train active Air Force pilots for Vietnam, and since 1989, as an international training center with the largest national guard fighter wing in the country, public affairs officer Maj. Gabe Johnson said.

Davis-Monthan AFB

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is the other punch in Tucson’s one/two aerospace knockout.

The base has three independent functions: home for the 355th Fighter Wing and its 6,000-plus airmen, 2,000-plus civilians and fleet of 83 ugly-duckling A-10 Thunderbolt assault jets; headquarters for the 12th Air Force and Southern Command Air Forces, and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as The Boneyard for its 4,200 retired aircraft.

D-M serves as the Air Force’s training base for all pilots of A-10 jets, which specialize in providing close air support for ground troops. Each six-month training cycle involves 50 pilots, public affairs officer Capt. Stacie Shafran said.

D-M also has an active-duty A-10 squadron that has been deployed regularly to Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 20 years. The squadron returned to Tucson in January 2010 after its most recent six-month deployment.

The 12th Air Force headquarters in Tucson has 635 airmen and 90 civilians who oversee 10 combat wings at Davis Monthan, Dyess in Texas, Beale in California, Ellsworth in South Dakota, Holloman in New Mexico, Offutt in Nebraska, Mountain Home in Idaho, Hill in Utah, Creech in Nevada and Tinker in Oklahoma. The 12th Air Force’s commanding general doubles as commander of Southern Command Air Forces, which is in charge of all U.S. Air Force activities in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

“That’s one-sixth the world’s land mass,” Tech Sgt. Eric Petosky said. “Air Force Southern does drug interdiction, humanitarian and medical missions.”

Row after row after row of decrepit military aircraft lining Kolb Road are the hallmark of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, the Boneyard in common parlance.

AMARG houses about 4,200 aircraft tended to by 800 employees in the eastern reaches of D-M but AMARG does not answer to D-M. Long an independent entity, AMARG fell under the command of the 309th Maintenance Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in 2007.

AMARG is where all U.S. military aircraft are sent for storage. That could include keeping aircraft ready for service, reclaiming parts from retired aircraft, disposal or bringing retired aircraft back into service.

Beyond storage, AMARG is servicing A-10 assault jets to double their life. AMARG is also converting F-4 Phantom jets, retired in 1996, into drones to serve as flying targets in the Air Combat Command’s Full-Scale Aerial Target program. AMARG has delivered 274 converted F-4s, said Terry Pittman, the group’s business affairs liaison.

Tours of AMARG start at the Pima Air and Space Museum, the hands-on public venue to get a full sense of aviation history — from President Kennedy’s Air Force One and the supersonic SR-71 spy plane to a TWA Lockheed Constellation passenger plane from the 1940s. With 300 aircraft, Pima Air and Space is the one of the largest aviation museums in the world.

“Pima is an active museum,” said Elaine Nathanson, a museum spokeswoman. “With direct access to Davis-Monthan, aircraft destined for the museum can be flown into D-M and walked across Valencia Road onto the museum grounds.

Aerospace in Your Neighborhood

Anonymous, modern industrial buildings abound around town that give no clues about the wonders going on within.

Paragon Space Development Corp. is developing the new space suits astronauts will wear aboard the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will replace the space shuttle. Paragon, with 65 employees, is also developing thermal radiators and life support ducting and tubing for Orion.

Tucson Embedded Systems, founded in 1997, is designing the cabin pressure oxygen system for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The company has about 106 employees after taking a post 9/11 dip from 80 employees in 2001 down to 45 in 2002.

Sargent Controls makes aircraft hydraulic control components for commercial and military aircraft.

Honeywell Aerospace has 740 employees tucked away in Oro Valley, where they design, manufacture and test electronic engine controls and sensors, cabin pressure control systems and electric power generation. “It is very common to have Honeywell products (from Tucson) in aircraft,” Honeywell spokeswoman Carrie Sinclair said.

The US Airways jet that landed in the Hudson River had a Honeywell electric power generation system from Tucson aboard that ran the auxiliary power unit to enable Capt. Chesley Sullenberger to use the flight control system to land the aircraft, Sinclair said.

Evergreen Air Center at the Pinal County line is the parking lot for large passenger jets that get grounded when airlines reduce flights. Evergreen has about 175 aircraft in storage and another 25 jets rotating in and out for C check heavy inspections and maintenance.

Evergreen has 350 employees doing ongoing maintenance on the planes in storage, heavy maintenance on active aircraft and overhauling components such as brake and cargo systems. The most common aircraft worked on are Boeing 707, 737, 747, 757, DC-10 and A-310.

“We’re one of the very few that work on such a wide variety of aircraft,” said Tom Hinman, Evergreen’s director of training and community relations. “We’ve determined what parts break and when. We look at parts before they cause problems and repair them before they fail.”

A Space Odyssey

Tucson produced the eyes for the world to see Mars and the moons of Saturn like they have never been seen. More correctly, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona has developed a series of extraordinary cameras that captured all the images seen from the Phoenix Mars Lander, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Saturn-bound Cassini spacecraft.

LPL with its 300 employees also produced the ovens on the Mars Lander where dirt was cooked to identify various elements. This lab is held in such high esteem that NASA assigned it to manage the Phoenix Mars Lander mission on Mars, the first time a space mission was managed by a public university.

“Most of the instruments are camera related,” said Michael J. Drake, LPL’s director.

UA’ specific pioneering area is in the quality of charge-couple detectors (CCD), the silicon chips that capture images rather than film. The CCD quality is imperative for space photography because every pixel has to react precisely, Drake said.

These cameras are all better known by their acronyms: HiRISE camera, the high resolution image science experiment that can capture images as small as one meter from orbit; VIMS, the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer cameras that capture traditional and infrared images, and DISR, which stands for Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer, a series of cameral and spectrometers released on parachutes to the Saturn moon, Titan.

“To our surprise, it survived the landing,” Drake said. “We learned that methane behaves like water and ice behaves like rock.”

Taylor W. Lawrence is a confident, intelligent and forward-leaning leader who is building on a legacy of excellence at Raytheon Missile Systems.

At age 46, Lawrence is president of the world’s largest missile maker and Tucson’s largest private employer. It’s a position that carries enormous responsibilities, but Taylor Lawrence is up to the challenge. His background has positioned him perfectly for his role today.

Since graduating from the California Institute of Technology, Lawrence has used his applied physics background to help advance national security. While in college, he was selected for a fellowship at the Center for European Nuclear Research in Switzerland, then worked with the optics group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory while completing his master’s and doctorate at Stanford. He was recruited by a general to join Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and tapped by a senator to serve on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Before moving to Raytheon, he was vice president of Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems. He likes living in Tucson and is thrilled to be back in a tennis-friendly climate. Lawrence savors frequent tennis at the Hilton El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort. “Racquetball in the 1980s ruined my tennis game. Tucson has really improved my tennis game.”

Missiles, however, are Lawrence’s business. Since July 2008 he has been at the helm of the largest missile producer in the world. Its broad portfolio of weapon systems includes air-to-air, land combat, naval weapons, strike weapons, missile defense, guided projectiles and directed energy systems. The company continually develops and invests in new, innovative technologies.

As with nearly every other business these days, Raytheon is at a crossroads. Lawrence is shepherding the $5.6 billion company to diversify, seek international partnerships with new players such as India and guide the company’s expansion.

Raytheon has 12,140 employees in Tucson and more than a thousand others working in California, New Mexico, Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky. The question for Tucson and Arizona is “Does Raytheon grow here or somewhere else?” Lawrence dismisses any notion that the missile factory will be moved.

“We’re solidly here in Tucson,” he said. “We may be forced to look at other areas to expand. That’s the real issue for Tucson.”

Education is the make or break for Raytheon’s future growth here. More than half of Raytheon’s employees are engineers, and the University of Arizona is the largest source of those engineers, supplying nearly 750 of them in the past 10 years, said Jeff Goldberg, dean of the UA College of Engineering. Meanwhile the Arizona Legislature keeps slashing university budgets.

“I’ve argued we need to make sure we as a state invest in and not continue to cut education,” Lawrence said. “We depend on the state to do its job.”

Lawrence was never far from the world of national security, even growing up in rural Montevallo, in Alabama’s farm country, 30 miles south of Birmingham. His father was retired Navy, and a retired Marine Corps grandfather instilled national security in him. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, then a House member, appointed Lawrence to the U.S. Naval Academy.

He drifted toward physics at the Naval Academy and away from committing to naval service. He transferred to Cal Tech as a junior. “It’s very hard to get into Cal Tech and I was accepted. I was smitten by physics. I’ve always had a fascination with how things work and solving puzzles. I wanted to do cool research. I knew I could do that at Cal Tech.”

Why Cal Tech after a life in the Eastern Time Zone? MIT sounds more logical and, indeed, was Lawrence’s likely destination.

“When I was a sophomore at the Naval Academy, the Army-Navy game was at the Rose Bowl,” he said. “The year before it was in Philadelphia and it was freezing and snowing. At the Rose Bowl, it was 70 degrees and we were in our summer whites,” he recalled.

After graduating from Cal Tech, he landed a post with the optics group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he did research with lasers and laser transmission. “I think I always wanted to be close to research and development,” Lawrence said. “I could have gotten on the tenure track, but I was drawn to technology as it applied to national security.”

Lawrence returned to the East Coast and was recruited by a general to join the Pentagon’s Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, which dealt with spy planes such as the SR-71, U-2 and something new on the horizon in the late 1980s — unmanned aerial vehicles. “The general said, ‘I need you to work for me,’” Lawrence said. That led to DARPA, where he served as deputy director of the information systems office.

“DARPA was a blast,” he said of the agency perhaps best known for putting on a challenge for driverless vehicles. “It was like a venture capital firm for the Department of Defense.

“Then I got a call from Richard Shelby.”

Shelby had moved from the House to the Senate and switched from Democrat to Republican since sending Lawrence to the Naval Academy. Shelby was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he wanted Lawrence to be the committee’s staff director. That committee approved budgets for all the intelligence agencies.

“Clearly, having a view across the entire intelligence community and understanding the key threats and how government works were all critical to how I run an aerospace business,” Lawrence said. “It gave me the tools to be what I am today.”

Government service was not his preference. “It was a sidetrack, a good sidetrack,” he said. In 1999, he joined Northrop Grumman as vice president of the Systems Development and Technology Division and later was vice president and general manager of its C4ISR and Space Sensors Division, which involved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

By now, Lawrence thought his career had settled into place, that Northrop Grumman would he his permanent professional home. “That was the vision I had at the time,” he said. With his deep curriculum vitae, Taylor Lawrence doesn’t even think of looking for new jobs before headhunters already have him in their radar.

“I got a call from a headhunter in 2005,” Lawrence said. “I felt like I was going behind enemy lines (to interview at Raytheon Co.).”

Lawrence started in Raytheon’s corporate office in Massachusetts in July 2006 as vice president of engineering, technology and mission assurance. Exactly two years later, he was assigned to Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson.

His office features a wall of scale models of Raytheon Missile Systems products. “Those scale models remind me every day of the important work we do here. We are in the business of protecting warfighters and preserving freedom around the globe. We never lose sight of that mission,” he said.

What does he envision for the future? “I’m an entrepreneur,” Lawrence said. “We have to go into new markets. We want to go in a lot of different directions. We’ve been a global company. A number of new, big markets are opening up to us — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India. We want to establish unique models to develop technologies.

“I love spending time with our engineers. These guys know I can probe and ask the questions. People within the business understand I have an appreciation of how difficult the technology is and I have a real appreciation in how we’re doing it. This is real rocket science, after all.”

Photo: You book yourself a $20,038 seat on the Emirates airline from LAX to Dubai, and what you get is an onboard suite designed and built at B/E Aerospace on Tucson’s east side.

B/E Aerospace is the go-to source for super-first-class accommodations for British Airways, Swiss International Air Lines, Etihad Airways, Qantas, Jet Airways (the largest private airline in India) and Kingfisher Airlines.

“We’re the premiere provider of super-first-class environments in the world,” said Doug Rasmussen, B/E’s vice president and general manager.

These are not the first-class seats you find on domestic carriers flying out of Tucson International Airport, a first class that’s not much more than a larger and better- padded economy seat.

Super first class gives you a seat, typically of high-quality leather, that reclines to a lie-flat position for sleeping. While awake, you have an ottoman on which to rest your outstretched legs — or you can raise it a few inches to host a friend for “buddy dining” on your double-sized folding table. The seat does not jolt into the upright position but rather is electronically eased into position, either by the passenger holding the button or pushing a button to select a pre-set position.

Flat-screen monitors range from 15 to 23 inches, depending on airline.

Super-first-class nuances vary from airline to airline. Often, there are sliding privacy doors, though British Airways has no doors on its new super-first-class product that has just gone into service.

Emirates has a mini wet bar for six bottles just ahead of the seat armrest. The suite has film-coated decorative surfaces evoking burled walnut edged with 22-karat gold plating. There is a vanity table with mirror and light beneath the flat screen, and the suite has ambient and direction lighting.

Emirates is the largest customer for Boeing 777 and Airbus A-380 jets, which are supplied with super-first-class suites from Tucson.

B/E Aerospace has more than 400 Tucson employees, who design and manufacture the suites in fabrication, composites, electrical, metal, sheet metal and paint shops on Pantano Road south of 22nd Street. Next-generation designs are drafted by engineers in the offices and prototyped through the door in their model shop.

All the airlines’ super-first-class suites share many features, but the designs and materials vary so much that each airline’s product is an entirely different challenge.

“We work with some of the leading industrial designers in the world,” Rasmussen said. “You have to have fantastic engineers and production personnel to take the concept from designers who may not have a manufacturing bent and make it a reality.”

B/E Aerospace hired about 20 to 30 former employees of Bombardier Aerospace after it converted its Tucson operation from custom interiors for business jets to regional jet maintenance. Bombardier is the reason the world’s premier super-first-class manufacturing facility is in Tucson.

Rasmussen was a commercial litigation attorney in Seattle in the 1990s with a desire to start his own business. He and three partners launched Bomhoff Inc. in Tucson in 1998 to build cabinetry for business jets because the Bombardier custom interior installation plant was here.

“It’s always a good idea to be located near where the installations are being done,” Rasmussen said. “What was odd is we ended up doing very little work for Bombardier in Tucson.”

Bomhoff’s cabinetry instead went to Bombardier units in Wichita and Montreal. Post 9/11 brought big changes for the firm as business jet demand plummeted, but then Airbus launched its A-380 double decked jumbo jet with “airlines wanting to take the first-class product to a different level,” Rasmussen said.

B/E Aerospace bought the start-up company in 2002 and quickly shifted its focus from business jets to commercial airlines with an appetite for accommodations for high rollers. Employee count dipped to 40 in 2003-04, but since then B/E Aerospace has been able to ride the demand for the new super-first-class level of service.

The Hamilton name flew into the sunset in November after overhauling large aircraft at the west edge of Tucson International Airport for more than 60 years.

Ascent Aviation Services gives a new name, new vision, and, perhaps most important, new financial resources to the former Hamilton Aerospace operation, which weathered two post-9/11 bankruptcies.

Ascent acquired the assets of Hamilton and the neighboring World Jet aircraft parts company in bankruptcy court on Nov. 5, 2009, for $5.465 million.

Ascent continues Hamilton’s mission to perform heavy maintenance, repair and overhauls (MRO) for jets from the Boeing 737 and MD-80 series. These planes are largely being cast off by major airlines, and Ascent is converting them for lower-tier overseas carriers.

When BizTucson visited in December, Ascent was putting the finishing touches on an MD-83 heading to Afghanistan and a Boeing 737-300 freighter bound for Indonesia. Next up? “We have a customer that is bringing in an aircraft from Nigeria for heavy maintenance,” Chief Executive Matt Ray said.

Obscure airlines from obscure corners of the world drove Hamilton’s business for many years. Ray wants to add new clientele: overnight maintenance checks and heavy maintenance checks for the major American carriers, especially the ones that serve TIA.

That means wooing the likes of Delta, United and Southwest with a company that has a history of two bankruptcies and rehabbing planes for Third World duty, not the friendly skies of America. Ascent already does provide line maintenance for jets at TIA gates that need minor repairs.

“Our mission is to be the premiere MRO for narrow-bodied aircraft,” Ray said. “What Ascent brings is financial support, relationships, a track record and solution-based management. By March, we hope to fill the pipeline with new customers.”

Ascent is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chicago-based Victory Park Capital, an investment fund that created Ascent for the sole purpose of acquiring Hamilton Aerospace and neighboring World Jet. Both these separate companies were owned by Global Aircraft, which filed for bankruptcy Jan. 30, 2009. Global itself had acquired Hamilton Aviation in a prior bankruptcy in 2002 and in 2004 added World Jet, whose primary client was Hamilton.

Ascent quickly invested an additional $2 million to restructure the companies and redefine the 23-acre Hamilton campus by tearing down seven old and temporary structures. The company is more than doubling its parking area for jets from about 35 to 80 spaces by relocating and building four new buildings for offices and shop areas.

“Our overall strategy is to buy older, narrow-bodied aircraft and sell them,” Ray said.

Victory Park also owns oil and gas companies in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, a human resources outsourcing company in Denver, and an undisclosed number of aircraft that it leases to airlines. Victory Park may end up owning up to 5 percent of the aircraft serviced and sent off from Ascent. Thus Ascent fits into Victory Park’s aircraft portfolio, Ray said.

Victory Park can fully underwrite transactions for up to $50 million.

“This place has always been a mom-and-pop operation,” said Ray, who is co-founder and principal at Victory Park. “It never had financial stability. Without major backing it couldn’t get major carriers. Victory Park brings a significant balance sheet to the table.”

Gordon B. Hamilton founded Hamilton Aircraft Co. in 1947. Hamilton launched its modern era in 1987 by building a two-bay hangar to enter the commercial jet market. Hamilton at one time had 400 to 500 employees in the mid-1990s, when the company focused on converting passenger jets into freighters. In the 21st century, employment peaked at 150 in 2006-07, but since has fallen to about 87. The desire is to return to 125 to 150 employees, Ray said.

Ascent essentially strips down aircraft and rebuilds them as it performs heavy- duty maintenance typically called C checks. This involves four teams: air frame and power plant, interiors (avionics and cabins), structures (wings and fuselage) and painters.

“The only thing we can’t do is crack open the engine and work on the guts,” said David Querio, president of Ascent and for the prior five years, Hamilton Aerospace. “We can take them down, test components, change components and work on the top casing.”

The interiors team guts the cabin and nearly always reconfigures the seating arrangements. It also maintains the electronics systems, including the flight control system. Structures closely inspects the entire exterior, repairs any dents or cracks, and tests the structure’s integrity. The paint team then applies the customer’s logo and sometimes adds freestyle artistry.

“The biggest asset is the people,” Querio said. “All we sell is material and manpower.”

A plane flies straight at the Catalina Mountains, far too low to clear the range, before safely veering away at pretty much the last minute.

Time after time after time, two Universal Avionics Beechcraft airplanes — a King Air 350 and King Air F90 — challenge the mountains, testing the company’s Terrain Awareness and Warning System.

TAWS warns a pilot of the topography by drawing an electronic envelope around the plane that gets punctured if you get too close to danger.

“We had to fly right at the mountain,” said Paul DeHerrera, Universal’s chief operating officer. “We’re flying all the time. We may fly every day for a while.”

The bread-and-butter for Universal Avionics, however, is its Wide Area Augmentation System. This is a flight management system that gives pilots the lay of the land to an accuracy of 3 feet. GPS is good to only about 100 feet, and navigation equipment from the 1980s could be more than 10 miles off.

Universal Avionics Systems Corp., just off Valencia Road near Tucson International Airport, develops and produces flight management systems widely found in business jets and the cockpits of the Horizon Air and American Eagle fleets. “Business aviation includes the Border Patrol, air ambulances, and Evergreen uses them for firefighting,” DeHerrera said. “We’re on a lot of helicopters for North Sea oil rigs or the Gulf of Mexico.”

Universal is also acclaimed for its voice and data recorders, better known as “black boxes,” which are aboard some 6,000 aircraft, ranging from major commercial airlines to business jets.

The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) earned Universal Avionics the Innovator of the Year Award and the Pioneering Innovation Award at the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation ceremony in November. Also in 2009, the company was named the Outstanding Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Arizona Manufacturing Council.

Universal Avionics was started in 1981 as Universal Navigation Systems in an era when cockpits had several navigation components providing different location readings, which was like having four watches, none with the right time. Company founder Hubert Naimer developed a computer that crunched all that data to give pilots a single answer. Later Global Positioning Systems provided even more reliable navigation details.

Today Universal Avionics has a total of 470 employees at its Tucson headquarters, manufacturing and marketing facilities, its research and development center in Redmond, Wash. and its instrument division in Duluth, Ga. The Tucson complex has 275 employees.

DeHerrera said Universal was the first company to make use of the roughly three dozen federal ground-based reference stations installed around the country. He said the government was “ahead of industry” with these reference stations, which beam precise location signals to GPS satellites to fine-tune accuracy from about 100 feet to 3 feet.

“WAAS was a huge innovation,” DeHerrera said. “When the government came up with the ground-based reference stations, a lot of people took a wait-and-see attitude. We decided to jump in and built the airborne computer to support it.”

GPS provides pilots en route navigation, DeHerrera said, but doesn’t help with runway approaches, where they rely on airport instrument landing systems. WAAS gives pilots an on-board instrument landing system, which is vital for the many smaller airports that don’t have instrument landing systems. WAAS can line up a pilot to a runway as low as 200 feet above the ground.

WAAS is the brains for a plane’s autopilot as well as the real-life pilot.

Universal outfits about 1,000 business jets a year with WAAS. DeHerrera estimates the company has about a 60 to 70 percent market share. This domination limits growth potential so Universal has expanded into the regional jet and military markets.

WAAS is an after-market item that aircraft owners buy to replace the stock flight management systems. DeHerrera said technology improves so quickly that even new aircraft often have dated technology.

Innovation has also come into play for Universal’s black boxes — the voice and data recorders. Universal Avionics has found a unique way to implement the Federal Transportation Safety Board’s mandate that black boxes have a Recorder Independent Power Supply so that the recorders continue working even if the aircraft’s power supply fails.

“Our competition does it with batteries,” DeHerrera said. “We have an energy management system — high energy cells like capacitors that are charged and recharged as needed.” These cells do not have to be replaced like batteries, he said.

The manufacturing center in Tucson produces all the Universal Avionics products. These 100 employees build the circuit boards, assemble the boards and finish the components as they move along a self-propelled moving shuttle before undergoing environmental testing, said Steve Pagnucco, general manager of the manufacturing division.