Alabama Aerospace Benchmarks

NASA — looking beyond the moon

Aiming beyond the moon, NASA continues to awaken the world’s imagination, not just with dreams of places out of this world but also with the first steps on the path toward reaching them.

Based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, the $1.8 billion Space Launch System is the federal agency’s highest priority program. It aims to take humans back to space — to the moon, nearby asteroids and even to Mars.

Working in partnership with the federal agency, prime contracts include ATK for solid rocket boosters, Boeing Co. for the core state and Aerojet Rocketdyne for the engines, with plans for United Launch Alliance to create the cryogenic upper stage, says NASA Public Affairs Officer Jennifer Stanfield.

New to the rocket program is experimentation with 3D printing of parts, to help with cost control and to make it possible to obtain parts when far from earth. It’s a cool enough concept that NASA includes video of parts testing on its website. Check it out here.

And, keeping current projects under scrutiny, Huntsville’s Teledyne Brown has a $120 million contract with NASA to manage all the science experiments underway on the International Space Station.

- Sponsor -

All these NASA projects, however, feel the shadow of sequestration looming over their budgets and the agency director says funding cuts will probably delay every
NASA project.

Rising 100 feet in the air, the first steel of the Airbus final assembly building went into place Sept. 12 at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex.

Photo courtesy of Airbus

Airbus breaks ground

Good news last year turned even better this year as the long-hoped-for arrival of Airbus in Mobile moved from announcement to earth moving.  In a ceremony more like a festival than a traditional business move, hundreds of Mobilians and state officials joined Airbus leaders to break ground at Brookley Aeroplex in April, while non-ceremonial earthmoving equipment hovered in the background.

The European air giant plans to assemble its A320 neo family of single-aisle jets at the plant, with production beginning in 2014 and the first plane rolling out in 2016 — a $600 million investment promising 1, 000 direct jobs.

The same day that Airbus broke ground, Safran Engineering Services —a French firm and the first of what economic developers hope will be dozens of Airbus suppliers — opened its doors on the other side of the airfield-plus-business park.

Under the direction of Birmingham’s Hoar Program Management, multiple contracts have been let for various phases of the project and a variety of key jobs have been posted, with the first few now filled.

Promises from Airbus Americas Chairman Allan McArtor that Mobile is the firm’s industrial home as long as there’s space available warmed the hearts of economic developers.

And civic leaders regard the recruiting coup with enthusiasm.

“There’s something glamorous and exciting about flying, ” Bill Sisson told Business Alabama in the spring. Then head of the Mobile Airport Authority, which includes Brookley, and now president of the Chamber of Commerce, Sisson says flying “captures the imagination of so many people. There are very few places in the world where large aircraft are assembled. To be one of those places is extraordinary.”

Kaiser won a major U.S. Army contract last December to perform parts manufacturing, kitting and more on UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. The contract covers some 800 kits and 560 helicopters, Kaiser President and CEO Ron Aramini says.

Kaiser builds on remnants of Pemco, Alabama Aircraft

Since winning a major U.S. Army helicopter maintenance contract and relocating its corporate headquarters to Birmingham, Kaiser Aircraft Industries Inc. has more than doubled its workforce and begun to step forward from the corporate remains of Pemco and Alabama Aviation, the Birmingham Business Journal reports.

As of midsummer, the company, which is located at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport, had hired 50 new employees, bringing its workforce to more than 100 with plans to continue adding employees.

Kaiser bought what was left of Alabama Aircraft Industries from bankruptcy for $500, 000, the Birmingham business paper reports. The company originally came to Birmingham as Pemco Aviation Group in 1999 and changed its name in 2007. At about the same time, the company lost a $1 billion contract to Boeing and floundered through layoffs, pension cuts and eventually bankruptcy.

When Kaiser acquired the business, its president, Doug McMinn, said in a press statement that he was pleased the company “will save and create hundreds of jobs in the Birmingham, Alabama area.”

Vector-Hawk introduces new engine cleansing system

Vector-Hawk Aerospace, based in Daleville, is bringing a new engine cleansing system to the market this fall — an environmentally-friendly system for getting better fuel efficiency and performance from Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines.

Vector-Hawk’s Mike Nowicki estimates there may be as many as 50, 000 of the engines in use today around the world.

The new system, developed by EcoPower and marketed exclusively by Vector-Hawk, uses atomized heated water to clean the entire engine, then collects up to 95 percent of the water, filters and reuses it. The system already has won approval from Pratt & Whitney, Nowicki says, and he expects FAA approval any day.  His firm will be demonstrating the new system at the National Business Association of America meeting in October.

Dust, dirt and especially salt can damage engines, Nowicki says, while a cleaner engine improves performance and fuel consumption and can extend the time between overhauls.

“In an engine, but especially a turbine or jet, a dirty engine is not an efficient engine, ” he says.

A joint venture between Waco, Texas-based Blackhawk and Vector, based in Prince Edward Island, Canada, Vector-Hawk is a small business that handles contracted work for government aircraft, both foreign and domestic, from military to local police to the State Department.  “Our core business is upgraded Pratt & Whitney engines for older fleets of aircraft, ” Nowicki says.

While most Vector-Hawk work is government, the new engine cleansing system also will be marketed to commercial enterprises.

Commercial Jet revamps aircraft MRO industry in Dothan

While Kaiser brought new life to former Pemco holdings in Birmingham, Commercial Jet flew in to save the day in Dothan, where Pemco’s other major operation had slowly dwindled away.

In early summer, Commercial Jet, which is based in Florida, announced a $12 million investment in facilities at the Dothan Regional Airport, where it will perform the same type of freighter conversions and aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul once offered by the other company.

John Schildroth, a Commercial Jet vice president and manager of the Dothan operations, said in April that the company expected to hire several hundred employees to handle the flow of orders already coming in.

The 400, 000-square-foot facility in Dothan will allow Commercial Jet to triple its capacity, company officials say.

Commercial Jet’s plans to open in Dothan were nearly scrapped by federal budget cuts that led to closure of 149 FAA Contract Control Towers around the nation.

Working in partnership with local officials, the company and the Dothan Houston County Airport Authority have reached an agreement in which the authority will continue to fund tower operations.

Commercial Jet needed the additional space because of a growing demand for passenger-to-freighter conversions for Boeing 737-300/400 aircraft and MD-80SF freighters.

“Now we can run many more conversion and maintenance lines with ample ramp area for parking and preparing aircraft to bring into the hangars, ” said company President David Sandri.

Commercial Jet will also add painting services at its new site.

Aerial view of GE Aviation’s new plant in Auburn, which opened this spring.

Photo courtesy of GE Aviation

GE Aviation starts up engine parts plant in Auburn

In early Spring, GE Aviation celebrated the grand opening of a new $75 million Auburn plant to make jet engine parts from super alloy materials. Its first delivery of high-pressure turbine airfoils is slated for later this year.

The plant will make parts for new engines and for GE engines that are already in service.

GE Aviation CEO David Joyce describes the precision-crafted jet engine blades with laser-drilled cooling holes as “a work of art.”

Since the opening ceremonies, the facility has earned its Federal Aviation Administration certification and is now shipping certified parts.

Teamed with Alabama Industrial Development Training and Southern Union State Community College to prepare workers for the high-tech plant, GE Aviation also has created a strong working relationship both with Auburn University and Tuskegee University to provide co-op and internship opportunities for engineering students. The plant expects to have 50 workers by the end of this year, growing its workforce to between 300 and 400 employees by the end of the decade.

Birmingham airport shows off new looks

Even before Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport passengers figured out the new layout of the renovated portions of their airport, crews were at work with Phase II renovations.

The first phase simplified luggage screening and added covered parking with terminal access and some new options to help families entertain and care for young children, as well as new concession options.

Unfortunately, celebration of the new facilities was marred by a fatal accident shortly after the terminal opened.

But the airport moved ahead with Phase II renovations.

To help travelers navigate the changes, the airport’s website includes a weekly list of changes and work in progress. Check it out here.

Text by Nedra Bloom

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox