Saturday, September 13, 2008

Week in review (9/7 to 9/13)

The biggest news for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor occurred Wednesday when the Pentagon said it was turning over the multibillion-dollar Air Force aerial tanker issue to the next administration.

Who wins the presidential election may play a role now. Democrat Barack Obama late in the week told members of an aerospace union that he supports the Pentagon decision, and indicated he favors Boeing. Republican John McCain hasn’t said, but he played a crucial role in killing an earlier Boeing lease plan.

Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team are competing for a $40 billion contract to build the first 179 tankers. Los Angeles-based Northrop was awarded the contract in February, but that was overturned after a Chicago-based Boeing protest. Boeing wants to assemble the planes in Washington State and Northrop wants to assemble them in Mobile at the Brookley Industrial Complex.

Mobile officials were, understandably, upset. They are anxious to get the 1,500 jobs the plant will bring. The reaction of Gulf Coast officials outside Mobile, who will benefit as well, was more muted. The bottom line is, Boeing is also a major player in the Gulf Coast, with operations in New Orleans and Okaloosa County.

The economic development and political leaders in the region clearly want the tanker project to come to the Gulf Coast, but they recognize that with or without it, the aerospace assets are still significant, ranging from the space program to the construction of unmanned aerial systems and weapons testing.

The delay in the tanker competition will give Boeing time to come up with a larger aircraft and will also give it time to settle a strike by 27,000 workers. Aviation Week reported during the week that outsourcing is a key issue with the Boeing strike. The unions want to have more influence over when jobs are outsourced overseas.

Anyone who has followed the tanker issue is aware that a central issue has been jobs. Supporters of Boeing say giving the contract to the Northrop Grumman/EADS team would mean sending U.S. jobs overseas. Supporters of Northrop say they will, in fact, be creating jobs in this country. Outsourcing and offshoring is the name of the game in today’s aerospace industry. One company differs from another only in degree.

Also this week, the chief executive officer of the European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co. told a group in Berlin that the company is eyeing more acquisitions in the United States. In April it bought PlantCML, an emergency response service company.

Louis Gallois wants to make EADS a "citizen" of the United States. Small wonder, considering the United States is the largest aerospace and defense market in the world. No doubt Boeing paid close attention to Gallois’ remarks. EADS, the parent of Boeing rival Airbus, has made it clear it’s interested in competing with Boeing for more than just the tanker platform.

Gallois’ comment was likely not music to the ears of European aerospace workers. They don't want jobs to be shipped to the United States. Aerospace workers in England have seen that happen with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce ended jet engine testing in England and is now testing them at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

While it does not have the media attention of the tanker project, the Constellation Program is steadily progressing. The Ares I passed a key design milestone during the week - good news for the people at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the nearby John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, who will be working on the Constellation Program for years go come.

Economic development officials in New Orleans hope the Constellation program will be the spark that will help grow a planned 800-acre research park at the Michoud facility. Ground has been broken for a new, 120,000-square-foot Research and Development Administration Building that will open in 2010.

Michoud will play a role in the Ares I rocket, Ares V cargo launch vehicle and the Orion crew capsule. Boeing will make the Ares I upper stage at Michoud and conduct avionics systems integration and checkout. Lockheed Martin will build structures at Michoud for the Orion crew exploration capsule and its Launch Abort System. Down the road, the Ares V core stage and Earth departure stage will be built at Michoud.

By 2011 more than 600 people to be working at Michoud on Ares I and Orion alone, with more to follow when NASA awards contracts for Ares V, requiring more engineers, technicians and support personnel.

One of the ongoing issues in the eastern part of the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Integrated Training Center, and what the new mission might mean for the surrounding communities, such as Shalimar.

Air Force officials have promised to include all the public comments in the final Environmental Impact Statement, and there have been plenty, most concerning the noise issue and what it might do to property values.

But a lesser-discussed issue is the development of the Emerald Coast Research and Technology Park just outside Eglin Air Force Base. Larry Sassano, executive director of the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council, said that while Okaloosa County has some major aerospace players, those companies don’t do research here. He thinks the park will change that.

The manpower shortage in Afghanistan and the growing violence is creating an insatiable demand for unmanned aerial systems, according to a story in this week’s issue of U.S. News & World Report.

It’s just another indication of the incredible growth of the unmanned systems field.

Aurora Flight Sciences of Bridgeport, W. Va., which makes the V-tail and other composite parts for the Global Hawk, is doubling production and expects to eventually triple production to meet demand.

The Gulf Coast is an increasingly important player in this field. Mississippi’s Moss Point is home to the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center, which builds the center portion of the Global Hawk fuselage and does finishing work on the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. Santa Rosa County has an operation of AeroVironment, a California company that was highlighted this week in a story by the Los Angeles Times.

While the military use of the Global Hawk is well known, it's also clear the Global Hawk will have major civilian applications down the road. Plans are to use them routinely to provide persistent coverage of hurricanes and improve forecasting.

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