Former Boeing S.C. vice president Marco Cavazzoni sees potential in the municipality for something bigger: the manufacture of composite light aircraft.
Cavazzoni lives in downtown Walterboro with his wife and son, who both also work at Lowcountry Aviation Co., the business he founded after retiring from Boeing last year.
Lowcountry Aviation is a holding company for three separate companies: Lowcountry Aviation MRO, which provides aircraft maintenance and repair; Austin Aviation, a charter flight company; and Sky Arrow Aircraft, which will manufacture composite light aircraft in a facility at Colleton County’s Lowcountry Regional Airport.
Cavazzoni said it was important to him that Lowcountry Aviation have the capability to manufacture, maintain and fly aircraft.
“The uniqueness of the strategy that we have is that if you take large aircraft manufacturers, typically what they do is they make airplanes and then in some cases ... they maintain them,” he said.
Airlines also have only two focuses, Cavazzoni said: flying and maintaining their aircraft.
“We’re actually going to make them ... and then we are flying with our charters, and then we maintain them,” he said. “So that’s kind of a cool thing.”
The company also has its own fuel farm for its planes, which Cavazzoni said was integral to the company’s ability to charter and manage its planes and other people’s aircraft.
“It gives us the flexibility with our customers, frankly, to offer very good deals,” he said.
“Some people will decide to base their airplanes here even though they live somewhere else,” he said. “And when they call, we’ll go pick them up. Obviously having the fuel flexibility for us allows us to do that service and not charge, frankly, for that for as much as it would cost.”
A blank canvas
If Walterboro seems like an odd choice to locate an aviation company, Cavazzoni agrees; but he said the city is a blank canvas with a lot of potential, especially considering its airport.
“You can build all kinds of things, but it’s really difficult to build long runways,” Cavazzoni said. “The process of going through that is crazy. So what Walterboro offered from an infrastructure perspective is this incredible underutilized airport. It’s a white canvas, and a white canvas can scare people, or a white canvas can be an opportunity.”
Lowcountry Aviation is currently housed in a single hangar near one of Lowcountry Regional Airport’s three runways; it has plans to build three more hangars behind the initial one to house its planes and production facilities. The concrete was poured for a second hangar at the end of April, and Cavazzoni said he’s hoping it’s operational by the end of July.
Lowcountry Aviation is also looking to hire 36 new employees, mainly to work on maintenance and assembly of airplanes.
According to the Census Bureau, 3,489 people commuted from Colleton County to work in Berkeley, Charleston or Dorchester counties between 2006 and 2010, the most recent data available.
“Our thought process was, you know, if there are ... a large number of people that do that, we could probably find 36,” Cavazzoni said.
Additionally, Lowcountry Aviation has a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration that will allow it to train employees internally. Lowcountry Aviation has a Sky Arrow plane outside of its hangar that’s been torn apart to allow people to practice working with it, and general manager Patrick Croghan said he plans to teach classes.
“We can hire people that have good mechanical ability and we can train them in-house,” Croghan said.
At previous jobs, he’s hired heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians and auto mechanics and trained them to work in aviation.
Croghan also said 36 hires is a conservative estimate.
“Between the maintenance operations we have between the Sky Arrow production, the maintenance on the Austin Aviation aircraft, and the target customers that we’re targeting to bring their aircraft here ... I want us to do the work,” he said.
Sky Arrow planes will be built entirely out of composite, a light but durable material that’s resistant to corrosion.
“It’s not a standard thing in the commercial aviation market,” he said. “There’s a very large composite airplane at the (Charleston International) airport with the Dreamliner ... but it’s very unique to have in this category a composite aircraft.
Cavazzoni said the lighter material allows Sky Arrow planes to carry a large number of sensors — up to 250 pounds with a single pilot — which makes the aircraft great for law enforcement to use for surveillance.
Farmers can also use the planes to map their agricultural fields.
“If you don’t have one of these, you can either have drones, which are kind of like the cool thing, or you can have helicopters, or you can have other fixed-wing aircraft,” he said.
The problem with helicopters is that they can’t fly as low as Sky Arrow planes can. Drones require more time in the air to map the fields, as well as constant battery changes and maintenance. With a drone, Cavazzoni said, a farmer could map 220 acres in an hour; a Sky Arrow plane can map 8,000 acres per hour.
The plane, which Cavazzoni said is relatively easy to fly, seats two people and can be flown from either seat, so a passenger can sit in the front. Cavazzoni also said he’s working with a company called Able Flight so that people who are unable to use their legs can fly the plane.
The clear dome that covers the cockpit allows the pilot and passenger to have a broad view of the world below, especially from the front seat.
“Once you’re inside, you get great visibility, which is not something that you typically do on aircraft,” Cavazzoni said. “So you can look around whether you’re in both seats. You can actually take the windows off ... if you want more air.”
Cavazzoni said his goal is to deliver the first Sky Arrow plane by the end of the year, pending FAA approval.
Working with the county
Cavazzoni said he considered locating the company in other states but chose South Carolina because of the relationships among the state, Colleton County and Walterboro.
“The economic impact benefits everybody ... and the city understands that, and they’ve been tremendous in term of support,” he said.
Colleton County administrator Kevin Griffin said the county had been trying for several years to attract a company to Lowcountry Regional Airport.
At one point, Griffin said, the airport was placed on a shortlist of potential locations for an expansion by Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., but those plans fell through.
“We’ve got a great resource in the airport with the current facility there and the land available around it,” Griffin said. “We’ve tried to prepare for projects such as this, but it sure is nice to see one finally come to fruition.”
Colleton County has also signed an agreement with Lowcountry Aviation for the company to provide services to the sheriff’s office, assisting with search-and-rescue and surveillance operations.
Griffin said the sheriff’s office owned a plane to handle its aviation needs independently, but Cavazzoni approached the county and offered his company’s services.
“It’s got the capability to also help us in our tax assessment office for GIS-type applications and other things,” Griffin said of the Sky Arrow plane. “After talking through it, it was a much better arrangement for us to lease those services through him rather than trying to maintain insurance, maintain a pilot and an aircraft out here at the airport.”
Colleton County will give Lowcountry Aviation the aircraft it currently owns in exchange for aviation services. The county is currently contracted to using Lowcountry Aviation’s services for at least 20 hours a year.
“We are excited to have Lowcountry Aviation locate at Lowcountry Regional Airport with the services and opportunities it brings to Walterboro, Colleton County and our region,” Walterboro Mayor Bill Young said in a news release. “We are pleased to welcome them to Walterboro.”
This story originally appeared in the April 30, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.