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Alabama aerospace sector primed for growth, trade group says

Alabama’s aerospace and aviation sector, which stretches from Huntsville to Mobile, is well positioned for expansion as new projects land in a state with a rich heritage in the industry, according to Jeff Thompson, executive director of the Alabama Aerospace Industry Association.

“Aviation has been going on in Alabama for more than 100 years, since the Wright Brothers. So for us, it’s not a new business,” said Thompson, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “If you’re looking for things that will give you an advantage – history and infrastructure are two things.”

Airbus is the latest big-name industry player to pick Alabama for a major project – the $600 million passenger jet production center it is building at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex. Alabama stands to win 1,000 Airbus jobs and as many as 4,000 related jobs thanks to the project.

Many of the industry’s biggest players have long had a significant presence in the state.  Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have had operations in Alabama for more than 50 years. Boeing maintains its Strategic Missile & Defense Systems headquarters in Huntsville, as well as its largest program, Ground-based Midcourse Defense. Huntsville also is home to Boeing Exploration Launch Systems, which oversees NASA’s Space Launch System and support to the International Space Station.

Lockheed Martin was one of the first tenants in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park, recruited back in 1963 by rocket genius Wernher Von Braun himself. The company now performs work on missile defense and NASA test programs in Huntsville. It also has an advanced manufacturing facility in Troy that makes several missile types for the U.S. military.

Others with Alabama operations include Raytheon, Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter, Northrop Grumman, GKN Aerospace, General Dynamics, BAE Systems, Goodrich and Pratt & Whitney.

The Alabama Department of Commerce says there are 83,000 state residents working in the aerospace and aviation sector.

New projects are adding to the growth. In Auburn, GE Aviation just opened a jet engine components plant that eventually will have as many as 400 workers. In Dale County, Commercial Jet Inc. is investing $12 million to open a maintenance, repair and overhaul operation, creating hundreds of jobs. In Andalusia, Vector Aerospace, owned by Airbus sister company Eurocopter, is expanding its helicopter overhaul operation in a $3 million project that will create 75 jobs.

“Aerospace is a big industry in Alabama,” Thompson said.

Thompson says the Airbus project adds a new component to Alabama’s diverse mix of activities in the sector. The Brookley Aeroplex final assembly line will be just the fourth global passenger production center for Airbus, turning out 40 to 50 aircraft annually.

“We have the capability to develop a new set of companies in Alabama,” he said. “It gives us the chance to go after a new kind of business.”

Alabama’s aviation roots date back to the Wright Brothers, who set up a flying school in Montgomery in 1910, just seven years after their celebrated flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The site eventually turned into Maxwell Air Force Base, home of Air University, the intellectual and leadership center for the Air Force.

U.S. Army Aviation also looks to Alabama for critical functions. Fort Rucker, near Ozark in Southeast Alabama, has been the training center for the Army’s helicopter pilots since 1955.

“If you are going to fly helicopters for the Army, you are going to go through Fort Rucker,” Thompson said. “It’s a very important facility.”

Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville is another Alabama aerospace industry landmark. It houses the Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command, which oversees the branch’s helicopter, missile and unmanned aerial vehicle weapon systems. Redstone has been the center of Army rocket development since 1948, and it was there that von Braun and a team of German rocket experts developed the first U.S. ballistic missile.

Redstone Arsenal also is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where the engines for the Saturn V rocket, which put men on the moon, were built and tested. Today, Marshall has key responsibilities in the development of launch vehicles and propulsion systems and for International Space Station programs. Work on the Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built, is being done in Huntsville.

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