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Mobile Brookley Aeroplex preparing for Airbus’ touch down in Alabama

MOBILE, AlabamaThe home of Airbus Alabama, Mobile Brookley Aeroplex, has a rich aviation history, a unique transportation infrastructure and a bright future as the world’s next production hub for passenger jets.

“Our logistics in Mobile are world class,” said Bill Sisson, the former executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority (MAA), which operates the 1,650-acre Brookley complex. (MAA also operates Mobile Regional Airport, the city’s main air hub.)

Brookley, a former U.S. Air Force base at the tip of Mobile Bay that now operates as an industrial park and a cargo and corporate air field, boasts air, water, rail and interstate connections that made it attractive to Airbus as a manufacturing center.

For starters, there is Runway 14/32, a 9,618-foot long, 150-foot wide landing strip, capable of accommodating any aircraft in the world. Runway 18/36 at Brookley is 7,800 feet long and 150 feet wide.

The site is adjacent to the Port of Mobile, one of the nation’s busiest deepwater ports. Airbus says the location will enable it to deliver fully equipped aircraft sections from Europe via standard freight container ships. That will simplify transportation of oversize aircraft components to the manufacturing facility.

Brookley’s other infrastructure assets are substantial, and Airbus will use road and rail to receive parts from U.S. suppliers. CSX Railroad runs through Brookley and hubs with four other railroads at the nearby seaport terminal. Interstate 10, a major east-west artery, stands two miles away, with two exits to Brookley. Interstate 65, which runs north to Chicago, is a mere four miles away.

“It’s a pretty unique combination,” said Sisson, now the president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

Brookley’s logistical advantages are attracting other companies as well. Start-up firm PowAir International plans to build a $95 million, 500-worker facility at the complex that produces wind turbines and components such as blades and towers. The firm has received tax abatements to advance the project.

Sisson said Brookley is making numerous preparations for Airbus Alabama and its ripple effects. Construction of the Airbus manufacturing facility will begin in the summer of 2013, and the company is scheduled to deliver the first Alabama-made passenger jet to a customer at Brookley in 2016. Two years later, Airbus will begin turning out as many as 50 planes annually.

MAA has engaged Economic and Planning Systems of Berkley, Calif., to update its strategic plan in wake of the Airbus announcement and to develop a set of architectural guidelines for future development. Infrastructure improvements outlined in Brookley’s master plan are being made. A technology assessment is under way to ensure that Brookley is fully prepared for Airbus’ tech-savvy suppliers.

Sisson expects several suppliers to set up shop at Brookley to directly serve Airbus’ Alabama plant. Service suppliers, like Safran Engineering Services, will do the same. Safran, a firm that performs wiring system services for major aviation companies, will establish a facility at Brookley with 50 workers making annual salaries around $70,000.

“The service providers will want to be at Brookley because they want to be near the mothership,” Sisson said.

Brookley already is home to aerospace and aviation companies. Airbus operates an engineering center at the site that performs work on the A350 WXB, the A380 and other Airbus aircraft. ST Aerospace Mobile, FedEx and Continental Motors are among the aviation-related tenants at Brookley. Other tenants are in logistics, manufacturing and various specialties.

The Airbus project is another chapter in Brookley’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 the late 1960s. At its peak, more than 17,000 people worked there.

During World War II, the secret Norden bomb sights used by the Army Air Corps were fine-tuned and repaired at Brookley. After the war, the base was home to the C-74 Globemaster, the military’s largest transport plane. Brookley’s closure in 1969 was at the time the largest base shutdown in the nation’s history.

Sisson said the Airbus Alabama project puts the state and Mobile on “the global aerospace stage.”

“Obviously, it’s transformational because there are so few places in the world where large aircraft are assembled,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have an idea of how big this really is.”

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