GUNTERSVILLE, Alabama – An aviation company that upgrades Black Hawk helicopters is deepening its roots in North Alabama while expanding its customer base around the world, starting with an order for the Austrian Air Force.
Huntsville-based Ace Aeronautics, which does business as Global Aviation Solutions (GAS), has about 50 employees and plans to add another 25 to 50 positions at its Alabama location over the next two years.
Most of the jobs will be located at a hangar the company is building at the airport in Guntersville. The positions will include mechanical and electrical engineers, aviation mechanics, electricians, technicians, inspectors and other highly skilled professionals.
As it ramps up in Guntersville, GAS has landed a major piece of new business. Earlier this month, the company was awarded a contract worth more than $40 million by the Republic of Austria Ministry of Defense to upgrade its fleet of Black Hawk helicopters.
The contract covers the design, manufacture, installation and testing of new avionic systems for nine Austrian S-70A-42 Black Hawk helicopters, said Darrell Kindley, the company’s president and CEO.
“GAS is pleased to provide the Austrian Air Force with our Garmin 5000H-based avionics upgrade kit called the ACEHAWK,” he said. “We’re happy to be selected by the Austrian Air Force to solve the parts obsolescence problems with their Black Hawk helicopters.”
The company will perform the work at its headquarters in Huntsville and its new hangar in Guntersville. The project is expected to be complete by fall 2020.
“The overarching objective of GAS is to minimize technological upgrade and obsolescence challenges facing Black Hawk operators around the world through forward thinking and intelligent architectural design,” he said.
Products include upgrade kits for customers that already own UH-60A/L and S-70 Blackhawks. The company also supplies complete helicopters, UH-60As, with varying levels of structural, mechanical and avionics upgrades, purchased from the U.S. Army’s UH-60 divestiture program.
GAS’ primary customers are foreign governments, but it also markets to the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State and other government agencies.
For Marshall County, GAS is the latest of a long tradition of great aviation and aerospace companies, said Matt Arnold, president and CEO of the Marshall County Economic Development Council.
“Back during the Space Shuttle program, we had two or three companies that made specialized parts for NASA. Most of those have transitioned into supplying components for Boeing, Lockheed and others. Other aviation related companies are located in Marshall County, such as RainAir, BAE Systems and Metal Research,” he said.
Arnold said the county offers valuable assets for firms in the industry.
“In 2008, we opened the Aviation Training Center at the Albertville Airport. That program teaches students the airframe component of the FAA Part 147 A&P certification program for aviation mechanics,” he said. “Recently, Snead State Community College took over that program and is going to add the power plant component making it a true A&P program. Students will be able to become fully certified as an aviation mechanic right here in Marshall County.
“That is a tremendous resource for potential companies like GAS to locate here.”
Kindley said GAS was drawn to the Guntersville airport for three key reasons: a new 5,000-foot runway, room to grow as the first business to move to the airport, and proximity to Huntsville.
“Of course the most important…it’s Guntersville. Who doesn’t like Lake Guntersville? I live there!” he added.
GAS is currently in the process of constructing 42,000 square feet of hangar space at the airport and there are plans for an expansion if needed. The current facility, once complete this summer, will be capable of completing about 12 helicopters per year.
Kindley said the market for Black Hawk upgrades is very large.
“The UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk is a wonderful air vehicle that has been in use for over 30 years,” he said. “Many of the foreign customers have older Black Hawks and are ready for an avionics upgrade.”
GAS sees this as the greatest demand and the largest business opportunity, compared to selling new or recapitalized UH-60As purchased from the U.S. Army, Kindley added.
“The upgrade market is in the thousands, the new or recapitalized market is in the hundreds,” he said. “Good thing GAS does both.”
GAS is part of a robust rotorcraft presence in Alabama.
Helicopter MRO operations include Arista Aviation in Enterprise and Vector in Andalusia. Also, Science and Engineering Services (SES) has been growing its Huntsville manufacturing operation, with a recent $70 million, 450-job expansion.