Wing takes flight
Thanks to last September's terrorist attacks, at least one local business has prospered as a result of security concerns within the military.
Wing Inflatables in Arcata was known for 30 years for making quality whitewater inflatable boats and kayaks. At one time half its business was building whitewater rafts. But back in 1995 the company sought out a new market -- making rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) for the Navy.
"There was a lot of foreign competition in whitewater rafts, so we started focusing on the military market," said Bill Wing, president of Wing Inflatables. [photo at left] "We are a Cinderella story for NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command)," the part of the Navy that oversees the engineering, construction and support of America's naval fleet.
After the October 2000 attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen (in which 17 sailors were killed and 39 injured), the Navy turned to Wing Inflatables to design small, highly maneuverable boats for security patrols. After Sept. 11, orders for inflatable boats increased even more. Today, the Navy's need for RIBs makes up 85 percent of Wing's business.
"Business picked up in 2000, but it really grew after Sept. 11," Wing said. "Wing boats are the first line of defense when someone tries to run into a ship."
Ironically, the terrorists who attacked the Cole rode up next to it in a Zodiac, an inflatable craft similar to the ones made by Wing.
With about 60 employees often working 10-hour days, Wing Inflatables builds about 2.5 inflatable boats a day for the Navy. Wing said he hopes to eventually raise that number to five per day. That also means he may need to double his workforce.
"The current contract tested our ability to keep up," Wing said.
Besides building inflatables for the Navy, Wing builds tubes (much like a tire inner tube) for other Navy boats and works with about 10 other contractors on Navy boats.
"We can take any boat and make a tube for it," Wing said.
The Navy will buy more than 200 RIBs over the next year, of which 85 percent will be made in Arcata at Wing Inflatables, Wing said. In addition, the Coast Guard plans to buy 50 sponsons (the inflatable collars that go around the hulls of inflatable boats) directly from Wing.
For years the French company Zodiac was the prime contractor for inflatable boats for the Navy. But that has all changed, Wing said.
"It's a security issue for the Navy to buy U.S.," Wing said.
Besides making patrol boats that can carry sailors, supplies or be fitted with large caliber machine guns, Wing's company has also been building inflatable boats for the SEALS (Sea-Air-Land personnel), the Navy's equivalent of the Green Berets. In the five years that Wing has been supplying transport boats to the elite special operations force, not one has been destroyed.
Wing said he and his employees take pride in knowing that they are aiding in the country's safety.
While getting a military contract can boost a company's finances, Wing said initially his company had to make a major investment in materials. The company had to buy thousands of yards of material that costs about $50 a yard.
"It was a major step financially for us," Wing said.
-- Geoff S. Fein
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