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.

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