DOTHAN, Alabama – At the Dothan Regional Airport, Commercial Jet Inc.’s workforce has been busy converting Boeing 737 passenger aircraft into freighters at the company’s new facility, a significant addition to the thriving Southeast Alabama aerospace sector.
Miami-based Commercial Jet announced plans for the $12 million maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operation a year ago, providing additional lift for a regional aviation cluster that’s home to Fort Rucker, the U.S. Army’s helicopter training center, and companies such as Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky and Bell Helicopter.
“Aviation is a growth industry, and it matches well with our history,” said Wiley Lott, external affairs/economic development director for the Southeast Alabama Gas District, a utility that serves the area. “We have a great mix of aviation activities. The best proof that it works is the companies that are here and the companies that have been here for a long time.”
Lott and other officials in the Wiregrass region believe the area’s aerospace sector is ripe for expansion. A delegation made up of officials from Houston, Dale, Coffee, and Covington counties is heading to next week’s Farnborough International Air Show near London for company meetings and to make new industry contacts.
“We are honored to be part of Team Alabama and to join the Alabama Department of Commerce and other great Alabama companies and communities to help market our state and region at one of the world’s premier aviation events,” Lott said.
Eric Basinger, head of the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp., said the region is well positioned for growth in the aerospace sector, thanks to a skilled workforce and successful training programs. In addition, the Wiregrass is dotted with aviation and aerospace companies and organizations.
Fort Rucker, located near Ozark, has been the training center for U.S. Army aviation since 1955. Its economic impact on Southeast Alabama is massive, measured at $1 billion a year. The post population is around 20,000, and the helicopter-related activities there are a magnet for suppliers providing everything from fleet support to flight simulation.
“Fort Rucker is the nucleus of our aerospace industry,” Basinger said.
Another plus for the region is the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC) campus in Ozark, which has trained students to become FAA-certified aircraft mechanics for more than five decades. The AAC today offers programs that focus on unmanned aerial systems, advance material composites and flight simulation technology.
“The aviation industry is a skills-oriented industry, and if you have a facility like that in your backyard, it’s a real selling point,” said Matt Parker, president of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.
Commercial Jet is a significant new player in the Wiregrass aerospace sector. Parker said the company has installed a new paint shop, upgraded a 411,000-square-foot hangar and is improving ramping at its facility at the Dothan Regional Airport.
The Commercial Jet operation now has 350 workers, and while the company has announced a target of 500, Parker thinks that number could go higher as activity increases at the new facility. If that happens, the area can supply the additional workers, he added.
“We have a talented and capable workforce, experienced in MRO,” Parker said.
Lott said the Farnborough trip comes during a growth spurt for the sector in Southeast Alabama.
In Troy, Lockheed Martin is expanding a plant that produces the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) so that it can also make long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. As part of the project, the aerospace giant is adding a 62,000-square-foot annex to the existing 92,000-square-foot facility and expanding the workforce by 10 percent.
“Lockheed Martin is willing to invest in Pike County because our employees here demonstrate a commitment to quality, excellence and affordability,” Dave Anderson, site director of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control’s Pike County Operations, said in a release.
In Enterprise, Alabama Aircraft Support is opening a MRO facility for helicopters as part of a $12 million project that will create 200 jobs. In Andalusia, Vector Aerospace, an Airbus company, announced plans to expand its helicopter MRO operation with a $3 million investment, adding 75 workers.
Lott said the Southeast Alabama air show team is targeting the aerospace sector because the industry is growing and creating opportunities.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about our people and helping to bring quality jobs to Alabama so that our folks can continue to live and raise their families in the communities they love,” Lott added. “Aviation is an industry whose roots run deep, going back generations in Southeast Alabama, making us the perfect location for aviation companies that wish to grow and prosper in the 21st Century economy.”