Except for the occasional incoming mortar round, living for weeks at a time at the Baghdad International Airport really isn't so bad, says Jack Downey, who otherwise lives in Cornwall.
The 57-year-old CEO of Middlebury-based Chrison Aerospace is there to repair an Airbus cargo jet shot down by Iraqi insurgents in November 2003. He and fellow Vermonter Bill Vincent never venture beyond the tightly guarded perimeter of what used to be known as Saddam International Airport. The trailer in which they live -- equipped with air conditioning, satellite TV and a hot-water shower -- is sandbagged to window level, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, and guarded 24/7. Among the dining options is a Burger King restaurant that was exported in pieces from the U.S. and reassembled in this surreal setting.
But Downey is there for the financial opportunity, not the fast food. Despite the damage, the grounded DHL plane is a potential goldmine. It was at 8000 feet after takeoff from Baghdad when the surface-to-air missile hit. The back of one wing was blown off and the plane's hydraulic systems ruptured, leaving the three-man crew without flight controls.
The pilot somehow spiraled the crippled jet back to the airport. The plane hit the runway at almost twice the normal landing speed. Lacking brakes and steering capability, the DHL crew locked the Airbus' wheels, blowing out six of its eight tires as the plane veered onto sandy ground alongside the runway. Miraculously, no one was injured in this first -- and so far only -- missile strike on a civilian aircraft operating out of Baghdad International.
Damage to the Airbus was estimated to be more than the insured value of the 24-year-old plane. But Downey suspected it could be made airworthy for a price that would attract buyers on the international market for used commercial planes. He dispatched a London-based Chrison employee, a former British Airways captain, to inspect the Airbus.
After the evaluation determined that the plane could indeed be fixed and flown again, Downey traveled to Toulouse, France, for technical talks with Airbus officials and to Brussels to confer with the international delivery service DHL, the plane's owner. Then he went to Iraq, having arranged for personal security through a U.S. Army officer he'd met in Middlebury.
"The Army guy's initial reaction was that we must have a death wish," Downey says. "But he eventually agreed to help us through his contacts in Iraq."
A few days ago, Downey moved back to Baghdad -- for his third stint in the past two years -- along with a team of employees and sub-contractors. Installed there for the foreseeable future, "It feels pretty safe," he says. "Hardly anyone who works at the airport even bothers to wear flak jackets, but it's still weird when a mortar shell explodes somewhere on the grounds. There's no doubt a war's going on."
Simply flying in to the Iraqi capital from Amman, Jordan, can be a white-knuckle experience, especially for first-timers. But Downey isn't fazed by the corkscrew pattern that planes take in their descent in order to avoid rocket attacks by insurgents. "I'm comfortable with those steep banking angles," he says. "I've spent most of my life around airplanes, and I know their capabilities."
Though he'd never worked on a plane nearly as large as an Airbus, Downey didn't doubt his ability to get the job done. "I figured the systems were similar to many planes I have fixed, only bigger and a little more complicated," says the balding, jovial techie.
Downey's interest in aviation was inherited from his father, who flew fighters in World War II and Korea. Growing up in a constantly uprooted military family, the younger Downey attended schools in four countries and five states; Burlington High School was his 21st, and last. As a young teen, he had learned welding and a variety of other manual skills while serving as an apprentice to the Vermont sculptor Paul Aschenbach. After a brief stint in the Army after high school, Downey earned his own wings at Rutland Airport.
He found work in the early '70s as a pilot ferrying tourists around the Caribbean, and later flew fixed-wing aircraft in support of helicopter inspections of the Alaska pipeline. In Vermont, Downey also worked during those years at Shelburne Farms, where he helped with the initial marketing of its dairy products. He then began spending summers at the Middlebury Airport maintaining small passenger planes.
As he gained expertise in airplane components, Downey designed and certified kits for aircraft being converted from passenger service to freight hauling. He also supplied upgraded components for flight data recorders so they could meet new federal aviation requirements.
His increasingly successful business afforded Downey the opportunity to purchase damaged airplanes in Vermont and elsewhere. He also bought three buildings at Middlebury Airport -- the surprisingly tidy hangar currently houses three private planes in various stages of repair. Vincent and other Chrison specialists have managed over the years to return numerous battered aircraft to the skies, and to nearly their pre-mishap condition.
A few years ago, Downey formed a partnership with Paul Page, a Denver entrepreneur with a similar specialty. It was Page who learned about the DHL Airbus in Baghdad with a 5-foot-deep and 20-foot-long hole in its left wing.
Although Downey estimates the Baghdad airport is about the size of Burlington, he says it's impossible to obtain even the most basic materials there. "Nothing worthwhile is available at the airport. Nothing -- not a light switch, not a quart of oil."
Nor aluminum, the material typically used in repairing airplane wings. Steel, however, could be found locally, so the Chrison workers opted for this alternative, which can be rapidly fabricated in the field. About 7000 pounds of steel was sent to Brown's Welding in Bristol, Vermont, where it was shaped to specifications and then air-freighted back to Baghdad by DHL.
Meanwhile, Downey bought a damaged Pakistan International Airways Airbus that had experienced landing gear and engine malfunctions in March 2004 during takeoff from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Chrison Aerospace is cannibalizing that plane for parts for the DHL jet, which is parked off a runway at Baghdad International.
Downey originally thought the Airbus could be ready to fly by late 2004. But the plane's condition required a special certificate of airworthiness that involved extensive wrangling with U.S. authorities in Germany, New York, Washington, Arizona, Maine and Iraq. The document was finally approved with help from Sen. James Jeffords.
The plane has undergone high-speed taxiing tests, during which the condition of one of its engines was judged unsatisfactory. Downey and Vincent are currently working in Baghdad to retool or replace both engines.
The precise timetable and some details of the operation must be kept confidential. Downey says, "We have to assume that everything we say in print can get to the folks in Baghdad. They shot down an airplane once; there's no reason to assume they wouldn't try to do it again." Just last week, a cigarette package lying on the tarmac was found to contain explosives. This ominous breach apparently led American occupation authorities to forbid U.S. government employees from leaving Baghdad International on commercial flights until further notice.
By late summer, he suggests, the plane will either be flown out of Iraq or dismantled for parts. The potential for a sizable profit remains, he says, despite the $1 million-plus the partnership has already invested in the Airbus.
"Either way, it's going to be a success," Downey predicts. "It hasn't been easy, but if it were easy, there'd be people lining up at the Baghdad airport just waiting to take our places."
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