Aviation jobs sought for Ely

by Nick Wognum

Before turning heads while flying over Ely during the Fourth of July parade, the yellow Wipaire Fire Boss airplane had the full attention of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. <BR><BR>The plane was flown to the Ely airport on Sunday at the behest of state Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake), who has been trying to get Wipaire to locate a maintenance base and construction facility in his district, possibly at the Ely Airport.<BR><BR>Getting Oberstar to look at the plane may help bring some very good paying aviation jobs to northeast Minnesota. <BR><BR>Dill said Wipaire, which has a plant in St. Paul, has been unable to get the floatplane approved for use in fighting fires on federal land.<BR><BR>“The Fire Boss is FAA certified, it can even be sold to the general public. But they ran into a roadblock when they tried to get certified by the federal government’s USDA Office of Aircraft Services, which is over and above the FAA,” said Dill.<BR><BR>“They need to get it approved to use the floatplane on federal fires and since the state and the federal government share resources, we need to get it approved so we can get it integrated into the state fire suppression program,” said Dill.<BR><BR>Ely Mayor Frank Salerno, along with IRRRB staff and representatives from the DNR have toured the Wipaire plant in St. Paul. <BR><BR>“Last year clerk John Tourville and I had gone down to the Wipaire factory in St. Paul where they have their manufacturing facility and we saw a lot of possibilities to do that work in the Ely area,” said Salerno. “We told them we’d like them to come to Ely and to consider us when they make their decision.” <BR><BR>Dill believes a maintenance base could be put in at the Ely airport to start with a manufacturing facility added later. Salerno said a project like this could give the Ely economy a real boost.<BR><BR>“This would create good paying jobs and be a real stimulant to our economy,” said Salerno.<BR><BR>Dill noted that the head man at Wipaire has been his neighbor. “Mr. Wiplinger has been an acquaintance and a friend since I was a kid. He had a cabin on Mukooda Lake and we had the cabin at the other end of the portage on Sandpoint,” said Dill. <BR><BR>The Fire Boss, a high-tech cross between a Beaver and a bomber, is key in the attempt to bring Wipaire here.<BR><BR>“I started talking to Mr. Wiplinger two years ago and Ely came up because of the fire suppression base here now. So we started talking and now several other towns have come forward as well,” said Dill. <BR><BR>Seeing the Fire Boss fly over town is one thing, seeing it up close is another. The single seat version at the airport Sunday landed with floats on and with its jet engine, took off, flew over to White Iron, picked up water and was dropping it at the airport within a few minutes. <BR><BR>The $2.2 million floatplane can pick up 750 gallons off a lake or river in 12 seconds. The water can then be dropped all at once or spread out. In comparison a Beaver holds around 125 gallons of water.<BR><BR>The plane has been around since 1993 and is used around the world for fighting forest fires. The Fire Boss also has foam tanks and can carry fire retardant as well. <BR><BR>The plane is an Air Tanker 802 fitted with special floats made by Wipaire. A Pratt and Whitney jet engine gives the plane a rate of climb and cruise speed comparable to twin-engined ex-military tankers in this size range, but with the advantage of much lower maintenance and increased safety for the pilot. <BR><BR>The drops the plane made at the Ely airport were impressive, as was the takeoff and turning radius of the single-seat plane. <BR><BR>Dill sees the opportunity as economic development.<BR><BR>“I see it as a high tech opportunity especially for people who have worked in the mines because with the proper specialized training they can change their field of vocation and get high paying jobs and retirement attached to it, that is our key mission,” said Dill. <BR><BR>Wipaire takes the Air Tanker and attaches the floats to it. Local leaders would like to see the company build the floats here, attach them to the plane and then do training, testing and maintenance all out of the Ely airport.<BR><BR>“That’s what the Fire Boss is about. It’s a unique opportunity because it fits our area. It’s unique because it’s a Minnesota product and it’s unique because there’s so much skilled labor needed to build those floats,” said Dill.<BR><BR>Former Elyite Pat Magie has been doing some flying for the company when he’s not working in Alaska and was on hand for the demonstration Sunday.<BR><BR>He said the plane was impressive to fly and added that the computer-aided controls for dropping the water are very advanced.<BR><BR>“What Pat Magie would be doing for them, those are high-paying jobs as well. There are other communities courting Wipaire. And they should, this is a company that’s been around for 40 years with 150 employees. They’re privately owned and they’re very good at what they do,” said Dill. “That’s the kind of company we want in northeastern Minnesota.” <BR><BR>Oberstar said his staff was already looking into the issues Wipaire has run into with USDA.