A former Cold War military air base in the UK is set to become a centre of technical excellence in aviation maintenance in a radical makeover

Doncaster's Robin Hood airport in the north of England was in its previous life a cold war air base for long-range nuclear bombing missions. Now, menacing Avro Vulcans have been replaced by the much less-threatening narrowbodies of budget carriers like Ryanair and the 24h airport, reopened in 2005, is set for further expansion as a maintenance and training centre.

Marshall Aerospace started examining Robin Hood's potential for business aviation MRO 12 months ago in an effort to add capacity beyond its Cambridge base. Allan McGreal, Marshall's head of business and general aviation, says Doncaster's infrastructure provides the right ingredients for growth. "It's an excellent location, meeting all our criteria from an engineering perspective. Where do you begin to measure the potential here, the skills base, the infrastructure?"

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Retention of maintenance engineering capacity is vital for any MRO business

Partnering Marshall is the new Directions Aviation Academy. Managing director Richard Smith says phase one of the academy was given to providing advice and guidance to the thousands of people wanting airport services jobs when Robin Hood first opened.

Smith says Robin Hood is an asset for the industry to sweat. "Our role is purely one of economic development and what we would really like to see is Doncaster becoming a world centre of technical excellence in aviation maintenance," he says.


While Directions - which has been backed by regional development agency Yorkshire Forward and European Union funding - will manage all the £10 million ($20 million) costs of developing and maintaining the infrastructure, the 5,100m2 (55,000ft2) hangar facility has been designed with Marshall's help from the outset.

The two say the partnership between public and private sector interests will work by creating a "seamless link" between education, workshop experience, examination and operational experience by integrating the existing MRO workspace within brand new bolt-on two-storey, accommodation.

The training philosophy as Marshall sees it is one anchored in unashamed self-interest. "What we are looking at is producing European Aviation Safety Agency-licensed technicians, putting them straight into the market to match Marshall's commercial needs, getting them to our type rating requirements."

At the heart of Marshall's decision to head north is the fact that the MRO industry is fast running out of engineering resource, with pressure points being felt across the industry, particularly in the south east.

Trained workforce

The development of a trained maintenance workforce in south Yorkshire also has its advantages in the fact that it is much more likely to stay in-situ. "The relative proximity of London airports makes the maintenance community relatively itinerant," says McGreal. "Doncaster is far more secure as a location of resources. Here in the north there is also just the right heritage of manufacturing skills."

Retention of maintenance engineering capacity is vital for any MRO business, insists McGreal. "You can have the most exciting maintenance facilities in the most exotic parts of the world, but it will all come to naught if the people skills are either not there to start with or exit too soon."

Most exciting, he says, is the potential emergence of a national aviation maintenance cluster of businesses. While Marshall's "domestic agenda" will be to produce initially up to 40 licensed technicians, supporting the on-site engineers on the frontline in an associated hangar, it will allow other MRO providers use the academy.

Both Marshall and Directions want to get associated MRO specialists to set up shop on-site in an independent fashion: avionics engineering, composites, interior and livery, wheel and brakes in addition to inventory management specialists, and so on.

"We would like to see a network of independent workshops as well as the muscle of an authoritative OEM presence very much in the way that Dassault has developed at Le Bourget for its Falcon business jet series," McGreal says.

As all vestiges of its military existence are progressively erased, making way for 21st peacetime civilian aviation, the capacity and eventual capability of Doncaster will dwarf even the needs of a business aviation centre of excellence.

"Each day something gets knocked down and it's very exciting for us to witness that taking shape," says McGreal.

Source: Flight International