Flight plan: Small Alabama city eyes future as aviation hub

ANDALUSIA, Alabama – About 125 miles from Mobile, where Airbus will build its first U.S. final assembly line, is a small Covington County city of 9,000 people that plans to transform its textile-based economy into an aviation hub.

Andalusia Mayor Earl Johnson joins other elected officials and economic development experts from around Alabama this week at the Paris Air Show, a key opportunity for connecting with aerospace companies considering expansion plans. Johnson, who attended the air show in the French capital two years ago, also has been to the Farnborough International Air Show near London.

“It’s hard to get those folks to come visit us, so we go visit them,” Johnson says.

Johnson and other Andalusia officials plan to use their time at the Paris Air Show to meet with a number of aerospace and aviation companies the city already is pursuing, or those companies officials would like to pursue. Read a story about Team Alabama’s objectives in Paris.

In addition to the Hyundai supplier SaeHaeSung, which employs 200 people, Andalusia’s major employers include the PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries and a new SITEL call center. But it has been building an aerospace/aviation sector – and Johnson aims to expand it further.

Two aviation companies already have operations in Andalusia. One of them is Vector Aerospace, a Canadian company that in 2011 was acquired by Eurocopter Holding, a subsidiary of Airbus parent EADS. This spring, Vector – which maintains and overhauls helicopters for the U.S. military and other customers – completed a $3 million expansion in Andalusia that will add 75 jobs to the 150 it now has in the city.

A second, and newer, addition to the area is DRS, a fixed-wing overhaul maintenance company that’s leasing two large hangars for work on Lockheed Martin C-130 military transport aircraft and other larger planes. Johnson said DRS is a prime example of why it’s good to attend air shows: Two years after talks began and three months after Johnson’s first trip to the Paris Air Show, DRS agreed to locate in Andalusia.

“I look at these trips to Paris, London and to other gatherings like fishing trips,” he said. “If you want to catch fish, you’ve got to go fishing. And that’s what we’re going. We’re going to where the aviation companies are. They’re always at these airshows. So that’s the value in going.”

Andalusia’s aviation workforce training and investment

Twenty years ago, Andalusia’s South Alabama Regional Airport was nothing more than a 5,000-foot airstrip with little support, Johnson said. But over that period, the city invested more than $50 million to make improvements to the airport and an adjacent industrial park.

The city’s aviation history goes back even further. Andalusia’s airport was the first general aviation airport in the world approved to “hot refuel” military aircraft. Hot refueling reduces the number of times an aircraft needs to power off, therefore lengthening the life of the machine. Now, the airport sells about a million gallons of jet fuel annually to military aircraft.

The airport’s proximity to military bases like Eglin Air Force Base and Fort Rucker, the U.S. Army helicopter training facility near Ozark, allow it to have a labor pool consisting of many experienced aircraft mechanics.

“You’d be surprised,” Johnson said. “You would not think they’d be in an area like rural Alabama, but they’re here because of their former relationships with the military bases in the area.”

Andalusia is also home to an Alabama Aviation Center training facility – the only post-secondary aviation training facility authorized by the Alabama State Board of Education. The AAC is part of Enterprise State Community College and has facilities across the state, including one at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex, preparing students for careers in aircraft maintenance and repair.

Johnson thinks Andalusia is well equipped for additional aerospace and aviation firms and can provide the workers for them to successful.

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