Composite aircraft parts mean business for WV


ONA, W.Va. (WOWK) – West Virginia is likely one of the last places you would expect aircraft to be built. When it comes to experimental, that’s changing. The current innovations in aviation are being produced right here in the Mountain State.

For every Cessna or Piper built, there are about nine more experimental aircraft built. An experimental aircraft is something you build on your own. That industry is having a huge impact on our area.

Brian Alley walks into his hangar which looks more like a mechanics shop. He’s spent decades building various aircraft.

“Ultimately the best teacher is experience,” Alley said.

Decades of experience is exactly how Alley created the parts for the Safari personal helicopter. The helicopter is built almost entirely out of composite material and it’s one of the only helicopters on the market like it. Composite materials are made of carbon or glass fibers blended into plastic. It’s lighter than aluminum and it’s stronger than steel.

“Modern aircraft have more curves,” Alley said. “They have slicker, cleaner surfaces; They have less intersection lines where parts overlap parts.”

What looks like a rogue science experiment is actually physics. Alley uses those composite materials, like carbon fiber, to make complex shapes. He says it’s something that can’t be done with any other material.

Jim Smith is the director of AERO for the Robert C. Byrd Institute with Marshall University. RCBI helps people like Alley and works to develop his business with others.

“The products are in demand,” Smith said. “What Brian is doing here sets the foundation for more orders, and more people to be trained in a skill trade, and ultimately jobs.”

Alley says his work with composites, and a workforce that could be trained to work for him could bring new revenue to the state.

His company, Carbon Fiber Composites is based in Ona, West Virginia. He is now manufacturing all of the composite components for the Safari helicopter entirely in West Virginia.

“Every medium that you can build an airplane out of is labor-intensive, except for the composites,” Alley said.

It’s also cheaper. Comparing two-propeller spinners Alley explains how one made of composite materials for a personal aircraft could cost approximately $350. The other spinner, for a certified aircraft, could cost approximately $1,200.

“Aerospace in the state is a big industry and West Virginia has proven over and over again that not only does it have the workforce but it has the ability to retain and make that workforce perform for the aerospace industry,” Smith said.

One of the reasons Alley and Smith say building composite parts is growing in the aviation industry is because they offer structural strength, but better fuel efficiency and performance.

Currently, Alley is his workforce. The challenge now is getting new orders to increase the need for additional workers. The aviation industry brings in approximately $1 Billion to West Virginia.

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