Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year in review (12/29/12)

No doubt the headline-grabber for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor in 2012 was the decision of Europe's Airbus to build a $600 million A320 assembly line in Mobile, Ala. It will forever change the face of the already considerable aerospace activity in this region.

But there were other significant aerospace stories for the region, including major steps in development of NASA's Space Launch System, progress in establishing the F-35 training center, an uptick in unmanned systems activities and corporate moves that over the long-run will have an impact on the region.

Here's the year in review:

Mobile, Ala., despite losing the tanker project in 2011, never gave up on getting an aircraft assembly plant. Talks with EADS and Airbus continued, and every now and then some intriguing story would pop up in the press, keeping hopes alive.

In June a story really caught everyone’s attention. There were multiple reports that Airbus would announce in the next few days that it would build an A320 assembly line in Mobile at Brookley Aeroplex (post). The formal announcement was made July 2 in an event that had all the markings of a celebration. The seven-building complex will take up 117 acres and produce four planes a month. The ceremonial groundbreaking will be in April 2013.

Airbus Americas chairman Allen McArtor said in November that the impact of Airbus would be even bigger than people are picturing. He pointed out that he wants to make the Mobile operation a showcase that will be a candidate for other Airbus projects (column).

The Airbus project has already prompted another project. France's Safran will build a $2 million engineering center, also at Brookley Aeroplex (post).

Space activity in the Gulf Coast region continued at both Stennis Space Center (SSC) in Mississippi and Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans. At SSC, two types of engines that will be used for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) were regularly tested.

In January, the RS-25D engines that were at Kennedy Space Center in Florida began the move back to SSC for storage and eventually repurposing to power the main stage of the Space Launch System. A four-engine cluster will power the first stage of SLS.

SSC also had a heavy schedule of testing the J-2X engine that will be used in the upper stage of the SLS. In February engineers began a series of powerpack tests that wrapped up in December (post). In July the powerpack was fired for a record 1,350 seconds.

The SLS program wasn't the only propulsion-related activity during the year at SSC. In May there was a test of an RS-68A engine that will power a United Launch Alliance Delta IV (post), and in July SSC tested an AJ-26 that will power the Orbital Science Antares. Also in July SSC tested the engine used to power the Project Morpheus lander (post). In October, Blue Origin tested its BE-3 engine thrust chamber at SSC.

The future likely holds other interesting tests. Huntsville's Dynetics suggested in July that modified F-1 engines – the engines used to power the Saturn V -- could be used to power a heavy-lift NASA launch vehicle (post). Those were the engines tested at SSC in the past that made windows shake. In an unrelated story, F-1 engines were found in the Atlantic in March.

There was also non-space-related propulsion activity at SSC during the year. Rolls-Royce, which has been operating a test stand for aircraft engines at SSC, opted to spend $50 million for a second stand at SSC. Ground was broken in June (post).

In New Orleans, Michoud Assembly Facility was busy working on the Orion crew capsule that will sit atop the SLS. In June the finishing welds were put on the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 vehicle. The first space-bound capsule was delivered to Kennedy in July.

MAF is also scheduled to build the 200-foot-tall core stage of SLS. The design of that stage passed a technical review during the summer, and by the end of the year it was reported that construction on the SLS would begin soon at MAF.

Also at SSC, Lockheed Martin continued working on core structures for multiple Lockheed satellite programs, including the Advance Extremely High Frequency satellite and the Space Based Infrared System.

Another SSC activity from the past bore fruit during 2012. The satellite based ForWarn system, which tracks changes in forestlands, was released by USDA Forest Service in March. The effort was won an award in December for two federal agencies cooperating on a technology transfer program.

The year was packed with significant space stories, including the SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the International Space Station in May; the FAA and NASA agreeing on standards for commercial space flights in June; and contracts for Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX for the Commercial Crew Development Program in August.

There were headlines about the F-35 throughout the year, but for the Gulf Coast one of the most significant was the approval given in December to begin training pilots on the F-35A conventional version of the plane beginning in January (post).

F-35s continued to arrive at Eglin throughout 2012. By May the number of F-35s stood at a dozen, and by July it stood at 16. It was also in July that the first international version, one owned by the United Kingdom, arrived at the base.

F-35As at Eglin were cleared to fly in March, though the first flight was cut short by a leak that was quickly corrected. An F-35B made its first flight at Eglin in May, and two F-35s had their first formation flight at the Eglin range in April. In September an F-35 from Eglin and an F-22 from Tyndall Air Force Base flew together in a sortie.

Also during the year, VFA-101 was re-established at Eglin for F-35 training in April and the first two UK students started training in November. Out in California, weapons testing with the F-35 continued. The first external weapons test was in February, and in October the first drop of a 2,000-pound bomb was conducted.

Also in 2012, the Air Force in April announced its preferred locations for operational F-35 bases, and in August announced that Luke Air Force Base in Arizona was its preferred location for an additional F-35 training center.

There was a lot of activity on the unmanned systems front in the Gulf Coast region during 2012. That's certainly not a surprise, considering the growing popularity of unmanned systems. In April the Pentagon said it will up UAV use 45 percent in 10 years (post).

In this region, the Northrop Grumman unmanned systems center in Moss Point, Miss., continued working on Fire Scout and Global Hawk UAVs. In April, a contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman to build eight of the larger versions of Fire Scout, based on a Bell 407 helicopter. Some of that work will be in Moss Point. In November the Moss Point center began work on the Navy's version of Global Hawk, named Triton.

The Navy continued to put the smaller version of the Fire Scout through the paces at sea. In June the USS Klakring left Mayport, Fla., with a record four Fire Scouts aboard. It returned later after setting a host of records.

There were also UAV crashes that got a lot of attention. The Navy in April temporarily suspended Fire Scout flights after two unrelated crashes. In June a Navy BAMS Global Hawk crashed in southern Maryland.

Work also progressed on development of the Northrop Grumman X-47B, the unmanned combat aircraft designed to be used on a Navy carrier. By December a test model was put through a few maneuvers on the deck of a carrier. Testing was also continuing to create an unmanned aerial tanker. In August, Northrop Grumman few Global Hawks in a formation that would be used for aerial refueling.

One of the more interesting news items about unmanned systems was the news during the summer that work is under way to create an indoor unmanned systems center in Shalimar, Fla. The 45,000 square-foot facility would be just outside Eglin Air Force Base (post).

In March, Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg, Miss., was chosen as the site for the $48 million Army Guard UAV regional flight center.

Early in the year Congress decided it wants to speed up allowing unmanned aerial vehicles in the national airspace. As part of that process, it wants to establish six UAV test sites. But the whole effort slowed down considerably. By November, the FAA indefinitely shelved the competition for six UAV test sites.

Although the Air Force has wanted to mothball its Block 30 Global Hawks – a desire not shared by Congress – interest in Global Hawks internationally continues. In February NATO said it plans to purchase five Global Hawks, and Canada in May was reported to be considering a variant of Global Hawk that would be called Polar Hawk. Late in the year South Korea expressed interest in buying three Global Hawks, but later reports indicated it is still considering other UAVs.

One of the biggest corporate stories was United Technologies purchase of Goodrich, and the resulting sale of some UT and Goodrich activities. Goodrich shareholders approved the merger in March. In July the UT takeover was completed, and Goodrich became part of the UTC Aerospace Systems.

In July UT's Rocketdyne, which has an operation at SSC in Mississippi, was sold to GenCorp, which doubled its size with the purchase. GenCorp also owns Aerojet, putting under one roof several rocket engines of significance to this region, including the AJ-26, J-2X, RD-25.

In October France's Safran bought the electrical power systems of Goodrich for $401 million. That's the company that in December said it would establish a $2 million engineering center at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex.

One merger that didn't work out was the proposal, first announced in September, of EADS and BAE Systems. But by October the entire effort was scuttled because of concerns of Germany. That led to a change in the ownership mix of EADS.

There were corporate celebrations as well. In May Boeing celebrates 50 years in Alabama, and in September Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space and Technology Center marked 10 years at Mississippi's SSC. In December Lockheed Martin marked 100 years since its birth in a California garage.

Other significant corporate stories during the year include ITT Exelis in October opening a mine defense production facility near the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, northwest of Panama City, Fla.; GE Aviation in October started taking applications for its engine parts plant in Hattiesburg; and L-3 Crestview Aerospace said the company will create 340 jobs within two years through the expansion of the Okaloosa County operation.

It was a period of transition for the area's bases. At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the Air Armament Center was deactivated in July as part of a consolidation effort (post). But Air Force officials continue to tell local supporters that the base's important research, development, test and evaluation mission will continue.

In February a High Pressure Particulate Physics Facility opened at Eglin (post).

At Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., in October, the 325th Wing marked its transition from the Air Education and Training Command to Air Combat Command. The base is also getting ready to welcome a combat squadron of F-22s.

There was still a lot of interest in the issues with the F-22. The Air Force identified the problems with the aircraft causing hypoxia-like problems with pilots, and steps were taken to mitigate the risks.

At Naval Air Station Whiting Field, the T-34 had its last training flight in April.

Other uses for military land also got some attention. Plans for a research park at Saufley Field in Pensacola were scuttled in September when it was determined that it would cost too much to move the Navy activities to nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola. Another land-use story that grabbed headlines was the decision in November to build a $25 million hotel on Air Force beachfront property in Okaloosa County.

Crashes claimed the lives of military personnel from the Gulf Coast region. In February, four Hurlburt Field airmen died in a U-28A crash in Djibouti, Africa, and the same month four Coast Guard crewmen die in an MH-65C crash in Mobile Bay.

There were at least two non-fatal crashes of military aircraft in the region during the year. In June a CV-22 tiltrotor crashed at the Eglin range during a formation flight. Nobody was seriously injured, and in August the Air Force ruled it was pilot error. In November an F-22 on routine mission crashed at Tyndall, but the pilot ejected and was OK.

Leadership changes
There were multiple leadership changes during the year. Patrick Scheuermann left his position as director of SSC to become director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He was replaced by Richard Gilbrech, who became the director at SSC for the second time. Scheuermann took over the spot formerly held by Gene Goldman, who retired in August to take a post with Aerojet.

Larry Sassano left the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, which he headed up for 15 years, to take over as interim director of Florida's Great Northwest. In Mobile, Win Hallett announces in November his retirement as head of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bruce Frallic, the long-time head of Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi, retired and was replaced by Clay Williams. In November, Melinda Crawford said she was leaving as head of the Pensacola Airport to take a similar job in Charlottesville, Va.

Learning centers
On the education front, there was a ribbon cutting in April for the $30 million Infinity Science Center near Stennis Space Center (post). In May, the National Flight Academy had its grand opening at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. (post)

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