Sunday, December 28, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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