MOBILE, Alabama – The Alabama aerospace industry got its start with the Wright Brothers, flew to the moon with Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V rocket, and is poised to add aircraft production to its many capabilities.
With industry officials gathered in Mobile for the SpeedNews Aerospace Manufacturing Conference, it’s time to take a deeper look at Alabama’s aerospace sector, which today employs 83,000 people at more than 400 companies. With the Airbus A320 family assembly line under construction in Mobile, optimism is high that the sector is ripe for expansion.
“We are working hard to attract elements of the Airbus supply chain to Alabama while also increasing aerospace research and engineering activities that take place here,” Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said. “Our goal is to create more high-paying aerospace jobs and to spur more product development in the state.”
With that in mind, here are seven things you need to know about Alabama’s aerospace industry as it prepares to enter a new era.
1. The Wright Brothers set up the nation’s first commercial flight school in a Montgomery cotton field in 1910, a mere seven years after their famous flight at Kitty Hawk. The first class numbered just five students, but the school drew the attention of thousands of tourists. According to accounts, Montgomery officials worked hard to persuade the aviation pioneers to locate their school in Alabama, helping to line up a suitable site and build a hangar. At the time, the city’s fathers saw the development as a bold step into the future.
Though the school only lasted a short time, the cotton field later became home to Maxwell Air Force Base, the site of Air University, the intellectual and leadership center for the Air Force. Today, Montgomery leaders are again avidly pursuing prospects in the aerospace and aviation industries.
2. Airbus and Boeing are fierce competitors in the marketplace, but they have found common ground in Alabama, where both have substantial operations.
The Boeing Co. employs more than 2,600 people in Huntsville and is adding another 300-400 there to establish a technical research center. The company has been in Huntsville for more than 50 years, assisting NASA and playing a major role in the nation’s space program.
As for Airbus, before it began building its A320 family Final Assembly Line at Mobile Aeroplex in 2013, Airbus already operated an engineering center there, with more than 220 employees performing work on A350 XWB and A380 aircraft. In addition, Airbus’ North American military aircraft unit has a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility at Mobile Regional Airport.
3. Airbus and Boeing aren’t the only big-name aerospace names operating in Alabama.
GE Aviation has a plant in Auburn that produces high-pressure turbine airfoils used in the company’s advanced jet engines. Lockheed Martin is adding an annex to produce cruise missiles at its Pike County plant, where the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile is made. Lockheed Martin also makes unmanned aerial systems in Huntsville. Raytheon is expanding a futuristic factory in Huntsville where SM-3 and SM-6 missiles are assembled.
Other major players with a presence in the state include Northrop Grumman, GKN Aerospace, UTC Aerospace Systems, ST Aerospace and Sikorsky.
4. Alabama also is a hotbed of helicopter-related activity.
“We have a robust rotorcraft presence in Alabama. Fort Rucker is the largest helicopter training center in the world, and there is obviously a large nucleus of maintenance techs to support the training craft fleet,” said Bob Smith, the Department of Commerce’s assistant director of business development and point man on aerospace.
Fort Rucker, near Ozark, has been the training center for U.S. Army helicopter pilots since 1955. In addition, the U.S. Army’s helicopter command is located at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Bell Helicopter has worked with Northrop Grumman on an unmanned helicopter program at Bell’s facility in Ozark. (Bell also has a research center in Huntsville that focuses on unmanned aerial vehicles.)
Plus, Sikorsky has a manufacturing and assembly operation in Troy and a research and engineering center in Huntsville. Alabama Aircraft Support plans to open a MRO facility for helicopters in Enterprise, while Vector Aerospace last year announced plans to expand its helicopter overhaul facility in Andalusia.
5. Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, where Airbus’ A320 family final assembly line is being constructed, is an important piece of Alabama’s aviation heritage.
Founded in 1929 as Bates Field, Mobile’s municipal airport, it operated as a major Air Force base from the 1940s until 1969, when it closed. During World War II, the secret Norden bombsights used by the Army Air Corps were fine-tuned and repaired there. Later, the base was home to the C-74 Globemaster, then the military’s largest transport plane.
Today, it’s home to a ST Aerospace facility where big jets are repaired and refurbished, and Continental Motors, which makes piston engines for small aircraft. Airbus suppliers and service providers are expected to land there.
6. There’s an Alabama flavor to the team building the Airbus final assembly line in Mobile.
Birmingham’s Hoar Program Management (HPM) was selected to oversee the $600 million project, and other Alabama companies have been among those brought in to complete tasks after a competitive selection process. These include Dothan’s Covenant Steel, Birmingham’s Brasfield & Gorrie for work on the assembly hangar. Birmingham’s B.L. Harbert International and Mobile’s Rob’t J. Baggett Inc. were both selected for general contracting duties on parts of the project. The Mobile office of Hatch Mott MacDonald, an international engineering and aviation design firm, also is involved.
“HPM could not be more pleased with the quality and capability each company partner has brought to the efforts here,” President Mike Lanier said. “Keeping the project local has been a key priority for HPM. Yet, the ability to service Airbus and provide the highest quality efforts supersedes everything. We are happy to have chosen companies which not only have their roots in Alabama but simply are the best choices in their industries for this project.”
Airbus will begin producing A320 family aircraft at the facility in 2015, with the first customer delivery scheduled for 2016.
7. It’s no secret Alabama has been home to some of the world’s smartest rocket scientists for more than five decades, but their work is not merely a thing of the past. Since 2011, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville have been designing the propulsion system for the Space Flight System (SLS), the space agency’s next generation rocket that will eventually take humans to Mars.
In addition to developing SLS, Marshall also manages the majority of science experiments aboard the International Space Station. The facility also designed, developed and continues to help manage images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.