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.

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