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.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Synergy; tanker maintenance

Any of my long-time associates will tell you that if there's one overriding theme I keep harping upon, it's synergy. One reason I believe Gulf Coast aerospace corridor has so much potential isn't just because of the aerospace activities alone, but because of related activities in the region.

One of those is geospatial technologies, a growing field that is particularly important for the aerospace sector. And when you consider that the wave of the future in aerospace is unmanned systems, technologies that provide the "eyes" and "ears" for these machines – not just the equipment itself but the applications – is crucial.

Hotspots for geospatial technologies in the Gulf Coast are at Stennis Space Center, where NASA has its big geospatial applications effort, Stennis International Airport, home of the Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Technical Center of Expertise, Ocean Springs (Gulf Coast Geospatial Center), and in and around Eglin Air Force Base.

So I was intrigued that Northrop Grumman opted to buy 3001 International, a geospatial company that started in South Louisiana. The acquisition was announced in early September and the transaction is expected to close this quarter. Once a done deal, 3001 will be part of Northrop Grumman’s Information Technology sector.

3001 was established in 1965 with two people. It now has some 250 employees and includes operations in South Louisiana and John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. It provides geospatial data production and analysis, including airborne imaging, surveying, mapping and geographic information systems for domestic and international government intelligence, defense and civilian customers.

Linda Mills, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman IT, said the addition of 3001 “will significantly complement our current core geospatial business” and “help us further address the critical needs and priorities across civilian, defense, intelligence, homeland security, energy and environmental business areas, from both domestic and international perspectives.”

This item is not directly related to activities in the Gulf Coast aerospace region, but it's interesting enough to note because of its connection to the aborted/delayed Air Force aerial tanker project.

A federal court ordered the Air Force to redo a $1.1 billion competition for maintenance of the KC-135 aerial refueling tankers. The judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims upheld a lawsuit filed in June by Alabama Aircraft Industries Inc., of Birmingham, Ala. The suit was filed after Alabama Aircraft lost a second protest with the Government Accountability Office.

The KC-135 contract went to Boeing at a time when the Air Force envisioned a smaller number of existing tankers requiring maintenance. But now that the program to replace the tankers has been booted to the next administration, more KC-135s will have to have heavy maintenance. So the contract value, little doubt, will go up.

Now with the possibility of an even bigger contract, Alabama Aircraft told Reuters that it is not ruling out the possibility of joining Boeing in the new bid. To see the Reuters story, click here.