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.