Sunday, December 28, 2008

Week in review (12/21 to 12/27)

It wasn’t a very good Christmas present for Northwest Florida.

According to the Air Force News Service, Northrop Grumman will move its Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) hub from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to the Warner Robins area in Georgia. It’s the result of an agreement between the Air Force and Northrop Grumman signed Dec. 11.

LAIRCM is a laser-based system designed to counter the threat that slow-moving cargo aircraft and rotary-wing aircraft face from shoulder-fired missiles and missiles launched from vehicles. The system detects heat-seeking missiles and puts out a signal to confuse its path and direct it away from the aircraft.

This is a pretty big deal for Warner Robins. Phil Robinson, Northrop Grumman's system manager for LAIRCM, told AFNS that Robins AFB will work not only on Air Force platforms equipped with LAIRCM, but planes throughout the U.S. armed forces.

Much of the work to get the operation to George was apparently done quietly.

"The agreement culminates a lot of hard work that has been done behind the scenes by our folks who generate business for us, who generate workload for us, (and) who monitor our business operations," said Brig. Gen. Mark Atkinson, the 402nd Maintenance Wing Commander at Robins AFB. As the general put it, "this gets our foot in the door."

The workload now is not that great, but it's expected to go up over time. Northrop Grumman currently does most of the maintenance work on the system, Atkinson said. And one reason behind the agreement is the Air Force thinks the system too important to rely solely on private industry for maintenance, so Robins wants to handle it. If you want to read the full story, click here.

It’s really discouraging this high-tech capability isn't going to remain in this region, but that's what happens as folks work behind the scenes to bring more capability to their own base. It's something folks around Eglin Air Force Base need to consider while debating whether the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training center will bring too much noise. What you don't want or what you're not watching carefully, someone else wants and might actively be pursuing.

One of the areas of aerospace that hold great promise for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor is NASA's push to get private sector companies more involved in picking up the NASA slack, so to speak. The agency will be spending a lot of money in the future getting companies to perform the tasks the agency can't or won't.

A case in point: NASA awarded $3.5 billion in cargo contracts to two companies in hopes of encouraging development of a private-sector commercial space industry capable of providing the rockets that can carry passengers to the International Space Station and beyond. Space Exploration Technologies of California and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia will provide 20 flights to the space station.

Now if you read this column or our news briefs regularly, you know that Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia is the company that recently decided to have the AJ26 rocket engines tested at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The testing will begin in 2009, and while it may not seem like a big deal, it is in that a company that is picking up the NASA slack will be doing some work in this region. Orbital is the same company that awarded a $49 million contract to Alliant Techsystems (ATK) to provide at least nine flight sets of Orion solid rocket motors. That work will be done at the ATK operation in Salt Lake City, Utah, but could this mean more testing at Stennis? Perhaps. We’ll have to see.

Speaking of space, the Lockheed Martin-led team developing the Air Force’s Space-Based Infrared System delivered the remaining major spacecraft bus subsystem for the second geosynchronous orbit spacecraft. The GEO-2 spacecraft core structure and propulsion subsystem was recently completed and the high-performance communications subsystem for the spacecraft was delivered in early December. The propulsion subsystem, essential for maneuvering the satellite during transfer orbit to its final location as well as conducting on-orbit repositioning, was developed at Lockheed Martin’s Mississippi Space & Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss.

Northrop Grumman had a pretty good past week. Its RQ-4 Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration team was named Test Team of the Quarter for the second quarter of 2008 by the Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20. The team won the award for achievements in the first half of the year. The team is, among other things, developing tactics and guidelines for Navy unmanned patrol systems. As you know, portions of the Global Hawks are built in Moss Point, Miss.

Northrop Grumman also won two Worker Safety Excellence Awards from the Aerospace Industries Association. The company’s Integrated Systems sector, which oversees Mississippi's Moss Point Unmanned Systems Center, was recognized for having the lowest injury and illness rate in the aircraft manufacturing category. The AIA cited Northrop Grumman's low workplace injury and illness rates as well as its positive safety program elements.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Week in review (12/14 to 12/20)

The future of aerospace was unveiled at a ceremony in Palmdale, Calif., this past week when Northrop Grumman showed off its X-47B unmanned combat aircraft system - a stealthy, tail-less, strike-fighter sized robot aircraft.

"Unveiling the first X-47B UCAS aircraft signals a sea change in military aviation, made possible through the Navy's vision and leadership," said Scott Winship, Northrop Grumman vice president and Navy UCAS program manager.

The unveiling is of interest to the Gulf Coast for at least two reasons. First, unmanned aerial systems are being built in Moss Point, Miss. But there’s another reason: The Gulf Coast, specifically at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., and NAS Whiting Field, near Milton, Fla., is where initial training begins for naval aviators. These future aviators have to be looking very carefully at developments in the unmanned aircraft field, and perhaps with some degree of trepidation. Let's face it, robot air vehicles, especially those that can perform combat operations, are future competition, so to speak.

The X-47B is a carrier-capable, multi-mission system designed for a variety of long range tasks, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and the ability to strike targets with an array of weaponry. Predators have already shown UAVs can be used for strike missions, but what's different here is an aircraft that can do a catapult launch from a carrier and make an arrested landing. That goes to the heart of what it means to be a naval pilot.

The Navy awarded the demonstration contract to Northrop in 2007. This is the first of two UCASs Northrop Grumman will produce for the Navy to demonstrate unmanned combat aircraft operations from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The first sea trials are planned to begin in late 2011. The Navy UCAS program will set the stage for a potential full-scale UCAS development effort to support the Navy’s master plan, which includes provisions for introduction of a Navy UCAS in 2020.

It may be too early to start thinking this way, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that those aircraft may one day be built in Moss Point, where Northrop Grumman operates its unmanned systems center. The facility already makes Global Hawks and Fire Scouts and has plenty of room to grow.

Mississippi’s John C. Stennis Space Center, not far from the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, was chosen this past week as the site that will test the engine for the Taurus II space launch vehicle being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

Taurus II is a medium-capacity expendable launch system being developed as an alternative to the Delta II. Taurus II will be used to launch the Cygnus spacecraft in 2010 for an International Space Station mission. Taurus II uses a pair of Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines to provide first stage propulsion. The first engine will be delivered to Stennis next year.

Activity in propulsion testing is clearly picking up at Stennis Space Center. It was just a couple of weeks ago that we told you Rolls-Royce North America is planning to increase its engine-testing activities at the test facility it opened last year. It's been testing Trent 900 and 1000 engines, and will also take on the BR725. By 2010 and 2011, Rolls-Royce will be testing the Trent XWB and RB282 engine at the NASA facility.

EADS North America celebrated this past week the delivery of the 50th UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopter to the Army. The helicopters are built at American Eurocopter, the EADS North America facility in Columbus, Miss. EADS also has operations on the Gulf Coast, including an EADS CASA maintenance facility and an Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile, Ala. Speaking of Alabama, that state’s community colleges could be offering a new associate's degree next fall in an effort to boost the state's engineering workforce. Higher education officials say figures show the need for 1,100 new engineers a year to meet industry demand.

The governor of Florida and cabinet approved the purchase of more than 200 acres in the Clear Creek/Whiting Field area as part of the Florida Forever project. The acquisition will protect the environmentally sensitive land and prevent encroachment at Whiting Field Naval Air Station, a training site near Milton, Fla., where the Navy trains helicopter aviators. Meanwhile, Enterprise Florida presented Okaloosa County with two grants totaling some $300,000. One was a Defense Infrastructure Grant worth $200,000, the other a $99,000 Defense Reinvestment Grant. Money from these grants is used to improve the state’s defense activities.

On the issue of training, while the debate continues around Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. about the noise that the F-35 Joint Strike fighter will bring, other locations are making a big pitch to bring the fighter to their location. The Arizona Republic wrote that Arizona lawmakers are lobbying to have the F-35 brought to Luke Air Force Base. Luke is a finalist in the Air Force's efforts to determine which bases will become primary training facilities for pilots of the Joint Strike Fighter. Eglin is already slated to be home to the joint F-35 training wing, but each of the services is also looking for separate facilities for their particular branch.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Week in review (12/07 to 12/13)

Five contracts with a connection to the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor were awarded during this past week. One was aircraft-related, three for weapon systems and one was for a construction project in New Orleans. The total value of the awards was $159.7 million.

The Air Force modified a contract with Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. of San Diego, Calif. – not to exceed $18.2 million – that will provide additional long lead associated with five Global Hawks, two ground segments, two EISS and two ASIP sensor payloads. Global Hawk fuselage work is done in part in Moss Point, Miss., at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center.

In a weapons-related award, Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz., won a $15.6 million modification to a previously awarded contract for technical support of AIM-9X missiles for the Navy and Air Force. Five percent of that work will be done at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where the Air Force tests and develops airborne weapons systems. Eglin was also the contracting activity for two other weapons-related contracts. One was awarded to Raytheon, a $7.9 million modification of an Air Force contract for the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile Air Intercept Missile. The other was a contract to McDonnell Douglas Corp., of St. Louis, Mo., for $110 million that exercises an option for Small Diameter Bombs, carriages, and technical and logistical support.

The other contract awarded this past week was for $8 million to Broadmoor, LLC, of Metairie, La., for design and construction of Calibration Laboratory at Naval Air Station JRB New Orleans.

Speaking of construction, ground was broken in Gulfport, Miss., at the Naval Construction Battalion Center for a new Naval Meteorology Professional Development Center. The $8.7 million center is designed to meet the current and future mission to advance, implement, and manage the education and advanced professional training of meteorology and oceanography officers, aerographer's mates and civilians.

Another construction project of note: Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., is doing repair work on its airfield ramp that will improve the field’s capability to handle larger aircraft. The 270-day project got started earlier this month. The current airfield operations support the C-21 missions of the 45th Airlift Squadron, C-130s from the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing, support for Coast Guard's aircraft training and more.

Goodrich Corp. was selected by Airbus to supply wheels and carbon brakes for all variants of the A350 XWB aircraft. The company could see as much as $3 billion in revenue over the life of the program. Although Goodrich’s Alabama Service Center in Foley, Ala., won’t be doing any of the work – the equipment will be provided by a Goodrich team in Ohio – in this economy anything that helps the parent company has got to be seen as positive news.

A California company with a manufacturing operation in Ocean Springs, Miss., has been named the 2008 North American Homeland Security Inspection and Screening Company of the Year by Frost & Sullivan. Rapiscan Systems was cited for its ability to develop and deploy products that enhance security at airports, seaports and border crossings worldwide. Rapiscan Systems has a 10,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Ocean Springs.

At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., a new chief of the Air Armament Center has been announced. Maj. Gen. David Eidsaune is leaving Eglin to become director of operations at headquarters Air Force Materiel Command at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Replacing him is Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis, executive officer for the F-35 program office in Arlington, Va. Hard to picture a better selection, considering Eglin is in line to become a joint training base for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – if all the noise issues can be resolved.

A bit of news on the Air Force tanker project: U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging quick action to replace the Air Force’s fleet of refueling tankers. The letter was sent after U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania said it could take at least two more years to restart the tanker competition. Both Alabama senators are hoping the Northrop/EADS team will win so the tankers can be assembled in Mobile, Ala.

Finally, the Army plans to bring a digital data link to its fleet of Raven UAVs so more aircraft can fly in a given combat area. The Army project manager says the service is buying 50 new Ravens and retrofitting 200 others. An executive with AeroVironment, a California company that makes the digital data link, says that with digitally compressed video more can be put into smaller bandwidth. AeroVironment has a UAV training and support operation in Navarre, Fla.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Week in review (11/30 to 12/06)

The week ended with one of the region's aerospace operations slapped with bad news. In Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Chromalloy Gas Turbine dropped 67 workers and said it plans to close its 30-year-old Fort Walton Beach plant in the next few months. Plans are to consolidate the Fort Walton Beach operation with one in Texas. Chromalloy inspects and repairs commercial aircraft engines.

Another long-time resident of the Fort Walton Beach area also said goodbye. The 60th Fighter Squadron of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., flew its final sortie after 37 years. The F-15 fighter squadron is part of the drawdown of the 33rd Fighter Wing. That wing is being replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program slated to arrive in 2010. Of course, that's assuming the controversy over the noise of the F-35 is resolved.

On the topic of last curtain calls, AirTran will end service to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Gulfport, Miss., on Jan. 5. The company operated under a contract with casinos, but the casinos opted not to continue the contract. The airline said the market is not viable without it. The airport said AirTran accounts for up about 25 percent of scheduled traffic.

In Mobile, Ala., Northrop Grumman executive Wes Bush paid a visit to assure Mobile and state officials – and the media – that it's still committed to moving ahead on the Air Force tanker project. The Northrop/EADS team won the contract, but Boeing's protest was upheld and the competition is on hold pending the new administration.

On another EADS-related front, governments in the Mobile area will spend $468,000 on a firefighting system to help EADS CASA with an expansion of its Mobile facility. EADS CASA, a Spanish subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., has an aircraft maintenance and training center at the Mobile airport.

In another EADS-related story, EADS North American Defense was awarded a $208.3 million contract for funding of 39 Light Utility Helicopters for the Army. Work will be performed in Columbus, Miss., at the company’s Eurocopter plant, and in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Rolls-Royce North America is planning to increase its engine-testing activities at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The company opened its Stennis operation less than a year ago and has tested Trent 900 and 1000 engines. The next one it will take on is the BR725. By 2010 and 2011, Rolls-Royce will be testing the Trent XWB and RB282 engine. All those engines are for commercial aircraft.

In another Stennis-related story, NASA supporters in Congress fear bailouts will make it hard for a new administration to maintain the current space budget, let alone deliver on a campaign promise to speed up the Constellation Program. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are involved in space programs.

Speaking of the space program, it looks like the space program footprint in the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor region is going to expand. Andrews Institute, a sports health facility in Gulf Breeze, Fla., will be teaming up with Space Florida to provide personal spaceflight medical and training programs for commercial space tourists. The idea is that there are plenty of folks lining up to fly in space, and this program is designed to provide the training they'll need.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Week in review (11/23 to 11/29)

As expected, it was a particularly slow week when it came to aerospace news from the Gulf Coast region last week. Even contracting activity was slow during a week shortened by Thanksgiving.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., was the contracting activity for two contracts awarded last week. One was a $96 million contract to McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., to provide Small Diameter Bomb Aircraft Weapon Systems on various aircraft. The other was a $6 million contract for Raytheon Co., Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz., to upgrade two guided weapons test sets.

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which has an operation at Stennis Space Center, Miss., completed the acquisition of ARDE Inc., a manufacturer of high performance spacecraft and missile propulsion components. ARDE of Carlstadt, N.J., produces pressure vessels, propellant tanks and support structures and provides integration of propulsion subassemblies.

In Panama City, Fla., the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority will vote next month on a second runway at the international airport under construction. The hope is to add a 5,000-foot crosswind runway that will handle smaller aircraft and make traffic less congested on the 10,000-foot concrete runway now being built.

In Hattiesburg, Miss., the University of Southern Mississippi said it's considering leasing a Beechcraft King Air 200 for five years from the USM Foundation for some $1.9 million. Details are still being worked out and nothing is final yet.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Week in review (11/16 to 11/22)

The week ended on a sour note for Mobile aerospace workers with the layoff of about 60 workers from Teledyne Continental Motors. The decision was based on a decline in the market for aircraft engines and parts. Teledyne Continental is located in the Brookley Industrial Complex.

There was a bit of news about the Air Force tanker project. That’s of high interest to the Mobile area, which hopes to build the tankers at Brookley. Pentagon acquisition chief John Young said he will advise the Obama administration to take a two-step approach to the competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS, based on the best-price offer after bidders had shown an ability to meet stripped-down set of requirements. The Northrop Grumman/EADS proposal came in considerably less costly than the Boeing proposal.

Things are moving forward at Mobile Regional Airport. EADS CASA, a Spanish subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. wants to expand its facility there. The company won abatements from the industrial development board. Plans call for a 27,000-square-foot hangar.

Also during the week, the Mobile Airport Authority board members voted to pay former executive director Bay Haas $10,000 a month as a consultant for 19 months. The board in September announced plans to retain Haas when it hired Bill Sisson as the new chief of the authority.

Further to the east in the Fort Walton Beach area, a lot of concern is being felt over the Air Force’s decision to postpone the record of decision for the Joint Strike Fighter training school at Eglin Air Force Base. The delay will give the Air Force time to run tests on the new F-35 and explore alternative locations on the base for its bed down. The city of Valparaiso has been concerned over the noise of the F-35 and is suing the Air Force for additional information.

But the Air Force is moving forward on the Army 7th Special Forces Group bedding down at Eglin. The group will be located west of Duke Field. The cantonment area includes operations and maintenance facilities, housing, dining facilities, and munitions storage and loading facilities. Some 5.1 million square feet of buildings and hard surfaces will be built between 2009 and 2011.

In the western portion of the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor, the INFINITY Science Center broke ground on the Interstate 10 facility. It expects to draw as many as 400,000 people a year. The center will highlight the work being done at the neighboring Stennis Space Center. It plans to open in the fall 2010 with exhibits, interactive galleries, theaters, a gift shop and cafeteria, though the backers still need to raise another $4 million. If this facility becomes anything like the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, it will be of major importance for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor.

In the same area of the corridor, Gene Goldman last week was named the new director of John C. Stennis Space Center. A native of Mississippi, Goldman has been the center’s deputy director since October 2006. He replaced Bob Cabana, who left in October to become the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Upstate a ways in Hattiesburg, the University of Southern Mississippi signed a lease agreement with Crosslink to provide research space in the university’s polymer science building. Crosslink has worked with Southern Miss polymer science researchers since 2004. Previous collaborations include a variety of research projects in polymer-related technologies, particularly for military applications. Crosslink and USM hold a joint patent for a corrosion-inhibiting polymer. They are also working together on a “smart” aerospace composite that can alert crew of damage and initiate repair on its own.

Two contracts of note related to this region. In one, American Security Programs, Inc., Dulles, Va., was awarded $29.7 million to exercise an option under a previously awarded security services contract. The work includes guard and non-guard services. In this region, work will be performed at CBC Gulfport, Miss., NSA Panama City, Fla., and NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. In the second contract, Virtual Media Integration, Ltd., Pensacola, was awarded an $8.3 million contract for the procurement of 5 pre-production Computed Radiography System units and up to 100 production units. The system is a portable nondestructive testing technique used for processing radiographic film. These systems will be used to inspect for defects and perform alignment measurements. Work will be performed in Pensacola.

Friday, November 21, 2008

News to note

For those of you interested in either the Air Force tanker project or unmanned aerial systems, there's a story in Aviation Week that combines the two topics.

A Boeing-led team has been selected to continue development of a system enabling unmanned aerial vehicles to autonomously rendezvous with a tanker and refuel. It's Phase 2 of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Automated Aerial Refueling program, and it involves actual fuel delivery to a surrogate UAV (Story).

In another UAV-related story, the Air Force News Service reports that a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland is researching miniature acoustic sensors and sound localization techniques using the hearing mechanisms of flies as a model. It could lead to the development of an artificial fly unmanned aircraft system with combined hearing and vision for navigation to inaccessible locations. It could also result in micro aerial vehicles having improved homing capabilities (Story). Of course, there's still the issue of navigation of micro-UAVs. The small size makes it particularly difficult to maneuver them. Even breezes can impact their flight. A meeting in Fort Walton Beach earlier this year discussed that very issue.

Here’s one for those of you who follow the space program, and particularly the progress of the Constellation Program. NASA, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Alliant Techsystems successfully performed a ground firing test of a launch abort motor for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The test was conducted at ATK's Launch Systems facility in Promontory, Utah (Story). Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Mississippi's Stennis Space Center are both involved in the Constellation Program.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Week in review (11/09 to 11/15)

The folks behind the INFINITY project announced last week that they have scheduled a groundbreaking for the 72,000 square-foot science center. The ceremony is scheduled for Thursday. The $38 million center will be built near the Mississippi Welcome Center at Interstate 10, and it's designed to spark interest in the science activities at nearby Stennis Space Center. The center is expected to be a substantial tourist attraction for the region, and will focus on several science fields, including aerospace, marine science and more.

Late last week space shuttle Endeavour lifted off for a 15-day mission to prepare the International Space Station for a six-member crew. Shuttle launches are of interest to the Gulf Coast region workers because the external tanks are made at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the engines tested at Mississippi's Stennis Space Center.

But many in the space program are busy looking ahead as well. Last week the high-performance J-2X rocket engine completed a critical design review at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The J-2X engine was developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and will power the upper stage of the Ares I rocket and the Earth departure stage of the Ares V. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne does a lot of J-2X work at Stennis Space Center.

One final piece of NASA-related news was the decision by former Stennis Space Center director Rick Gilbrech to leave the agency for the private sector. Gilbrech is stepping down as associate administrator for exploration systems. He left Stennis for that post back in the summer of 2007.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flew supersonic for the first time last week, accelerating to Mach 1.05, or about 680 miles per hour. The test was done a full internal load of inert or “dummy” weapons on the one-hour flight. That may be of interest to the folks around Eglin Air Force Base, which is scheduled to become home to a Joint Strike Fighter training center. The city of Valparaiso, Fla., and the Air Force are still sparring over the noise issue. Last week city officials met behind closed doors to discuss the suit.

At Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, four student pilots last week became the first graduates of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor Basic Course. These pilots are the first in the Air Force to have the F-22 as their first operational aircraft rather than transitioning to the Raptor from some other fighter.

There was some commercial airport news as well last week. Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Gulfport, Miss, which recently wrapped up a $50 million expansion, is now looking at some road improvement projects. That was a bit of good news for the airport, which learned late last week that Allegiant Air is ending its service to and from Orlando in January. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Larry Austin, a former Florida highway patrol commander, was named federal security director for Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Week in review (11/02 to 11/08)

The most important event during this past week for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor was the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. It's important because the next administration's views on defense and aerospace issues will be critical to the future of the region.

The new administration will face tough questions on major weapons programs, including how to move forward on the next generation of destroyers - important for Mobile, Ala., Pascagoula and Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans - as well as what to do about replacing the fleet of Air Force tankers. That's important to Mobile. One thing seems clear already - Obama is a big advocate of technology and innovation, and that's likely to benefit the space program - important to New Orleans and South Mississippi.

The new president is expected to emphasize technological investments under national security and space exploration efforts at the expense of Defense Department big-ticket items. He’s declared support for technological innovation across the federal government, but in particular, he advocates unmanned aircraft, electronic warfare capabilities and cyber security.

Statements from Obama have indicated he’s inclined to favor awarding the tanker contract to Boeing, on grounds, at least in part, that it will save American jobs. But it’s also possible that when he takes office, he’ll have an opportunity to see the flip side - that awarding the contract to the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team and assembling the planes in Mobile will lead to more foreign investment in the United States. The jury is clearly out on this one.

Obama has called for renewing the nation’s commitment to NASA, and he’s demanded a budget with sufficient resources for success in its critical missions - space exploration and human spaceflight, science and aeronautics research. One thing that could occur is an extension of the space shuttle program. Obama said NASA should take no further action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly the shuttle beyond 2010.

More shuttle flights would help keep hundreds of people working at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. But the price tag is $2 billion, and it might also push back the Constellation Program. That program is moving forward, at least for the time being. The first major flight hardware of the Ares I-X rocket arrived in Florida last week, and the test flight of the agency’s next generation launch system is set for July 2009.

Two Blue Angels team members, one a pilot, who were removed from duty for an “inappropriate relationship” were found guilty late in the week. The Navy has not identified the man and woman, but one was in the Navy, the other in the Marines. The flight demonstration team based in Pensacola, Fla., has been doing shows with one less plane than normal.

Speaking of air shows, Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., will be hosting its first air show in five years this coming April when it presents “Thunder on the Bay.” It will include aerial acrobatics and static aircraft displays, though details are still being worked out.

In another base-related matter from the past week, maintainers from Hurlburt Field, Fla., near Fort Walton Beach, were named winners of the Department of Defense Phoenix Award, the highest field-level maintenance award within DoD.

On Saturday, the Navy's first littoral combat ship, USS Freedom, was commissioned in Milwaukee, Wis. So what’s that got to do with aerospace? A Northrop Grumman Fire Scout helicopter drone is on the Freedom and will remain onboard as it transits from Milwaukee to Norfolk, Va. Finishing work on Fire Scouts are done in Moss Point, Miss.

Speaking of unmanned aerial vehicles, Northrop during the week was awarded a $97 million Army contract to procure, modify and deliver 12 Hunter MQ-5B UAVs and supporting equipment. Just another affirmation of the growing importance of unmanned aerial systems.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The road ahead

For a region of the country where defense issues play such an important role, it may be reassuring to hear analysts say it's unlikely defense will take a hit when the Barack Obama administration takes office. But, as with any sweeping statement, the devil is in the details.

Broadly speaking, analysts say Obama will be disinclined to make cuts that could cost Americans jobs during an economic downturn. Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, said Obama understands the critical nature of defense, and the acute need to modernize the military with new equipment. (Story)

But at least one defense company is not so sure. England-based defense giant BAE Systems, which has operations in the United States, including the Gulf Coast, expects the United States to spend less on its military in an Obama presidency. (Story)

In either case, the new administration will face tough questions on major weapons programs, including how to move forward on the next generation of destroyers - an issue of high importance to Pascagoula and New Orleans. Both Obama and John McCain talked about controlling the cost of defense programs, and that could lead to more fixed-prices rather than those that allow a contractor to bill the government for cost increases.

There are at least two high-profile projects in the Gulf Coast that will be impacted by the next administration, not the least of which is the Air Force tanker project. In February the $40 billion contract was awarded to the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team. The plan was to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala.

But the Government Accountability Office later agreed with a Boeing protest and said the selection was flawed. After initially planning to put the rebid on a fast track, the Pentagon decided there was not enough time and opted to punt to the next administration.

Those who favor the Northrop/EADS team are likely a bit concerned that Obama won the election. When the contract was first awarded to Northrop/EADS, both Obama and Hillary Clinton criticized the Air Force decision.

After the Pentagon decided to punt, Obama praised the Pentagon for that decision. In September, he suggested he would favor Boeing for the contract if elected president. Obama told members of an aerospace union with close ties to Boeing that he would do everything in his power to “create and defend American jobs.”

If he holds true to that and works towards Boeing winning the contract, reaction outside the United States will be, to say the least, interesting. On the grass roots level, a Boeing win will likely be applauded by European aerospace defense workers who have seen jobs go away – in some cases to the United States. But foreign companies that compete in the tough U.S. market for defense dollars will not be happy with a Boeing win. Any moves toward protectionism will not be viewed favorably.

The other high profile aerospace program of interest to the Gulf Coast is the Constellation program and the current shuttle program. In the space sector, both Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center will be impacted by decisions of the next administration.

Obama has called for renewing the nation’s commitment to NASA and to provide a budget with sufficient resources for success in its critical missions - space exploration and human spaceflight, science and aeronautics research. He outlined his feelings in a letter to congressional leaders.

Among other things, Obama said NASA should take no further action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly the shuttle beyond 2010. He closed his letter by saying “NASA helped America win the Cold War without firing a single shot by dazzling the world with our technological and moral leadership. It is time to dazzle them again.”

The next president’s backing may be particularly important given that NASA lost three strong supporters in the House Science Committee. Reps. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, and Tom Feeney, R-Fla., lost their re-election bids, and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, won his bid to represent Colorado in the Senate. (Story)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Week in review (10/26 to 11/01)

IF ANYTHING, THE controversy in Northwest Florida about the F-35 and the increased jet noise level it will bring to communities around Eglin Air Force Base has escalated over the past week. How this plays out will be of high interest to any other areas of the nation where F-35s will be based.

An environmental impact study says that at military housing areas and base schools on Eglin, noise from the Joint Strike Fighter will be twice as loud as F-15s, reaching 83 decibels. Off base, F-35 noise will reach up to 90 decibels in neighborhoods under an Eglin flight path. And the number of people exposed frequently to sound levels of 75 decibels or more will increase from 142 people to 2,174 people.

The environmental impact study was prompted by plans to set up the joint F-35 pilot and maintenance training school at Eglin. It will, no doubt, bring a lot of economic development activity to the region. But the city of Valparaiso has expressed concern over the noise, and filed suit to get more information. Late in the week the city decided to increase the amount of money it plans to spend on the suit.

Residents of Valparaiso - or any area getting F-35s - might be interested in a story in the November issue of Defense Technology International, which details the growing issue of hearing loss in the military. An article by Senior Editor Paul McLeary, title "Equipment Noise is Accelerating Hearing Loss," points out that new equipment such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, is so loud that "the technology to protect users from damage does not yet exist." The article notes "it’s not a matter of whether but when and how badly operators will suffer permanent hearing damage."

Elsewhere, Gov. Charlie Crist and the cabinet approved a joint venture with the Navy to eventually preserve more than 5,000 acres of undeveloped land surrounding Whiting Field Naval Air Station north of Milton, Fla. The vote was unanimous to spend $1 million for an initial 208 acres near the base’s northeastern and southern perimeters.

One story during the week that got a lot of attention was out of Pensacola Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where two members of the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team, one a pilot, were removed from the team allegedly having an inappropriate relationship. One story that didn't get a lot of attention, Air Force Special Operations gunships, based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., are getting a new tool to provide increased situational awareness – an addition that will let gunships take on a mission commander role.

ON THE SPACE FLIGHT front, NASA is also looking at speeding up development of the new moon rockets - Ares I and Ares V - and Orion, the Apollo-style crew capsule. Any speed up of that program is of high interest to Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Mississippi's John C. Stennis Space Center, both heavily involved in that mission.

During this past week, a story out of Stennis Space Center showed things are progressing in the construction of a new rocket test stand. Fabricated steel for the 300-foot test stand began arriving by truck Oct. 24. The new A-3 test stand will be used to test the J-2X engine, which will be used in both the Ares I and Ares V.

The full-scale components of the Ares I-X test rocket built at NASA’s Glenn Research Center are heading for Port Canaveral, Fla. At Kennedy Space Center the components of the upper stage simulator of the Ares I-X test rocket will be integrated with other parts of the Ares I-X vehicle for launch. The first test flight is being pushed back to July 12 because of the delay in a final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.

THE AERIAL TANKER ISSUE hasn’t gone away. You’ll recall the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team was awarded a contract in late February to assemble 179 tankers in Mobile, Ala. But Boeing's protest was upheld by the General Accountability Office, which cited flaws in the Air Force process. The Pentagon later opted to cancel the project and leave it to the next administration.

There have been a lot of twists and turns since then, including voices from some quarters saying a split buy is becoming more possible. In one of the latest stories, the Pentagon came up with an approach that would make the entire issue a cost shootout between the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America and Boeing. The story says the next administration might go with this option. We'll have to see.

But in any case, two failed acquisition programs, including the one for the tanker, will be among the first subjected to a new review system. The new process will require Army and Navy officials to conduct peer reviews of the Air Force programs before, during and after contract decisions. The Air Force, in turn, will help review contracts for the other branches. The new process began Sept. 30 for all programs worth $1 billion or more.

Finally, while it's not directly related to the tanker issue, one of the competitors in that project has resolved a labor issue. Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers reached a tentative agreement last week. IAM says the new contract limits the amount of work outside vendors can perform in the workplace.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What you didn't see

Sometimes, there are interesting regional aerospace stories that appear in the media that just don’t make it to our aerospace news digest for a variety of reasons. Two from this week really stand out.

One concerns that controversy at Eglin Air Force Base over the noise from the F-35. Eglin will be home of a Joint Strike Fighter training center, but some people have expressed concerns about noise. Residents of Valparaiso, just outside Eglin, are concerned because the plane is much louder than the F-15s they replace. The issue led to the city of Valparaiso filing a lawsuit to get more information from the military. That info, according to the Air Force, will cost more than $1 million because of the time it will take to compile.

Well the latest news from this front has to do with a confidential memo and a note supposedly put on the bottom by an Eglin general. The note says local "rednecks" need to understand the nation needs the JSF. It goes on to say a few "cracker houses" shouldn't get in the way of an important mission.

Air Force officials Thursday called the note a "reprehensible" forgery. Despite questions about its authenticity, Valparaiso Mayor Bruce Arnold complained about the note in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other officials.

The Northwest Florida Daily News reports a copy of the memo it received didn't have the note. (Story)

The other story we didn't post appeared in Aerospace Weekly. It concerns a compromise that had been discussed in the Pentagon to try to resolve the Air Force tanker project.

You'll recall the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team was awarded a contract in late February to assemble 179 tankers in Mobile, Ala. But Boeing's protest was upheld by the General Accountability Office, which cited flaws in the Air Force process. The Pentagon later opted to cancel the project and leave it to the next administration.

There have been a lot of twists and turns since then, including voices from some quarters saying a split buy is becoming more possible. In this latest story, the Pentagon came up with an approach that would make the entire issue more of a cost shootout between the two competitors. The story says the next administration might go with this option. (Story)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Contract spending

When you think of large amounts of Defense Department money spent on contracts, it’s easy to think in terms of the big-ticket warships being built by Northrop Grumman in New Orleans and Pascagoula. And the aerial tankers the Air Force wants a contractor to build certainly won't be cheap.

But it’s the Army that dominates spending - at least at the midway point of 2008.

The Pentagon’s spending lists at the mid-year point of 2008 shows the Army ranked No. 1 in contract spending, according to an Aerospace Daily analysis of data provided by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. The reason: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army's total was about $33 billion, while the Navy's was about $25.2 billion and the Air Force about $16 billion.

The big three defense contractors remained atop the list on the receiving end of the money. Boeing was first with about $9 billion, Lockheed Martin second with $7.4 billion and Northrop Grumman third with $5.4 billion. All three have operations in the Gulf Coast.

And here's an item that shows just how expensive fuel has become. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company for Distribution came in 12th on the list of contractors with some $918 million, and the Bahrain Petroleum Co. came in 20th with contracts worth about $537 million. (Story)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Week in review (10/19 to 10/25)

The past week was filled with earnings reports from the biggest names in the defense industry. Five of the seven reported by Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor News had higher earnings, with Goodrich – which has an operation in Foley, Ala. – reporting net income up 34 percent.

Two of the companies were down, with the largest drop experienced by Boeing, down 38 percent. Boeing, which has operations in New Orleans, La., and Fort Walton Beach, Fla., attributed that to both an ongoing strike and supplier problems.

In the case of one company reporting profits, Teledyne Technologies, there was the caveat that it's Mobile, Ala., operation, Teledyne Continental Motors, had to lay off some workers because of slumping demand for aircraft engines and parts.

Northrop Grumman, which has shipbuilding operations in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Miss., and an unmanned systems center in Moss Point, Miss., attributed its performance to higher sales of surveillance systems.

Three contracts with connections to the Gulf Coast were reported during the week. Goodrich Corp. won a four-year contract with US Airways to repair thrust reversers at its Foley, Ala., facility. In another contract, the Air Force is modifying a cost plus fixed fee contract with Raytheon Missile Systems of Tucson, Ariz., for $12.9 million to provide 436 propulsion sections to be installed into AIM-120B Air Vehicles. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. Also, Rush-Peak Three, Titusville, Fla., was awarded a $9.24 million firm fixed fee price contract for construction of a multi-story parking garage at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command compound at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. The Corps of Engineers in Mobile, Ala., is the contracting activity.

In the area of weapons systems, navigation systems for miniature autonomous systems was the topic of a workshop during the week in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The workshop was designed to discuss challenges associated with the much smaller unmanned systems that are coming into use. In a very different type of weapons related story, a Virginia class submarine fired a Raytheon Tomahawk Block IV missile from the Gulf of Mexico to engage a simulated target. The flight completes the integration of the Tomahawk cruise missile onto the Navy’s newest fast-attack submarine.

Other significant events during the week, the Air Force is starting two new programs to train drone pilots because the demand for UAVs is so high. As if to underscore that, Raytheon announced during the week that it successfully demonstrated an unmanned aerial system for submarines.

We also told you about China's version of a Global Hawk. It's called the Soaring Dragon, and it's expected to be operational in the next two to three years. Imagine what the capabilities of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk will be a few years from now.

In another move towards the continued globalization of the aerospace industry, Italian defense company Finmeccanica, S.p.A acquired DRS Technologies Inc. of Parsippany, N.J., a supplier of integrated defense electronics products, services and support, for $5.2 billion. Pier Francesco Guarguaglini, chairman and CEO of Finmeccanica, said the purchase reinforces the company’s commitment to the U.S. market. DRS will operate as a U.S. subsidiary of Finmeccanica under agreements with the Department of Defense, including a plan to mitigate foreign ownership control and influence (FOCI). Finmeccanica manufactures helicopters, civil and military aircraft, aero structures, satellites, space infrastructure, missiles and defense electronics and has 2,100 employees at 32 sites in North America, not including DRS, which employs about 10,500 people.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The insatiable hunger for drones

As if we need any more proof that the unmanned aerial systems field is growing rapidly, consider these two news items that appeared this week.

The Air Force is launching two new training programs to get more pilots for drone aircraft. The Associated Press reports that the programs will create a new brand of pilot for the drones flown by remote control.

New drone operator will learn the basics of flying a small manned plane, but will not go through the longer, more rigorous training that their fighter jet brethren receive. A senior Air Force officer said that by the end of September 2011, the goal is to have 50 unmanned combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day, largely over Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently there are 30.

"I don't know that you could ever get (a drone) to everybody who wants one," said Col. Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations for unmanned aircraft issues. "I believe it is virtually insatiable. We are pedaling fast, we are working hard to meet that need." (Story)

And then there’s this item:

Raytheon and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Division Newport, early last month demonstrated an unmanned aircraft system for submerged submarines.

The program simulated the submarine launch of a specialized UAV (or UAS, if you prefer) for collection of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information in a littoral environment.

In the demonstration, two submerged launch vehicles were deployed over the side of a surface ship. The vehicles descended to 80 feet, reverted to positive buoyancy, floated to the surface, stabilized in variable sea states, aligned into the wind, and then launched an inert representative UAS at precise orientation and velocity. (Story)

The Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor has a foot in the door of this important, growing field, including the Northrop Grumman has an unmanned systems center in Moss Point, Miss., that does finishing work on the Fire Scout helicopter drone and fuselage work on Global Hawks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

China's Global Hawk, other items of note

Here’s one you might have missed. It should be of high interest to anyone who has been paying attention to the unmanned aerial system activities in the Gulf Coast.

China is developing a new UAV, similar to the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk that's built in part in Moss Point, Miss. It's called the Soaring Dragon. According to Strategy Page, it’s about half the size of the Global Hawk and the maximum altitude will be 57,000 feet.

The Chinese UAV is intended for maritime patrols, as is the Navy's version of the Global Hawk. The Soaring Dragon recently conducted taxi-tests, the first time it was shown to the public. Flight testing will begin next year, and it may enter limited service in two or three years. (Story)

On another Global Hawk topic, Aviation Week reports that the Navy is considering deploying its first Global Hawk to an air base near Iraq to experiment with its ability to conduct maritime surveillance. Navy officials declined to discuss the exact location for a deployment.

Aviation Week says that according to defense officials, the Navy Global Hawk is expected to arrive at a base in the Middle East early next year, where it will be co-located with Air Force Global Hawks.

The Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration vehicle is one of two Block 10 Global Hawks owned by the Navy. They were bought to allow the Navy to experiment with using a UAV for maritime surveillance. The Navy used one of them to collect data when Hurricane Ike hit Texas. (Story)

As regular readers know, our Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor news feed tells you about Defense Department contracts with a Gulf Coast connection. But while looking for those, some interesting ones pop up that have no link here. Still, they're interesting because of the research done in this region - in this case human-machine interface.

Evolved Machines Federal Contracting Inc. of West Palm Beach, Fla., last week was awarded an $8.9 million contract to develop a sensor "inspired by a canine's olfactory system." The idea is to create a machine that can detect odors amid a myriad of odors. And, to allow it to learn over time.

Organizations in six states, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, will be involved in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) project. The completion date is just a few months away – Jan. 14, 2009.

In another DARPA project, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., is being awarded a $14.3 million modification to a previously awarded cost plus fixed fee, research and development contract to develop a modular design, fully functional 22 degree of freedom prosthetic.

The program's focus is to develop an advanced neurally controlled upper extremity prosthesis capable of restoring full motor and sensory functions, and perform as a native limb to the injured warfighter.

Primary work will be performed in Maryland, and subcontractor facilities as required.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Editor's picks

The region’s daily newspapers have some stories I recommend as part of your Sunday reading if you’re interested in science and technology activities in this region. They cover topics including shipbuilding, aerospace, advanced materials and marine science.

Since this is an aerospace blog, let me first point out a story by Bill Kaczor of the Associated Press, who writes from Tallahassee about a fascinating advanced material called “buckypaper,” which may have huge implications for the aerospace industry, as well as other industries. The story appears in the Pensacola News Journal, and likely other publications. (Story)

Reporter Thomas Monigan of the Northwest Florida Daily News writes about a leadership conference in Walton County where the future of air travel was discussed, and how that might impact three airports in Northwest Florida. (Story)

Two other stories I recommend are about shipbuilding, an increasingly high-tech industrial sector. Mobile Press Register reporter Kaija Wilkinson writes about Bayou La Batre, Ala., boat builders, and how they have charted a new course since Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped them out. (Story)

Mobile Press-Register reporter Jeff Amy writes about the shipbuilding training consortium that was formed to help address the problem of finding workers for one of the key industries of this region. The Gulf Coast Shipbuilders Consortium is spearheaded by Alabama two-year college officials. (Story)

And finally, I must point out a story in the Biloxi Sun Herald. The newspaper reprinted a story I wrote for Alliance Insight, a quarterly newsletter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, about the Northern Gulf Institute, a research organization at Mississippi's Stennis Space Center. (Story)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Week in review (10/12 to 10/18)

The gathering of economic development officials in New Orleans last week to discuss the “Stennis-Michoud Aerospace Corridor” was, potentially, one of the more significant events to occur during the week for this region. If nothing else, it shows a growing realization of the capabilities of this region.

The meeting, organized by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, was designed to discuss ways of leveraging the proximity of two important NASA facilities – Michoud Assembly Facility in east New Orleans and John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Vitter, rightly, sees it as an economic development magnet.

A letter inviting participants noted that the economic development opportunities of the Stennis-Michoud area "are usually overlooked." Well, not exactly. Some of us have seen the potential for a long time and have been pushing the idea to anyone who will listen.

On the same day, an economic development forum called Louisiana Aerospace Industry Day attracted about 150 small business owners who want to learn more about doing business with NASA. The interest is clearly there.

Speaking of Stennis, the largest A2100 spacecraft core structure ever built by Lockheed Martin was delivered last week to the company's Sunnyvale, Calif., facility. The satellite subsystem was developed and tested at Lockheed Martin's Mississippi Space and Technology Center, an advanced propulsion, thermal, and metrology facility at Stennis Space Center.

Last week several appointments of interest to the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor were made. One was NASA-related, the others EADS North America-related.

Ken Ford, director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla., was named chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, replacing Jack Schmitt. Ford, a computer scientist, and his IHMC have worked with NASA for years. It will be nice having someone in that position who is very familiar with the Gulf Coast region and its capabilities.

In another key appointment, Trent Lott, former senator from Mississippi, was chosen by EADS North America to the company'’s board of directors. Lott, from Pascagoula, Miss., is the former senate majority leader and has worked closely with EADS. The company owns Eurocopter in Mississippi and the Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile, Ala. It still hopes to build aerial tankers in Mobile.

Also during the week, EADS North America named Randy Hutcherson vice president and program manager for EADS North America Tankers, the business unit with primary subcontractor responsibility in support of the Northrop Grumman KC-45A tanker. David D. Haines is taking Hutcherson’s post as vice president for rotorcraft programs.

On the subject of EADS and the tankers, we’re hearing more about the possibility of a split tanker buy. Many of my associates will tell you I've been saying that since the GAO decided in the summer to back Boeing’s protest. It was becoming obvious to me that the Pentagon was in a no win situation. Now Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine is apparently saying his sources tell him the Pentagon likely will authorize buying tankers from both Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team, which wants to build the tankers in Mobile, Ala.

By the way, there’s still no agreement on the Boeing strike. Some 27,000 employees in Washington, Oregon and Kansas have been on strike since Sept. 6. This strike is of high interest to people on the Gulf Coast who work for Boeing, even if they are not directly impacted by the strike.

Late in the week, the publication InsideDefense reported that the Pentagon has given the nod to Hurlburt Field, Fla.-based Air Force Special Operations Command to buy 16 of the L-3 Communications-Alenia AC-27 gunships. The plane has been dubbed "gunship light" because it's smaller than the AC-130 gunships and can get in and out of shorter fields than its big brother.

Gunships like the AC-130 and this newer, smaller plane are a favorite of Special Ops for the way they can concentrated firepower on a particular target. The planes circle a target, banking left, then pound the target with the 105mm howitzers that juts from the left side of the plane. The AC-27 will get either 30 or 40mm guns, and could also be equipped with stand-off, precision-guided munitions like the Northrop Grumman Viper Strike bomb, according to InsideDefense.

In another Hurlburt related news item, seven airmen were honored for actions in Afghanistan. Three Bronze Stars and seven Air Force Combat Action Medals were awarded to members of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron.

On the aerial weapons front, Lockheed Martin was chosen for a $122 million technology development contract for the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile system. The team includes General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems of Niceville, Fla., which will focus on the multi-purpose warhead.

In another program, Raytheon's AIM-120C7 advanced medium range air-to-air missile has entered the Navy's weapon system user program. Two Navy fighters fired an AIM-120C7 and AIM-9X, the first time the two were launched by a fleet-assigned operational Super Hornet and the first time the Navy employed both missiles in the same mission. Tests were conducted in cooperation with Eglin Air Force Base.

Friday, October 17, 2008

One of the best and brightest

The news in this entry is short and sweet. Ken Ford, director of the Pensacola-based Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, is now the chairman of the prestigious NASA Advisory Council.

But for me, it's another validation of just what this region has to offer.

It was back in the early 90s that I first met Ken Ford. I was either working for United Press International or the Pensacola News Journal. I just can’t remember which. I'd heard about Ford's work in artificial intelligence, so decided to write about him and what he was doing.

Ford and had just created an institute at the University of West Florida that would focus on the ways humans and machines interact. Two things stood out: The first was Ford's enthusiasm showing me around and explaining what they were doing. The second was that he had a way of making all this technical stuff understandable to a lay guy. And that meant a lot, because I had to write about it for a broad audience and make it understandable. In short, Ford and his crew were looking into ways to extend human capabilities. His was the field of AI that wasn't so much interested in making machines more human-like, but giving humans some machine-enhanced capabilities, the way glasses make eyesight better.

Yesterday Harrison "Jack" Schmitt announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the NASA Advisory Council and Ford would take his place, effective immediately. No doubt Ford is filling some big shoes. Schmitt is a geologist, former NASA astronaut and former U.S. senator. He and his Apollo 17 crewmate, Gene Cernan, were the last two people to walk on the moon. Since 2007 Ford has been a member of the panel provides advice to the NASA administrator on program and policy matters related to the U.S. space program. The council has experts from various fields. Council recommendations are critical to the agency's strategic and tactical decisions.

I've never been shy about using Ford and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition as an example of what the region can be. IHMC has grown from a small group within the UWF into a statewide not-for-profit research institute of the state university system of Florida. IHMC in downtown Pensacola has world-class scientists and engineers investigating a broad range of topics related to building technological systems that are aimed at amplifying and extending human cognitive and perceptual capacities.

Ford and IHMC have done a lot to elevate the understanding of the importance of science and technology. The organization hosts regular lectures that bring in some of the best and brightest to talk to local folks who would not normally have this kind of access. I've attended many of the lectures, and they never fail to open my eyes. The topics range from virtual reality to environmental issues and more. Lectures include speakers as varied as Richard Florida and Michael Griffin.

I've also not been shy about imposing on Ford. I once asked him if he could take a look at a few chapters of a reference book I had written about this region's research activities. I figured if anyone would tell me I'm wrong about this or that, it would be Ford. He was also courteous enough, at my request, to show a group of Harrison County, Miss., folks around his Pensacola facility.

Ford, who earned his Ph.D in computer science from Tulane University, in 1997 was asked by NASA to develop and direct its new Center of Excellence in Information Technology at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Ford was awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in July 1999. He was also appointed to the National Science Board in October 2002 for a six-year term. Ford is a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and was the 2008 recipient of the Robert S. Englemore Memorial Award for his work in the field.

In a story in today's Pensacola News Journal, Robert Hansen, a former NASA research director who is now an associate director at IHMC, called Ford a “true Renaissance man” and “one of the few computer scientists in the world with executive ability.” (Story)

IHMC, which has more than a half-dozen former NASA employees on the staff, has a long association with NASA. It's worked on software for planetary rovers to new cockpit displays and is now working on new concepts for lunar exploration, including a lunar rover that would be pressurized and allow for extended lunar exploration.

When IHMC decided to open a satellite office in Ocala, I asked Ford if he would ever consider expanding IHMC to other parts of the Gulf Coast. He said that if an opportunity and need ever presented itself, that would not be out of the question.

I'm still working on him. Now I can only hope he doesn't decide to do like Schmitt and walk on the moon. But I wouldn't put it past him.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A new era begins

The meeting being held in New Orleans today isn't on the radar of many people. But it's certainly on mine. It's another step in the right direction in the development of the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor.

The fledgling “Stennis-Michoud Aerospace Corridor Alliance” is holding a meeting today that brings together key economic development leaders from Louisiana and Mississippi. Organized by Sen. David Vitter's office, it was put together because the senator – and others I must say – recognize that having Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center so close together is a valuable tool that stands every chance of becoming an economic development magnet.

It's not like these two facilities just suddenly appeared. They've been in close proximity for years, but neither Louisiana nor Mississippi looked at the two facilities as forming one "entity" that could be leveraged. We may finally be entering a new era where both states take full advantage of having NASA facilities that, by design, look to the future.

Not long ago a NASA official told me she saw no reason that the Stennis-Michoud area could not develop along the lines of what developed in Huntsville, Ala. For those of you who may not be familiar with Huntsville, it is a high-tech hotspot noted not only for the major aerospace companies that have significant operations there, but for its entrepreneurial ventures. The payoff, for average citizens, is these companies offer good jobs and terrific wages and opportunities. It has one of the highest median incomes in the South.

We may be seeing in this region a development along those lines. We can only hope the folks gathering in New Orleans recognized that this Stennis-Michoud Aerospace Corridor is not and should not be seen as an entity in and of itself. The region between New Orleans and Northwest Florida has three key focus areas that are closely related and synergistic: space, aircraft manufacturing and weapons development.

In the western portion of the region we have the space program. Key players are NASA, Stennis Space Center, Michoud Assembly Facility, the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney. The universities with interests in the Stennis-Michoud area is considerable: the University of New Orleans, LSU, Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

In the center of this region you have Moss Point-Mobile, which is still forming its aircraft manufacturing segment. Already Fire Scout and Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems are built there, and there’s still a good chance that Mobile will be building wide-body aircraft at Brookley Field. Key players are Northrop Grumman, Airbus/EADS, Mobile Aerospace and Teledyne Continental.

And in the eastern part of the region you have the long-time military focus. Pilots and flight officers are trained in Pensacola and Milton, Fla., and aerial weapons are developed at Eglin Air Force Base. It’s also going to be training pilots of all branches to fly F-35 jets by 2010. Not far away is Panama City, which not only has Tyndall Air Force Base, but a significant Navy research facility.

This region now seems to recognize the importance of having research parks that bring together universities, big companies and entrepreneurs in an environment conducive to collaboration - something leaders in Huntsville recognized long ago. In Florida a research park in Panama City is developing not far from Tyndall Air Force Base, and near Eglin the Emerald Coast Research Park is being developed.

On the other end of the corridor, NASA intends to develop the area around Michoud as an advanced manufacturing park, and at Stennis Space Center there are at least three separate technology parks in the works. In between there’s the new University of Southern Mississippi campus that will be built in Gulfport and the aviation park that’s up and operating in Moss Point.

This speaks well for the separate efforts. But there's also a real problem that each area will just focus on its own piece and fail to understand the bigger picture. We've had a problem with the turf mentality for years, and there's every chance that will rear its ugly head. Use the ingredients in just one area and you may have an interesting dish, but use all the ingredients that are available Gulfwide and you have an extraordinary feast.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Week in review (10/5 to 10/11)

The Air Force Cyberspace Command headquarters that so many locations were trying to win has been pulled off the table. At a recent meeting in Colorado Springs, senior leaders in the Air Force decided to establish a nuclear major command and make the cyber command a numbered air force within space command.

What this means is that the locations that had hoped to become headquarters for about 500 Air Force personnel will have to settle for, perhaps, only getting a piece of the work if any. Eighteen states made pitches, and two Gulf Coast locations were in the hunt.

I can’t help but think about the Peanuts bit, where Lucy urges Charlie Brown to kick the ball, only to pull it away at the last moment. We’ve seen it happen before. Mobile, Ala., which thought it would be building Air Force tankers, saw that project taken away when the Pentagon decided to punt the project to the next administration.

Nobody can say they were caught by surprise with this cyberspace command decision. Months ago the Air Force had said it may make the command virtual and split the forces. In August the Air Force put the entire process on hold - after receiving final proposals from all the competing locations. Now there's the Colorado Springs decision.

Don't think this "Lucy" bit occurs only with the military.

The Washington Post recently reported that in the five years since it was created, the Department of Homeland Security has overseen some $15 billion worth of failed contracts. They wound up over-budget, delayed or canceled after millions of dollars had already been spent.

We older folks can tell you this is not a recent trend. Does the phrase "homeporting" ring a bell? It was back in the mid 80s when the Navy was looking for a place to port a battleship. Ports nationwide - including those along the Gulf Coast - put in pitches. Then the Navy said that virtually every competitor would get at least one ship. Some areas went forward and built facilities. But it was all for naught. Most of the ships never came and those that did are gone now.

Companies can pull a "Lucy" too. Remember the Boeing 7E7 project? Boeing searched nationwide for a place to build the new aircraft, and locations along the Gulf Coast were in the thick of it. But the company opted to assemble them in Washington State after that state offered some additional incentives.

I keep hearing the high-pitched, scratchy voice of Emily Litella saying "Nevermind."

So what are states, local economic development officials and companies to do given the chance that the ball could be pulled away at the last minute? Do companies like Northrop Grumman, EADS and Boeing say thanks but no thanks? Will companies opt out of bidding for pieces of the Constellation Program for fear a new administration might change course?

Hardly. These projects, whether a site for a new manufacturing complex, a research lab or a government contract, involve billions of dollars and the rewards are potential huge. Besides, there are enough examples of projects that did make it all the way through the process to keep everyone in the hunt. Unlike Charlie Brown, they have made contact with the football enough to keep on trying.

The issue of jet noise continued to be a hot topic around Eglin Air Force Base. The city of Shalimar, which is suing the Air Force to get more information on just how much noise the F-35 will bring, found out last week that it will cost $1.5 million to get everything city officials want.

When I was a military reporter for the Pensacola News Journal back in the early 90s, I routinely filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get information. The form includes a place where you can request that the fees be waived, and it always was for me. But I must also tell you, I was very selective in the material I was seeking.

I still thinking this issue of the F-35s will be resolved. The Joint Strike Fighter training mission is a valuable asset, and I can’t help but think Valparaiso and Okaloosa County officials will work out something, including the possibility of using runways in outlying fields, like Duke.

Another area of the Gulf Coast is also having an issue with jet noise. In Mobile runway work prompted airport officials to close one runway at the downtown airport and divert planes to another runway. That takes them over portions of midtown that normally does not hear the aircraft noise. Some residents have complained. But officials says it will only last until December.

Speaking of airports, the former Okaloosa County Regional Airport, which is now called the Northwest Florida Regional Airport, decided last week to delay an expansion because of financial market uncertainties. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, officials there are exploring the idea of turning the Louis Armstrong International Airport to private management.

NASA came out with its update on the job losses that will occur during the transition from the Space Shuttle program to the Constellation program. As you know, that’s important for the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor because we have folks in South Louisiana and South Mississippi who work in that field.

The numbers released last week show Mississippi’s John C. Stennis Space Center will lose 200 positions, the same amount that was expected when the first estimates were released in March. And the agency settled on a number for Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans - 800 jobs. The latest figures were actually a bit of good news for Michoud. The March estimate by NASA had said Michoud could lose between a low of 800 and a high of 1,300 positions, and now the agency has apparently settled on the lower number.

There was a bit of good news from Eglin Air Force Base regarding hurricanes last week The base’s weather squadron says the hurricane threat to the Panhandle has declined sharply because upper level winds across the Gulf of Mexico look like those expected in late October or November - persistent wind shear that hampers hurricane formation. No word from the base on what that means for Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana.

Also last week, Goodrich in Foley, Ala., got approval from the FAA for using a composite cowl for V2500-A5 engine nacelles. What’s noteworthy in this is the cowl is created using a resin transfer infusion process developed by Bombardier Aerospace, so this is as much an advanced materials story as an aerospace story.

The Gulf Coast region, in addition to aerospace, has some heavy hitters in the growing process of using composites for large craft construction. The Navy uses composites for the next generation of ships, and aerospace manufacturers are using composites more and more. The critical issue is the size of the piece that can be fabricated. The larger they can be, the more likely they will find uses in ships and planes.

The Gulf Coast is home to Seemann Composites of Gulfport, Miss., which developed one process for fabricating large pieces. It's also the home of Northrop Grumman's Center for Composites Excellence, also in Gulfport. Not far from the coast, the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg is widely recognized as one of the premier universities for research into advanced materials. Southern Miss is also home to the National Composites Research and Development Center, formed with an $8.2 million grant from the Department of Defense to explore solutions to problems in the use of composites. And in New Orleans, there's the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which also deals with manufacturing with composites.

Keep your eye on this field. It's a hot one for the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor.

Friday, October 10, 2008

China: A Boeing, Airbus battleground

Anyone interested in what could result should the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. get to build Air Force tankers in Mobile might want to take a look at what's going on in China. At the same time Airbus and its parent, EADS, try to increase their foothold in America, they're taking on Boeing in China. And they're taking the same approach - become a partner, not a competitor.

Take a look at a story in Aviation Week from Oct. 5 when you have some time (story). It's about Airbus opening its final assembly line for the A319 and A320 in Tianjin, a coastal city west of the Korean peninsula. The first Chinese-built A320 is scheduled to roll out of the factory doors in June 2009.

Aviation Week says this activity is geared toward making Airbus a partner rather than an opponent of the expanding Chinese aerospace sector. The activity in China is designed in part to get into the growing Chinese market, in part to gain access to a pool of engineers.

In China, Airbus holds a 51 percent stake in the joint venture, the Airbus Tianjin Final Assembly Co., and the remaining 49 percent is owned by the Tianjin municipality and the China Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC I and AVIC II), according to Aviation Week.

Airbus is also increasing sourcing in China. It spent $60 million in China last year, but spending will grow to $1 billion in 2020, according to Aviation Week. Airbus also plans to integrate AVIC into the portfolio of A350XWB suppliers.

It's not surprising Airbus and EADS are interested in China. It's a growing market, both as a producer and a buyer, of aerospace products. That's also the motivation for Airbus and EADS in the United States, already the chief producer and buyer of aerospace products. EADS is fairly open about its thinking. As its CEO has said, it's important for EADS to become a "citizen" of the places where it hopes to produce and sell aircraft. The thinking is, by putting a stake in a particular country and creating jobs, it becomes not a foreign company and competitor, but a domestic company and, indeed, a partner.

That kind of thinking is certainly not foreign to Boeing, which has been a player in China's aviation industry for some time (story). Since 1972, Boeing has had relationships with Chinese airlines, aviation industry, civil aviation administration and the government. Boeing was invited to help China develop skills, achieve certification, and join world aviation and supplier networks, according to Boeing.

Boeing says that today China has a role in all of Boeing commercial airplane models - 737, 747, 767, 777 and 787. Chinese workers build horizontal stabilizers, vertical fins, the aft tail section, doors, wing panels, wire harnesses and other parts on the 737; 747 trailing edge wing ribs; and 747-8 ailerons, spoilers and inboard flaps and parts of the horizontal stabilizer. China also builds the rudder, wing-to-body fairing panels, leading edge and panels for the vertical fin, and other composite parts for the 787, according to Boeing.

Boeing and Boeing supplier partners have active supplier contracts with China's aviation industry valued at well over $2.5 billion, according to Boeing. There are more than 5,200 Boeing airplanes flying with parts and assemblies built by China. According to Boeing, its equity investment in China is considerable, and the company says it's the Chinese aviation manufacturing industry's largest foreign customer.

Anyone who doesn't recognize that the aerospace industry is global just simply isn't paying attention. And with the fear that the 2010 U.S. defense budget will take a hit because of the financial bailout, it's pretty clear the aerospace industry - and defense industry as a whole - will have to continue looking for more customers worldwide and less costly locations for manufacturing - like the Gulf Coast.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Growth in gross metro product

The economy is going through some rough times, and we're all taking hits. So sometimes it's helpful to step back and take a longer view of where we're going. And here's one longer view to consider – gross metropolitan (or domestic) product.

According to figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, four of six Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor metropolitan areas experienced growth in real GDP between 2002 and 2006, and are among 167 that gained at a pace larger than the 12.8 percent for U.S. metro areas as a whole.

Granted, these figures do not take into account more recent years, but it's the trend that's important. The five-year rankings based on the BEA figures were compiled by the State Science and Technology Institute of Ohio. SSTI said the aggregate GDP for metro areas in current dollars was $11.79 trillion in 2006, about 90 percent of the U.S. GDP.

OK, here are the details.

Florida's Fort Walton Beach-Crestview-Destin MSA, which owes a lot of its GDP to activities at Eglin Air Force Base, had a five-year increase of 24.1 percent, good enough to make it 33rd of the nation's 363 metro areas. Mississippi's Pascagoula MSA, with a growth of 23.2 percent, earned a ranking of 39. Pascagoula can attribute a lot of its GDP to shipbuilders, including Northrop Grumman and VT Halter Marine. It also builds unmanned aerial systems, but that facility did not open until 2006.

Florida's Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent MSA had a ranking of 90 with a five-year growth of 17.4 percent. That metro area was hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, then nine months later by Hurricane Dennis in 2005, but the GDP growth does not show any letdown associated with those twin storms. Alabama's Mobile MSA is next in the Gulf Coast aerospace region with GDP growth of 13.1 percent and a ranking of 162. In future years, you're likely to see Mobile's GDP go up at a faster pace when some of the big projects the county has won kick in. If the city winds up with the EADS aircraft plant, that will boost it even more.

The only two Gulf Coast aerospace corridor metro areas that grew at a negative rate over the five years were New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner MSA and Gulfport-Biloxi MSA, with rates of -0.7 and -2.3, respectively, and rankings of 345 and 352. But both MSAs were hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Those two metro areas are in a group of 23 that experienced a decrease over the five years. But SSTI notes that for New Orleans and Gulfport, the reason is related to the natural disaster. The decline in other metro areas may be more systemic as they restructure away from declining industrial sectors.

Now a little perspective.

Other immediate Gulf Coast metropolitan areas also performed pretty well over the five-year period. Lake Charles and Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, both in Louisiana, had five-year growth of 30.9 and 28.3 percent, respectively, and rankings of 13 and 18, while Florida's Panama City-Lynn Haven had a five-year growth of 26.9 percent for a ranking of 23 – all better than the metro areas of the aerospace corridor. Hattiesburg, home to the University of Southern Mississippi, is ranked 78 with a growth of 18.5 percent, the same rate as Louisiana’s Lafayette MSA – ranked 79. Dothan, Ala., near Fort Rucker, was ranked 122 with a growth of 15 percent.

And how did the nation's science and technology hotspots perform? Well Huntsville, Ala., had a five-year growth of 24.7 percent and a ranking of 31, just a couple of notches above Fort Walton Beach. Silicon Valley’s San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara grew 21.5 percent and was ranked 49. Two other areas known for their high-tech economies, the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria MSA and Boston MSA, had GDP growth of 18.3 and 9.8, respectively, and rankings of 81 and 207.

Major cities Atlanta and Houston came in at 12.9 and 12.8, respectively, rankings of 167 and 168. Birmingham, Ala., grew its GDP 6.8 percent over the five years and ranked 253.

And state capitals? Louisiana's Baton Rouge MSA grew 21.9 percent over the five years and was ranked 48, while Alabama’s Montgomery MSA had a growth of 11.6 percent and a ranking of 187. Florida's Tallahassee MSA had a rank of 190 and growth of 11.5 percent and Mississippi's Jackson grew 8.6 percent and was ranked 219.

In a posting Sept. 26, I mentioned a story in the October issue of Alliance Insight, a science and technology newsletter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, about the new spirit of cooperation in the Gulf Coast when it comes to aerospace. I promised I'd provide a link when it's available, and here it is. I recommend reading it, but then again, I wrote it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Editor's picks

Two feature stories you may want to take a look at as part of your Sunday reading if you're interested in Gulf Coast aerospace activities.

The Mobile Press-Register published a Q&A with Northrop Grumman CEO Ron Sugar, who talks about a range of issues, including the tanker project and the company's shipbuilding operations. (Story)

The other story is in the Northwest Florida Daily News, which has a story about what life is like in Valparaiso for residents who live close to all the jet noise at Eglin Air Force Base. (Story)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Week in review (9/28 to 10/4)

It may not have been the most important aerospace news from the Gulf Coast region, but it was one that was both surprising and expected. I'm talking about the announcement that Bob Cabana is leaving as director of Mississippi's John C. Stennis Space Center later this month to become director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Cabana replaces William Parsons, himself a former Stennis director, who is leaving NASA for the private sector. Stennis Deputy Director Gene Goldman will become acting director at Stennis, which tests propulsion systems for the federal agency.

I said earlier it was both surprising and expected. The surprise is that Cabanas seemed to have just gotten there. He didn't, of course, but that's just the way it seems. And why was it expected? Changes like this are common for the federal agency. NASA regularly rotates its center directors - much as the military does with commanders.

In another NASA item, the NASA Authorization Act last week cleared Congress and provides funding for space programs and aeronautics research and development. Provisions include $20.2 billion for the agency, with an additional $1 billion dedicated to accelerated development of the Orion spacecraft and Ares 1 launch vehicle. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center are key players in those programs.

Work is now under way at Naval Air Station Pensacola for the $45 million Air Force Navigator Training Hangar and Combat Systems Officer Instruction Facility. It's slated to be finished next year, and will be used to train about 400 Air Force and Navy students each year as navigators, weapons systems officers and electronic warfare officers. These joint training operations are extremely important to the military as a cost-cutting measure, and the Gulf Coast region has its share.

Speaking of joint training, the issue over the Joint Strike Fighter training center and the noise the F-35s will bring continues to be debated. Two developments this past week: A major general says the F-35s will be no louder than an F-22 or F-18, and the city of Valparaiso decided to hold off serving the Air Force with a suit that was filed Sept. 22. The reason is the Air Force has delivered some of the documents the city has been pursuing, and hope remains high the issue can be resolved. Valparaiso wants all Air Force records relating to BRAC, the Joint Land Use Study and the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

On the aerial tanker front, the latest in that issue last week was Northrop Grumman CEO Ron Sugar telling Reuters his company would not dismiss the possibility of the government buying tankers from both the Northrop/EADS team and Boeing. I've been telling anyone who will listen to me that it was moving in that direction. We'll see. Just to recap, Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team were competing for the tanker project. Northrop won, Boeing protested, the GAO agreed, and the Pentagon decided to let the next administration decide the matter. Boeing wants to build them in Washington State, Northrop/EADS want to build them in Mobile, Ala. In a related matter, Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus Americas, said the company is committed to Mobile. The Mobile Engineering Center at Brookley Field Industrial Complex passed the 100-employee mark.

Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties are among the organizations that will receive Florida defense grants designed to improve the state’s position as a host for military installations and activities. The state awarded $2.25 million in two categories of defense grants: reinvestment and infrastructure. The Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, Team Santa Rosa Economic Development Council and Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce will receive grants from both categories.

As you know, we track defense contracts daily, and post on our Gulf Coast news digest three types of aerospace-related contracts: Those that are awarded to a Gulf Coast company, those where the work will be performed in this region and those where the contracting activity is in this region. This week the contracts totaled $260.3 million.

The largest contract was $90.4 million for Rolls-Royce Defense Services Inc., Indianapolis, Ind., for intermediate and depot level maintenance and related support for T-45 F405-RR-401 Adour engines. Some of that work will be done at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. There were three other contracts related to maintenance and support services. DTS Aviation Services of Texas won a $14 million contract for work at Eglin Air Force Base’s Air Armament Center that involves munitions and command and control testing work, and DynCorp International of Texas won a $9.6 million contract modification for aircraft maintenance and life cycle support for 12 Navy UC-35 aircraft. Some of that work will be done at Naval Air Station New Orleans. Del-Jen, Inc., Gardena, Calif., was awarded $20.3 million by the Navy to exercise the first option period under a previously awarded contract base operations support at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Saufley Field, Corry Station, and Bronson Field.

Two universities were awarded contracts with ties to this region. The University of Florida won a $30 million contract to promote/enhance graduate level engineering education for Eglin Air Force Base. The fields: theoretical and/or applied research in aerodynamic and computational fluid dynamics, computer science/software engineering, electro-magnetic/optics, engineering mechanics, guidance and control technology, systems engineering, and signal processing. Eglin was also the contracting activity for another contract, $9.9 million for New Mexico State University to establish Unmanned Aerial System Program for UAS research, development, test, and evaluation, including USS operations in the National Airspace System.

In another unmanned systems item, a $23.2 million was awarded as the week came to a close to Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems of San Diego, Calif., which runs the Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss. That contract modification is for five Global Hawks, and involves long lead procurement. Another product of the unmanned systems center, the Fire Scout helicopter drone, has now moved into its second year of low-rate initial production with a $32.9 million contract award from the Naval Air Systems Command. It's the second of three planned LRIP buys. We’ve been telling you to keep an eye on this field, and we remain convinced the Gulf Coast region’s work in UAVs will grow. One to watch: AeroVironment in Navarre, Fla.

And, speaking of futuristic systems, Boeing-SVS of Albuquerque, N.M., was awarded a $30 million contract to provide Advanced Tactical Laser Extended User Evaluation, an effort to operate and evaluate a high-energy laser into an Air Force C-130 aircraft. Eglin Air Force Base is the contracting activity. Watch this field.