Saturday, April 18, 2009

Week in review (4/12 to 4/18)

It's beginning to look like the fight over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Training Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be with us for a while. Round 1 in the court battle has gone to the city of Valparaiso.

On Friday Valparaiso city officials had reason to celebrate after a federal court and circuit court in two separate rulings rejected attempts by the Air Force and Okaloosa County to torpedo the city's suits over the establishment of the multimillion-dollar JSF Training Center at Eglin.

The city of Valparaiso has two suits: One seeks to get more information from the Air Force on the noise of the F-35 Lightning II, and the other, filed after the Air Force gave the go-ahead to start construction of the training center, claims the Air Force did not consider alternative sites at Eglin for the jets. It wants all movement to establish the center to cease.

Okaloosa County, meanwhile, filed suit in hopes of getting Valparaiso to drop its legal actions. It's concerned that Valparaiso's actions threaten the entire development. It's not surprising that other political entities in Okaloosa County are concerned. Having the JSF training center means a lot of money for construction, and more defense dollars every year to operate the center. It also will bring 10,000 newcomers to the area. Having the newest jet in the nation's arsenal has clear economic benefits that other areas - especially during a recession - would love to have. Bay County has already put in a pitch, saying it would love to have the center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla.

It wasn't all bad for those who want to keep the JSF Training Center. Although the judge in Valparaiso denied an injunction, he did rule that Valparaiso officials violated state public records law when it told a lawyer for the county that it would cost over $4,000 to provide records because sensitive information is included in the files. Valparaiso has 10 days to turn over documents.

This whole encroachment issue is nothing new for the military. Bases with flying missions that long ago were put in remote areas eventually have to face the encroachment of the civilian population outside the gates. That can wind up threatening the military's mission.
Biloxi, Miss., and Keesler Air Force Base had to deal with the issue with high-rise condos and casinos began popping up along the Mississippi coast; Pensacola, Fla., had to deal with it when homes got too close to the Sherman Field runway at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Hoping to avoid similar problems for Naval Air Station Whiting Field, the Navy has partnered with Santa Rosa County to buy nearly 600 acres near the base. In the last eight years the county has been using state money to buy up land to keep development away.

Encroachment brings up issues dear to the hearts of Americans. On the one side there's the very real pro-defense feeling in this region, where officials and the public go out of their way to make the military feel welcome. The military, afterall, has a huge economic impact on the region. But there's the other side that sympathizes with homeowners who feel run over by the needs of the federal government, and that's a chord that really resonates at a time when people are fed up with big government and tired of seeing tax dollars thrown around like candy.

How this will work out is still unclear. But from an economic development standpoint - looking purely at how this all impacts the growth of the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor - the controvery is certainly hurting and getting the training center is, no doubt, a real plumb for this region.

Meanwhile, the aircraft that's at the center of this whole controversy will be making its inaugural landing at Eglin on Tuesday. An F-35 flown by a pilot for Lockheed Martin will remain at the base four days. Base officials have invited local mayors, county commissioners and school board members to visit the base and see the plane that has been the focal point of the suits. No public events are scheduled. And that's ashame. This would be a great opportunity for the Air Force to score some points with the general public - particularly those from Valparaiso.

During the week, Louis Gallois, the chief executive of EADS, said his company and partner Northrop Grumman would probably bid on a $35 billion tankers project even if the Pentagon decided to buy from both Northrop/EADS and Boeing. His condition: his company will have to build at least 12 planes a year to make the Gulf Coast plant viable.

Northrop previously said it would not oppose a split buy. Boeing is keeping mum, but it’s unlikely the company would welcome an opportunity for rival EADS/Airbus to set up an assembly plant in this country.

There’s no doubt this is a major deal for the Gulf Coast and Boeing. EADS NA plans to build a plant and assemble the planes at Brookley Industrial Complex in Mobile, Ala., if it wins the competition or a piece of it. Partner Northrop Grumman also plans to build a site near the EADS’ plant with a win. EADS has also expressed interest in building cargo planes in Mobile if everything goes well for the company.

And it's that element - the cargo planes - that Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania found such an exciting prospect during his visit to Mobile. Murtha and other lawmakers have pushed the idea of a split buy as the only politically sound way to move the project forward. A lot is at stake, and it’s easy to see why a split buy – costly or not – might be appealing. Not only would Washington State keep jobs, but it would provide new jobs in Alabama and the Gulf Coast region that previously did not exist. It's the flip side of offshoring - this time Europe offshoring to the United States. And it's been happening for a long time.

It's the cargo plane assembly that likely doesn's sit well with Boeing. The Chicago-based company, which has plants in Washington State, doesn's want EADS/Airbus to have more of a foothold in the United States than it already has. Assembling cargo planes in Mobile would be a huge challenge for Boeing, which already has been put on notice by Airbus that it plans to challenge the company for a variety of airframes.

Boeing is likely quite happy that Defense Secretary Robert Gates doesn't appear to be budging in his opposition to a split buy.

"I am laying my body down across the tracks," Gates told an audience of officers during the week at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Ala. At a press conference a day earlier while heading to Fort Rucker, Ala., he said developing two tankers could cost $14 billion over five years, double the price of one. (STORY)

In another tanker item, early in the week the Mobile County Commission approved paying the public relations firm Birdwell Photography & Multimedia Inc., of Pensacola, Fla., $63,500 to train county workers to run the Web site that encourages the Air Force to select Mobile as the site to build tankers. BPM has previously been paid about $450,000 by the county to build and maintain the “Keep Our Tanker” Website, part of a broader campaign called “Come Back Home to Mobile.” Plans are to link the Keep Our Tanker site to schools.

- Speaking of EADS, the Huntsville, Ala.-based program manager for EADS North America’s Light Utility Helicopter, John Burke, will receive the 2009 Leadership Excellence Award from the National Defense Industrial Association’s Tennessee Valley Chapter. Through March 2009, the company has delivered 62 of the Columbus, Miss.-built UH-72As to active Army and National Guard units nationwide. The Army plans to buy 345 Lakotas through 2016, and the Navy wants five. EADS also has an engineering center and maintenance operation in Mobile, Ala.

- Another South Alabama aerospace operation, Goodrich’s Alabama Service Center in Foley, received during the week a Corporate Diamond Certificate of Excellence award from the Federal Aviation Administration Aviation Maintenance Technician program. The Corporate Diamond award is the highest award presented in the AMT program. The award has now been presented eight times to the Alabama center.

The center also received approval from Boeing to provide overheat service bulletin inspections and modifications for the Boeing Next-Generation 737 aircraft. The bulletin outlines instructions for inspection of the aircraft's CFM-56-7 engine thrust reverser inner walls as well as insulation blankets.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Airline and Tourism Development Summit will be held at Biloxi’s Beau Rivage Resort and Casino with a dinner April 28, followed by a day of presentations and tour of the Coast. The first Airline Summit was held soon after Hurricane Katrina and the fourth summit this year will give airline executives a look at the progress on the Coast.

Further to the east, the Navy has decided to drop Wolf Field in Lillian, Ala., from consideration for expansion to meet the needs of a new Navy training aircraft. The Navy is replacing the T-34C trainer with the T-6B, which requires longer runways. Three other fields in Baldwin County are still being considered. The planes will be operating out of Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. Outlying fields, or OLFs, are used to practice takeoffs and landings.

The NASA Shared Services Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., won the Best New Captive Services Delivery award from the Shared Services Outsourcing Network. The award recognizes the most successful shared services organization launched within the last three years. The center is a public-private partnership between NASA, CSC, Mississippi and Louisiana. CSC provides administrative, financial, human resources and procurement support services to about 20,000 NASA employees, applicants, contractors and university partners. The center combined the services that were once done at NASA headquarters and 10 NASA centers.

- Mississippi State University and a company in Winona, Miss., think they’ve come up with a way to ensure the purity of hydrogen fuel that’s important for engine testing at Stennis Space Center. The proposal was among 16 selected by NASA for negotiation of Phase 2 contract awards in the Small Business Technology Transfer program. Mississippi Ethanol LLC and MSU want to develop a technique and sensor to measure simultaneously concentrations of several contaminants in hydrogen gas storage tanks and supply lines. The purity of hydrogen fuel is important in NASA engine testing.

- Brice Harris, director of the Andrews Institute's space-tourism program, resigned during the week in the wake of accusations he used his state job to get the position – at double his state salary. Questions have been raised about Harris' role in developing the institute's contract for Project Odyssey, designed to get tourists ready to launch into orbit. There’s a possibility the state funding for the project is now in jeopardy.

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