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.

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