Mobile Aeroplex evolves into aerospace innovation, training hub

MAA Director Roger Wehner stands in the future Alabama Aviation Innovation and Research Center.
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MOBILE, Alabama – Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, the home of Airbus’ A320 Family Assembly Line in Alabama, is in the early stages of a transformation that its leaders believe will make the former Air Force base a hub for aerospace innovation, research and job training.

“Everything we are doing here is designed to make this into a world-class facility,” said Roger Wehner, director of Mobile Airport Authority (MAA), which oversees the 1,700-acre industrial complex.

Construction is progressing on the Airbus A320 Family Assembly Line at Mobile Aeroplex.
Construction is progressing on the Airbus A320 Family Assembly Line at Mobile Aeroplex.

Even before construction on the Airbus production center began in April 2013, MAA officials had launched a makeover of World War II-era air base, which was showing its age. Wehner said that tens of million of dollars has been invested in improvements for the Aeroplex in the recent years.

With Airbus’ 1,000-strong workforce poised to push employment at the Aeroplex to around 4,700, MAA is working to add a core a restaurant and retail component to the park. The complex’s information technology backbone has been reinforced, and its electrical system has been upgraded, Wehner said. Some older structures on the site have been demolished. Contracts for new roadwork valued at more than $3 million have been approved.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, a lot has been done here,” said Wehner, who will attend next week’s Farnborough International Air Show to showcase the Aeroplex’s evolution.

INTEGRATED JOB TRAINING

This improvement campaign is not limited to infrastructure.

Days ago, AIDT officially opened the $7 million Alabama Aviation Training Center at the complex to help Airbus assemble the skilled workforce it needs for a 2015 production start. Staffers from Airbus and AIDT, the state’s workforce training agency, will provide training at the state-of-the-art facility, which boasts six classrooms and labs for instruction on topics such as advanced materials composites and welding.

The Alabama Aviation Training Center at Mobile Aeroplex will help prepare a skilled workforce for Airbus.
The Alabama Aviation Training Center at Mobile Aeroplex will help prepare a skilled workforce for Airbus, which is constructing an A320 Family Final Assembly Line nearby.

“This center will teach them how to do things the way Airbus does them,” Wehner said.

Wehner added that the AIDT training center at the Aeroplex is a major part of an integrated aerospace program that harnesses the resources of state agencies as well as the education and business communities. He calls it a “holistic workforce delivery solution” that starts with the area’s youngsters.

The process starts as early as kindergarten and extends through high school as Mobile’s education community develops new ways to expose students to aerospace and stimulate their curiosity through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and initiatives such at Engineering Youth Through Engineering (EYE).

Part is that effort is the Aviation and Aerospace Academy at B.C. Rain High School just three miles from the Aeroplex, where students attend classes introducing them to career possibilities in the field. Students also visit aerospace companies and training facilities, and get hands-on experience in labs.

“The idea is to give these kids an aspirational path forward,” Wehner said.

A longtime Aeroplex asset is the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC), a FAA-certified aircraft-mechanic training program that’s been turning out students there since 1976. Kyle Cook, head of the AAC branch, said the program provides certified mechanics for VT MAE (formerly ST Aerospace), a maintenance, repair and overhaul operation with 1,300 workers at the Aeroplex, and for the UTC Aerospace System plant in Foley, among others.

Cook said enrollment at the Aeroplex AAC jumped after Airbus announced it was coming to Mobile in July 2012. The headcount during recent semesters has topped 260, and the branch is rolling out a new program to provide training on the repair of composite aircraft parts.

“We have had a big influx. The biggest contributor was Airbus, but there is the possibility that other companies are coming,” Cook said. “Plus, the industry in general is hiring.”

Because the Aeroplex’s prospects in aerospace look so bright, Wehner also intends to get other post-secondary schools involved in the complex’s evolution.

INNOVATION AND RESEARCH CENTER

Bishop State is a partner in the Alabama Aviation Innovation and Research Center at Mobile Aeroplex.
Bishop State Community College is a partner in the Alabama Aviation Innovation and Research Center at Mobile Aeroplex.

The next phase of this plan involves the creation of the Alabama Aviation Innovation and Research Center, a place where instruction, training and collaboration come together at a single spot in the Aeroplex. Called A2IRc for short, the center will be housed in a 1940s-vintage building off Broad Street that once held the base commander’s office.

Wehner said the first step for MAA involves the repurposing of an 80,000-square-foot office and warehouse building, which will undergo extensive renovations and repairs. The building in early 2015 will welcome its first tenant, Bishop State Community College, a lead partner in the A2IRc (pronounced “AIR”) program that will work with Aeroplex tenants and four-year universities that set up locations at the center.

MAA and Bishop State are teaming to offer an apprenticeship program that links students with the complex’s aerospace employers, creating a talent pipeline of young workers in fields such as industrial maintenance, engineering drafting and design, welding, and graphic communications arts.

Kathy Thompson, dean of technical education and workforce development at Bishop State, said the initiative has both economic development and workforce development components that will serve to boost the area’s aerospace recruitment efforts by demonstrating to prospects that they can count on a trained, available workforce.

“Apprenticeship programs are a very effective way to close the skills gap and the experience gap,” Thompson said.

Wehner said the Aeroplex’s infrastructure improvements, expanding workforce training programs, and its emerging focus on innovation will add to the impact of Airbus’ assembly line as it ramps up to full production in 2017.

“The core message we have had is that MAA is an economic development engine for this community,” Wehner said.