Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year in review (12/28/13)

It was big news in 2013 when Airbus broke ground on its $600 million A320 final assembly line in Mobile, Ala., a shovel turning that will forever change the face of the already considerable aerospace activity in this region.

But it was just one of the significant aerospace stories for the Gulf Coast I-10 region. In south Mississippi, Stennis Space Center got a huge feather in its cap when one of the stars of commercial spaceflight, SpaceX, chose the NASA center to test its new generation engine. And over in Northwest Florida, there was significant progress in the F-35 training program at Eglin Air Force Base.

In addition, the region continued to cement its role as a player in unmanned systems/robotics, with a home-grown R&D institute coming in second in an international robotic  competition, Moss Point working on a larger version of the Fire Scout, Camp Shelby starting an unmanned systems R&D program, Okaloosa County considering building an unmanned systems center and Tyndall Air Force Base getting the latest version of a target drone.

Here's the year in review:

Aerospace giant Airbus broke ground in April at the Mobile Aeroplex for its $600 million A320 final assembly line, and also started the hiring process. Eventually 1,000 workers will be at the plant assembling the popular jetliner. Although the process of attracting suppliers will take years, Safran Engineering Services officially opened its office at the Aeroplex the day of the groundbreaking. It will provide engineering services for Airbus.

In June delegates from Mississippi, Alabama and Florida attended the Paris Air Show. The Aerospace Alliance, a group formed to represent the aerospace interests of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, hosted a reception before the show got underway. Alabama and Northwest Florida officials also went to Germany in December for a supplier forum.

The parent company of Airbus, EADS, also made moves in 2013 to change the company, including changing the name to Airbus Group.

The commercial space program kicked into high gear during 2013, and the Gulf Coast region managed to get a piece of the action. Sierra Nevada's first space-bound Dream Chaser spacecraft is being built by Lockheed Martin in New Orleans at Michoud Assembly Facility.

Over at Stennis Space Center, Lockheed Martin also continued to perform work on several satellite systems. The SSC operation does the work on the A2100 satellite systems, which are at the core of several satellite programs.

Also at SSC, one phase of testing for the J-2X ended and a new round got underway. A contractor was also hired for renovation work on the B-2 test stand. But arguably, the most significant event at SSC might have been the decision of SpaceX to test the new generation Raptor engine at SSC. Several other commercial space flight companies are already testing engines at SSC, but SpaceX was the first to have a successful resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Military aviation
The number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., continued to go up during the year since the first one was delivered in July 2011. There were multiple firsts during the year, including the first international student flying the aircraft, the first STOVL mission and the dropping of the first first guided bomb.

But there were also two groundings of the F-35. One was due to a fuel line failure and the other a cracked engine. The weapons checks also continued at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Less than two weeks after the F-22’s 10-year anniversary at Tyndall Air Force Base, the 43rd Fighter Squadron achieved its 25,000th F-22 sortie. Also, the base’s new F-22 Raptor squadron was officially named the 95th Fighter Squadron. Aircraft for the new squadron will start arriving in early 2014. The squadron is an operational unit. Earlier in the year, the arrival of the F-22 operational squadron from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., was delayed from early 2013 to 2014.

Economic development
ST Aerospace, which already has an operation in Mobile, Ala., is apparently interested in establishing another operation in Pensacola, Fla., some 60 miles away. Negotiations are still going on and it's not a done deal quite yet.

Two airports in the region changed leadership during the year. Greg Donovan left Okaloosa Airports to became the head of Pensacola International Airport. Sunil Harman left his post as head of Tallahassee Airport to take over Donovan’s old position in Okaloosa.

There were also some key changes in Mobile. The Mobile Chamber of Commerce said goodbye to long-time leader Win Hallet, who retired. He was replaced by Bill Sisson, who gave up his position at the Mobile Airport Authority to take over the chamber. Roger Wehner became the new head of MAA.

Also during the year, two GE Aviation plants opened in Mississippi and Alabama. The Mississippi plant is in Ellisville, north of Hattiesburg, and the Alabama plant is in Auburn.

Speaking of airports, Pensacola International Airport in the fall welcomed Southwest Airline and its new service to Houston and Nashville. Southwest had actually been at the airport through its earlier acquisition of Airtran.

The Army National Guard is buying 1,522 acres of land to protect Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center in Mississippi from any encroachment. The land is being purchased through the Army Compatible Use Buffer program from Weyerhauser. Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg, is the largest state-owned training centers in the nation at some 137,000 acres.

We've all heard a lot about 3D printing, also called additive printing. Over at Stennis Space Center during the year, a part that was made with 3D printing was tested on an engine at one of the SSC test stands.

This region also is home to one of the most capable robotics research operations in the world, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. As the year drew to a close, a team of two dozen people from IHMC came in second in a two-day robotics competition in Miami. It was beaten by a team from Japan owned by Google. Sixteen teams competed, and IHMC outscored every team from the United States, including Carnegie Mellon, MIT, NASA and other internationally known names.

Although it hasn't happened as of this writing, the Federal Aviation Administration is supposed to announce before the end of the year the six drone test sites that will be established to incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles into the nation’s air space. When it happens it will be at the top of anybody's year in review. Getting a test site is bound to be an economic development jewel for the winning locations.

Whether this region gets a drone test site or not, unmanned system activities are continuing. Okaloosa County, Fla., is considering building a $45 million unmanned systems center in Shalimar, just outside Eglin Air Force Base.

Over at Camp Shelby, Miss., a research project was launched that merges unmanned systems with open source software. Officials think the project could end up attracting companies to this part of Mississippi.

And while this didn't happen in the Gulf Coast region, in the Atlantic Ocean during the year the first catapult launch and arrested landing of an X-47B unmanned aerial system on an aircraft carrier is bound to have implications for this region. The company that built that drone, Northrop Grumman, already builds portions of two other drones, Fire Scout and Global Hawk, in Moss Point, Miss. In addition, the Gulf Coast region is where naval aviators receive training. And those are the folks that will one day be impacted by the advancements of unmanned systems.

Speaking of drones, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., marked the first unmanned flight of its new QF-16 target drone in September. The base received its first QF-16, an unmanned version of the Fighting Falcon, in late 2012. The QF-16 eventually will replace the QF-4s, drone versions of the Vietnam-era Phantom.

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