Saturday, February 28, 2009

Week in review (2/22 to 2/28)

The most significant news to come down the pike during the week for the Gulf Coast region may have been President Barack Obama's $3.55 trillion budget. It includes $533.7 billion in fiscal year 2010 for the Defense Department and $18.7 billion for NASA. Both agencies play major roles in the economic health of the Gulf Coast, and both budgets represent increases over the previous fiscal year. More on the budget later.

First, last week we told you about the growth expected in the field of unmanned aerial systems. So it makes sense to take a look at another field of robotics that's likely to grow. In this case, think bionic man or woman.

At the Association of the United States' Army Winter Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during the week, Lockheed Martin debuted a robotic exoskeleton designed to improve a soldier's strength and endurance. It's called the Human Universal Load Carrier – not much of a name until you pronounce it as an acronym: HULC.

Under a licensing agreement with Berkeley Bionics of California, Lockheed Martin will advance the development of the HULC design to provide soldiers a powerful advantage in ground operations. Rich Russell, director of Sensors, Data Links and Advanced Programs at Lockheed Martin, said that with the company's enhancements to the HULC system, soldiers will be able to carry loads of up to 200 pounds with minimal effort.

HULC transfers the weight from heavy loads to the ground through the battery-powered, titanium legs of the lower-body exoskeleton. An advanced micro-computer ensures the exoskeleton moves with the individual. HULC hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton allows for deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting with minor exertion.

Lockheed is also exploring exoskeleton for industrial and medical applications. (Story)

It was years ago that Ken Ford, director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla., told me to keep an eye on this field. IHMC is heavily involved in doing research in a range of artificial intelligence fields, including giving humans some machine-like capabilities. These systems fit the human and machine components together in ways that exploit their respective strengths and mitigate their respective weaknesses.

Now back to the budget. The Defense Department would get a baseline budget of $533.7 billion in fiscal year 2010, up from $513.3 billion appropriated by Congress in 2009, under Obama's proposed budget. The DoD budget is important to this region, which is home to military bases as well as large and small defense contractors. For an administration that has made it a key aim to keep people working, funding of DoD does just that.

- The development of the F-35 is continuing on track. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is no doubt interested in progress of the F-35, since it will be the home of the Joint Strike Fighter training center beginning in 2010. During this past week Lockheed Martin's second short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B Lightning II accomplished its first flight. The aircraft, known as BF-2, joins a conventional takeoff and landing F-35A and another F-35B that already have logged a combined total of 84 flights.

- At Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the base announced during the week that Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill will turn over command of the 81st Training Wing to Col. Ian Dickinson April 6. Dickinson, who reports to Keesler Air Force Base by March 31, is Joint Staff deputy chief information officer at the Pentagon. Touhill’s new assignment is Chief, Office of Military Cooperation, U.S. Central Command, Kuwait.

Twice during the week Air Force officials said that the aerial tankers remain the Air Force's top priority. Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, told a joint hearing of the seapower and air and land forces subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee that the tanker is his No. 1 modernization priority.

And during a military conference in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by the Air Force Association, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley also said the replacement is the top priority. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expects to issue a new request for bids this spring.

Boeing is competing against a Northrop Grumman/EADS for the $40 billion project to replace the fleet of KC-135s. Northrop/EADS won the competition in February 2008 and planned to assemble them in Mobile, Ala. But a Boeing protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office and later the Pentagon decided to wait for the new administration.

Some, most notably Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, are calling for a split buy. During his visit to Mobile, Murtha has said he was pleased to learn EADS would build cargo planes in Mobile if it won the tanker contract. EADS, parent of Airbus, said last year that it would produce a cargo version of the A330 airliner if it won the Air Force competition.

During the week Aviation Week wrote that Airbus is preparing to birth a new generation of freighter aircraft just as the industry is seeing declines in demand. But Airbus is looking beyond the immediate crisis and making a long-term bet on creating freighters that could compete with rival Boeing. This could be big for Mobile – should EADS win the Air Force contract. And if it doesn’t? EADS’ push with freighters could still be important to Mobile’s aviation future.

At the end of the week, the Mobile Press-Register reported that Northrop Grumman and EADS North America have been asked by Mobile officials to hire Bay Haas, the retired airport authority executive director, to coordinate local support for the effort to win the contract to assemble aerial refueling tankers in Mobile.

The newspaper said the request was made in a Feb. 18 letter. A spokesman said Northrop Grumman is giving the suggestions "active consideration."

When Haas retired in November, he was expected to continue to do work for the airport authority as a consultant for $10,000 a month for 19 months. But that never happened because of questions raised about whether it was a violation of part of the state ethics law that bars agencies from hiring former executives for two years after they leave. (Story)

Extra money, especially in these hard economic times, is always welcome. And now NASA is looking at how to use some extra money coming to the agency thanks to the stimulus plan.

The agency found out during the week that the Obama Administration wants to provide NASA with a budget of $18.7 billion in the 2010 fiscal year. When combined with the $1 billion provided for NASA in the Recovery Act, the funding is more than $2.4 billion above the 2008 level.

NASA managers are looking at options for spending an extra $400 million from the stimulus. Among the possibilities: extra flight-test to speed up development of the Ares I, or advancing development work on Ares I and Orion.

- NASA during the week awarded an interim letter contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston to begin work on the design, development and production of a new spacesuit system for the Constellation Program.

- At the end of the week, Boeing submitted a proposal to NASA for Altair lunar lander design support. NASA is expected to award multiple contracts this spring. The lunar lander will launch aboard the Ares V heavy-lift rocket. Recently Boeing submitted proposals for the Ares V Phase 1 Design Support Contracts.

Sci-tech parks
Northwest Florida's Santa Rosa County Commission during the week voted to use $3.1 million to buy 90 acres not far from Interstate 10 to use for industrial development. Pullum Park will join the nearby Santa Rosa County Industrial Park and the planned Whiting Aviation Park as county-owned property available for industrial development.

At another science and technology park in the region, growth seems to be at hand.

Six years after its opening, the University of South Alabama's Research and Technology Park has filled current buildings and an expansion is being considered. Ker Ferguson, the park's director, said the university is negotiating costs for new building construction and is talking with prospective tenants. The park already has land available for new construction, and now might be a good time considering lower construction costs.

The Research and Technology Park, which opened on 35 acres in 2003, is intended to give companies an opportunity to gain access to students and collaborate on research efforts with students and faculty. It now has almost 300,000 square feet of space leased to 16 different companies with more than 600 employees. (Story)

There were two contracts awarded during the week with a Gulf Coast connection. The Air Force modified a contract with Textron Systems Corp. for $9.5 million to provide additional sensor fuzed weapons. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. The Air Force also modified a contract with Northrop Grumman for $5.8 million to provide engineering, manufacturing and development infrastructure activates in support of the Global Hawk Program. Global Hawk fuselage work is done in part in Moss Point, Miss.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Week in review (2/15 to 2/21)

Those who follow the aerospace industry already knew it, and a study by the Teal Group simply confirmed it - and gave it some numbers. The most dynamic growth sector in the aerospace industry: unmanned aerial vehicles.

A 2009 market study by the Teal Group, of Fairfax, Va., estimates spending on unmanned aerial vehicles – or if you prefer, unmanned aerial systems – will nearly double to $8.7 billion annually over the next decade. That’s more than $62 billion in the next 10 years.

The 364-page study says the United States will account for 72 percent of the worldwide research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) spending on UAV technology over the next decade and some 61 percent of the procurement. Europe is the second largest market, followed by Asia-Pacific.

The study also examined UAV payloads, including electro-optic/infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radars and more. That portion of the sector is forecast to increase to nearly $5 billion in a decade from the current $2 billion. (Story)

What's striking about this field is that it has both military and commercial applications, and in addition to sensors, it involves everything from computer science to advanced materials and more. And it's not just aerospace – there are also unmanned land and sea vehicles that will likely grow.

The Gulf Coast region is fortunate to have a foot in the door.

A few years back Jackson County, Miss., started working with Northrop Grumman to get a Fire Scout helicopter drone plant in Moss Point. I recall the head economic development saying it would be hard to get residents to look beyond the immediate number of jobs and see it as a building block for the future.

But it didn't take long before Northrop decided to build Global Hawks at what it eventually named the Unmanned Systems Center. They also did some work on Hunter UAVs. The plant is capable of doing a lot more, and Northrop has said it expects to send more work to the plant. The company also has divs on another 30 acres at the Moss Point’s Trent Lott Aviation Technology Park. This year Northrop will be flying Fire Scout unmanned helicopters over South Mississippi.

Santa Rosa County, Fla., is also involved in this aerospace sector. AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., which has developed a series of highly successful, small UAVs, including the Raven, has its training and support operations in Navarre, between Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base. It's grown from a six-person operation in 2004 to more than 40 employees today.

There's a day in the future when pilots will find their role diminished if not eliminated. Think that unrealistic? There likely was a time in the past when people could not picture going on an elevator without someone at the controls. Maj. Lee Kloos of Eglin, chosen to become an F-35 instructor, considered it a privilege to be chosen, especially since Air Force aviation is moving toward unmanned aerial systems. "This is a unique opportunity and there won't be many more like it," he said. Perhaps prophetic words.

It's possible to envision armed UAVs in the future using Eglin to test some of the munitions being developed at the base. Oddly enough, the pilots flying those drone may not even be based at Eglin. Some of the UAVs may be flying autonomously, thanks to advances in computer intelligence systems. And the Gulf Coast has an operation that's a leader in artificial intelligence systems: The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla.

These robots aren’t just airborne. A short time ago in Panama City, Fla., engineers at Tyndall Air Force Base came up with a robot that can refuel aircraft with minimum human intervention.

During the past week Northrop Grumman's relative navigation system was selected by the Air Force for the Automated Aerial Refueling program follow-on contract. Relative navigation, the ability to measure the relative motions of two vehicles, is crucial to the aerial refueling of drones. The AAR is designed to work with the existing tanker fleet, but is there any doubt plans call for being able to adapt it to unmanned aerial tankers?

The Navy also has a keen interest in UAVs. Like the Air Force, it's interested in relative navigation. And the Navy is also interested in surface and underwater unmanned systems. An analyst from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recently said he's concerned the Navy's 30-year modernization plan leaves some gaps. Robert Work recommends more R&D work on smaller, manned and unmanned undersea vehicles and autonomous systems. The Gulf Coast has a group that's involved in underseas vehicle: The Undersea Vehicles Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, part of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

This is an opportunity our economic development officials need to continue to pursue.

- There was also a bit of news during the week related to Mobile, Ala., and its bid to become home to a Northrop-EADS aircraft assembly complex. You’ll recall that a few weeks ago U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., toured the site in Mobile where the facility would be located. At the time he said he was impressed that EADS would also build cargo planes in Mobile if it wins the contract. He also said he's in a favor of buying some planes from Northrop-EADS, and some from competitor Boeing.

He made the same comment after touring the 767 final assembly facility in Everett, Wash. The visit was part of a fact-finding mission. Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, was invited by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. Murtha also toured the 737 and P-8A Poseidon aircraft facilities in Renton.

Despite Murtha's comment, he has a long way to go to convince others. The Pentagon doesn't like the idea, and Boeing's allies may well see the current environment as more conducive to Boeing winning this next competition. But Boeing also likely understand that Northrop and EADS would not let a Boeing win go without a protest. The loser in all of this will be the warfighter who have to continue to rely on aging tankers.

For an administration that wants to save jobs in this country, a split buy would not only save jobs in Washington State and Kansas, but would create new ones as well in Alabama and the Gulf Coast region.

Just when you thought it was settled, the F-35 noise issue heated up again during the week. The City of Valparaiso, Fla., voted to sue the Air Force over the F-35 Record of Decision. Two commissioners, both of whom had opposed a previous Freedom of Information Act suit against the Air Force, were absent for the vote.

The Air Force earlier this month signed a record of decision that allows construction to begin for the Joint Strike Fighter training center. To address noise concerns, the Air Force is limiting use of one runway. But Valparaiso officials feel the noise issue will destroy home values and be the end of the city.

We'll of course keep an eye on this one.

- Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill, 81st Training Wing commander at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., has been selected for a new assignment as Chief, Office of Military Cooperation, U.S. Central Command, Kuwait. Touhill came to Keesler in October 2007. Announcement of his replacement is expected soon.

- Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier has assumed command of the 4th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Cartier is the first female flying squadron commander for the Air Force Special Operations Command. She replaced Lt. Col. Jim Rodriquez.

We should mention a rift that's playing out in Northwest Florida pitting Okaloosa County against Bay County. Media reports say officials from Okaloosa County accuse rivals of spreading lies that Northwest Florida Regional Airport – the former Okaloosa County Regional Airport – will close.

It apparently goes back to a January 2008 e-mail by Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce claiming the airport's lease with Eglin Air Force Base would end after 2010. At the time, the chamber was trying to get support behind the Panama City-Bay County International Airport project. Eglin, in fact, renewed the lease until 2032, and the chamber apologized for the misunderstanding. But apparently rumors have continued. (Story)

The odd part about all of this is that, yes, the airports in the region compete with their immediate neighbors for passengers and flights, but there are some real benefits having airports in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mobile, Pensacola, Okaloosa County and Panama City. While there was talk in the past about combined airports – Pensacola and Mobile, for instance, sharing an airport in Baldwin County – that thinking eventually faded away. Offering visitors the option of multiple airports has been the defacto mindset. The loss of any one of the region's airports would hurt the entire region.

- Okaloosa County Airport Director Greg Donovan presented an updated master plan for Northwest Florida Regional Airport at a public meeting during the week. The biggest news was a discussion about a six-acre site east of a new rental car and overflow parking area that has been designated for commercial development – perhaps a hotel and restaurant.

- In Pensacola, a new radar approach control facility at Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport is nearing completion. The $21 million Terminal Radar Approach Control facility is replacing the current 31-year-old building. In Milton at Whiting Field Naval Air Station, construction wrapped up on a new $4 million control tower replacing one built in 1972.

NASA signed a five-year, $45 million contract during the week with American Tank and Vessel Inc. of Mobile, Ala., for installation of a test cell diffuser and associated systems in the A-3 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The test stand will test the J-2X engine that will power the upper stage of the Ares I crew exploration vehicle and the Earth departure stage of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. Construction began on the A-3 stand in summer 2007, with the first test scheduled for 2012.

- Boeing's Space Exploration division submitted proposals for the Ares V Phase 1 Design Support Contracts. The proposals are for design support of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle's payload shroud; the Earth-departure stage; the liquid-fueled central booster element core state; and avionics and software. The two-stage, vertically stacked Ares V will be NASA's primary rocket for delivery of large-scale hardware to space.

- NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite left California during the week for its trip to Kennedy Space Center. The satellite's mission is to search for water ice on the moon in a permanently shadowed crater near one of the lunar poles. LCROSS is a companion mission to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO. At Kennedy the two spacecraft will be integrated with an Atlas V launch vehicle and tested for final flight worthiness. LCROSS and LRO are the first missions in NASA's plan to return humans to the moon and begin establishing a lunar outpost by 2020.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Week in review (2/8 to 2/14)

It's an intriguing question. Would the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. build an aircraft plant in the region even if it fails to win the Air Force tanker competition?

Donald Epley, director of the Mitchell College of Business Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of South Alabama, thinks so. According to the Pensacola News Journal, Epley said during the week that the exchange rate is killing EADS, and he thinks the company will bring about 1,000 jobs to the region, tanker or no tanker. He made the comment at the annual Real Estate Trends Report and Forecast Conference in Pensacola.

Epley makes a good point, and he's not alone in that thinking. This is a relatively low cost area of the country, and no doubt economic development officials from this region bend over backwards to welcome new businesses, major and minor players alike.
The Gulf Coast region between New Orleans and Northwest Florida has a wide range of aerospace capabilities, from space programs in the west portion of the corridor to weapons development in the east, and a range of activities in between. Every major aerospace company has an operation in the region, and over the past few years economic development officials have been cooperating regularly to promote not only their own area, but the broader region.

Northrop/EADS won the competition last year to build the next generation of Air Force tankers in Mobile, Ala. The decision was overturned after a Boeing protest, and a new round of competition will begin this year. And while the company would certainly like to win that tanker contest, Mobile remains a viable location for any number of EADS projects where the primary customer is in the United States. EADS has shown a good deal of interest in Mobile. It set up an EADS-CASA maintenance center and Airbus engineering center in Mobile, and it did say as far back as January 2008 that it would build cargo planes in Mobile if it won the tanker project.
Epley's comment seemed right on the mark.

- Speaking of Mobile, the Mobile Press-Register reported during the week that Teledyne Continental Motors is recalling 9,600 cylinders from piston aircraft engines because of a metal-casting problem that can cause the cylinder heads to crack. The company expects the recall to cost as much $18 million.

- The first operational Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Global Hawk is now in Southwest Asia with the Air Force's 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. In a concept of operations called remote-split operations, the Navy Global Hawks' arrival marks the culmination of more than five months of joint effort to stand up a maritime surveillance presence in the region.

Prior to arrival in Southwest Asia, the Navy Global Hawk has been in service for non-wartime missions during its test and development phase, including spying on Hurricane Ike. Fuselage work on the Global Hawk is done at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss.

Joint Strike Fighter
Aviation Week reported during the week that four defense oversight committees in Congress approved the Navy's reprogramming request in fiscal 2009 for funds to secure purchases of the first Joint Strike Fighter for carrier operations. The $40 million will pay for long lead parts for three Lockheed Martin F-35Cs.

The F-35 has three variants: a traditional version for the Air Force that takes off from runways, a carrier version for the Navy and a vertical takeoff and landing version for the Marines. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be the joint training site for the F-35 program.

Eglin will see one of its own as an instructor in the F-35 program. Maj. Lee Kloos, who has nearly 2,000 flying hours, is in the initial cadre of F-35 instructors. He has worked with the Joint Strike Fighter Site Activation Task Force program.

- Eglin is scheduled to get some additional personnel because of a reorganization effort. Federal Computer World reported during the week that the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center will move about 70 personnel in the next 18 months to support its cyber operations. In addition to Eglin, other bases receiving the new personnel are Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

Military training
A team that works closely with Navy SEALs has moved into a new, $9.7 million complex at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Special Boat Team 22, which specializes in riverine missions, has grown in the last four years. There are 400 sailors assigned to SBT 22. It also operates a training school for foreign sailors.

- The Air Force Special Operations Command has wrapped up an exercise designed to train forces in combat scenarios. Emerald Warrior took place at Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Training included troop insertions, air-ground support and convoy active-defense scenarios.

- Eglin officials and contractors are preparing to conduct visual surface surveys on private property in Santa Rosa County to ensure former weapon test ranges are clear of old munitions. Eglin sent right of entry requests to 13 private property owners in an area that was formerly part of now defunct Range 30, where aerial gunnery testing was conducted in the 1940s-50s.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is now at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The spacecraft, slated to launch April 24, will spend at least one year in a low polar orbit on its primary lunar exploration mission, with the possibility of three more years to collect additional detailed scientific information about the moon and its environment. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are involved in the Constellation Program, the return of astronauts to the moon and beyond.

Passenger traffic at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport grew slightly in 2008 but still has not reached levels seen before Hurricane Katrina. Officials said that 7.9 million people passed through the Kenner airport in 2008, up 5.5 percent from 2007. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that a board created by the legislature to evaluate a possible state takeover of the city-owned airport is unlikely to be ready to offer a recommendation by this year's legislative session.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Week in review (2/1 to 2/7)

F-35, training: There was a sense of relief, no doubt, in economic development circles when the Air Force sealed the deal during the week and affirmed Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., as the future home to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training center. This is a big deal for the region, adding another piece to the substantial aerospace-related activities between New Orleans and Northwest Florida.

Back in November the Air Force decided to delay signing a "record of decision" establishing the center because residents were concerned about the noise. The city of Valparaiso, right outside the Eglin gates, feared the jet, twice as loud as an F-15, would hurt property values that have already been pounded by the housing market.

Some had been concerned that the complaints would prompt the Air Force to look elsewhere, but that was never really in the cards. The Air Force took the additional time to try to address some of those concerns, most notably by limiting the use of one runway. And the Air Force will continue to explore ways to reduce the noise impact. That makes sense, considering other Air Force, Navy and Marine bases eventually will be hosting F-35s, designated Lightning II.

The signing of the record of decision means construction can now get under way in preparation for 59 F-35s that will arrive beginning March 2010. Nine construction projects worth $170 million are in the bidding process and construction is expected to begin before October. The total value of construction is placed at $250 million.

The Eglin center is designed to train Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots who will then train other instructors and students to fly the F-35. The goal is to open the squadron in October and begin training students in 2010. The squadron's first mission will be instructing other groups of pilots assigned to be trainers. The Air Force expects to field more than 1,750 Joint Strike Fighters over the next two decades.

No doubt a lot of eyes were watching the Eglin-noise debate. In addition to the locations in the United States that hope to get the planes, a host of foreign military organizations will also be buying F-35. This next generation plane was jointly developed by the United States and foreign partners, and a lot of money has been invested in its development.

The F-35 has three variants – a traditional version for the Air Force that takes off from runways, a carrier version for the Navy and a vertical takeoff and landing version for the Marines. It can carry all its weapons and fuel inside the fuselage, creating less wind resistance than an F-16 flying with bombs, missiles and fuel tanks under its wings.

The F-35’s avionics and sensors are 20 years beyond what F-16 pilots now use. An F-16 pilot spends a lot of time fusing together cockpit information collected by 1970s and ’80s technology, but the F-35’s avionics do much of the fusing itself, collecting and analyzing information from its digital sensors and other sources. The F-35 avionics are even more advanced than the F-22 Raptor. (The Air Force Times had a story during the week on the advanced F-35 systems)

- During the same week where the Air Force signed the deal on the training center, development of the aircraft has moved forward. The Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that will power the Marine version of the F-35 has been cleared for flight testing. Approval follows a review of design changes made to eliminate vibration that caused turbine blade failures in ground tests. Testing of aircraft BF-1, the short take-off and landing F-35, is expected to begin this month at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility.

- In another Eglin-related story during the week, three Okaloosa County men were indicted on federal charges for violations committed while working at or contracting with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base. The indictment claims one of the three, while employed as a senior engineer at the federal lab, steered programs to Schaller Engineering, or SEI, in which he had a financial interest.

- In another training-related news item during the week, Boeing won a $28.3 million contract for two Virtual Mission Training System retrofit kits that will integrate realistic radar training into the Navy T-45. The VMTS is designed for the training of flight officers who operate weapons and electronic warfare systems. The work involves T-45C aircraft and ground-station systems assigned to Training Air Wing 6, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

Space: The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at Stennis Space Center, Miss., and the National Science Foundation have each entered agreements with Google Earth to provide data for the popular program.

According to NSF, a feature called "Oceans in Google Earth" enables users to dive beneath the surface of the sea and explore oceans. It includes videos, photos, diagrams and texts that illustrate glacial, geological and ocean processes influencing the behavior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in Antarctica.

The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command entered a cooperative research agreement to share with Google Earth unclassified information about oceans. The CRADA allows Google to use unclassified bathymetric data sets and sea surface temperatures from the Naval Oceanographic Office as well as meteorological data from Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center, both subordinate commands of NMOC.

- A United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket successfully boosted a NOAA satellite into orbit during the week from a base in California. The satellite will be used to track fast-breaking storms and monitor climate changes. A Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RS-27A engine powered the rocket, and three Alliant Techsystems GEM-40 solid propulsion strap-on boosters ignited with the first-stage main engine. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has a facility at Stennis Space Center, Miss.; ATK has an operation in Shalimar, Fla.

- Speaking of Alliant Techsystems, that company will expand its northeast Mississippi plant to make composite structures for commercial aircraft. The Minneapolis-based company will keep the 176 jobs it already has in Iuka. Barbour said the plant will have 800 jobs by 2017 with an average salary of about $53,000.In another Mississippi-related development, the Army awarded EADS North America a contract for five additional UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopters, bringing the total on contract to 128. The Army expects to acquire a total of 345 Lakotas, built at the American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Miss., through 2016.

- More than 50 UH-72As have been delivered by EADS North America, and some 8,000 flight hours have been logged to date. Lakotas are in operation at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.; Fort Eustis, Va.; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Morrisville, N.C.; Pineville, La.; Tupelo, Miss.; and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

EADS is not just of interest to Mississippi. The company also has the Airbus Engineering Center and EADS CASA operation in Mobile, Ala.

Contracts: Four defense contracts of interest to the Gulf Coast region were awarded during the week. The Boeing Co. won a $19.1 million contract for AC-130U gunship operational flight and simulation software maintenance, field service support, configuration, data and obsolescence management and intermediate-level repairs. The work will be done by Boeing SOF at Hurlburt Field, Fla.; DRS C3 Systems Inc., Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was awarded a $13.9 million contract for new work modification for Driver’s Vision Enhancer TWV A-Kits for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Program and 224 DVE CV A-Kits and cable assemblies. Work will be done in Fort Walton Beach; AeroVironment, Simi Valley, Calif., was awarded a $39 million contract for contractor logistics support for the Raven RQ-11B Unmanned Aircraft System. AeroVironment has an operation in Navarre, Fla.; Concurrent Technology Corp., Johnstown, Pa., was awarded an $11.5 million contract to provide technical and engineering services for continued carriage, stream, tow, and recovery system development, test, and analysis. About 12 percent of the work will be done in Panama City, Fla. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City, was the contracting activity.

Earnings: Two companies with operations in the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor released fourth-quarter earnings reports during the week. Northrop Grumman, hurt by a $3.06 billion charge connected to past acquisitions, posted a fourth-quarter loss of $2.54 billion; Goodrich announced a 31 percent increase in net income.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Now that's a gun

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - You have your guns and then you have your guns. And one of the guns tested at Eglin Air Force Base is the GAU-8/A - a rather non-descript name for a cannon that's so big and bad, it accounts for 16 percent of an A-10's weight.

Here's some details, according to a story by Eglin's public affairs office: Mounted on an A-10 Thunderbolt II, the cannon can fire 4,000 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,500 feet per second. The percussion is so loud that two sets of ear protection must be worn during testing, which rattles the doors of the facility.

The GAU-8/A is nearly 20 feet long and weighs about two tons – some 16 percent of the A-10’s weight. It's one of the largest, heaviest and most powerful aircraft cannon in the U.S. military.

The Air Force buys the 30 mm ammunition from two vendors, which bid for each year's order. Before a purchase, a 500-round batch of the ammo must be tested to ensure there are no flaws. That's done by a team of engineers at the Gun and Ammunition test facility on Range A-22 at Eglin Air Force Base.

The team fires the weapon in bursts of 2.3 seconds, pumping out more than 150 rounds, and checks for fragmentation of the rounds with high-speed cameras. Bullet velocity and dispersion is another aspect of testing.

Once all the data is collected, the team sends the information to analysts at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Upon approval, the ammunition is then introduced to the supply system.

Big and bad seems to be a favorite at Eglin. This is the same base that tested the "mother of all bombs" back in 2003. The MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) was dropped from a C-130.