|2019 in review
During 2019, the region learned that it would be getting a new space rocket
manufacturer, work got underway to build a second passenger jet assembly line, and
the expansion of a maintenance, repair and overhaul campus moved a step closer.
But sadly, there was also what’s being investigated as a terrorist attack at one of the
region’s bases, and three sailors died. The gunman, too, was dead.
Here’s the year in review.
The announcement in June was stunning. California-based Relativity said it would
build 3D rockets at Stennis Space Center (SSC), Miss., creating 200 jobs and
investing $39 million.
Relativity will build and integrate a robotic 3D printing rocket factory and an
expanded testing facility to produce Relativity's Terran 1 rocket launch vehicles. The
agreement includes exclusive use of 220,000 square feet within building 9101 at SSC
for a nine-year lease, and an option to extend the lease an additional 10 years.
Relativity will be building out first stage assembly, engine integration and testing, and
a full 3D printing and robotics-enabled production line at the site. The technologies
developed through Relativity’s SSC factory will lead to fulfilling the company’s vision
of 3D printing the first rocket made on Mars.
Relativity also has a contract with the Air Force to build and operate a launch facility
at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The five-year “multi-user” agreement
means Relativity can begin operating out of Launch Complex 16 (LC-16). There is no
lease payment to the Air Force and there’s an option to extend the agreement for an
exclusive 20-year term.
Relativity also has a 20-year lease agreement with SSC to test its rocket engines.
The contract gives Relativity access to four testing chambers.
Lockheed Martin announced in December that it’s expanding its operations at
NASA's SSC in a $20.9 million investment that will create 30 jobs.
Lockheed Martin's primary activity at SSC is to design and build satellites and
spacecraft for government and commercial customers. For the expansion, Lockheed
Martin is centralizing select thermal production capabilities to its SSC location and will
begin manufacturing products that are key components of all spacecraft currently
manufactured by the company.
NASA in April wrapped up more than four years of testing the RS-25 engines with
another successful hot fire test. Those engines left over from the Space Shuttle
program will power the first four Space Launch System (SLS) rockets into space.
The RS-25 rocket engine test era began Jan. 9, 2015, with a 500-second hot fire of
RS-25 developmental engine No. 0525 on the A-1 stand. The first flight engine was
tested March 10, 2016. Altogether, NASA has conducted 32 developmental and
flight engine tests for a total of 14,754 seconds of RS-25 tests on the A-1 stand.
Work continued throughout the year at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on
the SLS launch vehicle. In August, NASA and Boeing formally signed off on the first
assembly of the most complicated element of the rocket. Boeing continues to aim to
complete the full stage in December and barge it to the SSC for a full, integrated
checkout and acceptance firing.
The so-called “Green Run” at SSC was nearly killed. NASA has had the test of the
SLS core stage at SSC on the books since the program’s genesis in 2011. For more
than half a decade, workers at SSC have modified and outfitted the B-2 test stand,
previously used for Saturn V, space shuttle and Delta IV rocket testing, to
accommodate the 212-foot-tall, 27.6-foot-wide SLS core stage.
NASA considered canceling the full-duration test-firing, but said in July that it will go
forward with the eight-minute test. The first SLS test flight, carrying an unpiloted
Orion crew capsule to lunar orbit, is set for blastoff in 2021 from pad 39B at NASA’s
Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission is designated Artemis 1.
All four RS-25 engines were mated to the core stage of SLS rocket for Artemis I at
Michoud Assembly Facility in early November.
Mississippi in July launched a new economic development effort, the Space Initiative,
to lure companies connected to space exploration. The state is home to Stennis
Space Center, where NASA and some commercial space companies test rocket
Earlier this year, the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission decided to go
ahead with plans to seek a spaceport license for Stennis International Airport (HSA).
If the Federal Aviation Administration approves, it would enable horizontally launched
reusable launch vehicles to operate out of HSA.
Several kinds of such launch vehicles are currently under development. The license
application will establish regions over the Gulf of Mexico where the launches could be
conducted safely and ensure the airport has the required infrastructure.
A Saudi officer training at Naval Air Station Pensacola went on a shooting spree and
killed three sailors in December before he was killed by deputies.
The FBI, which said the Glock 9mm was purchased legally in the U.S., presumes the
shooting was terrorism. The Navy grounded all Saudi aviation students training at
three Florida bases.
The suspension of flight training will affect about 300 Saudi students at NAS
Pensacola, NAS Whiting Field near Milton and NAS Mayport in Jacksonville. There
are 850 Saudi students in the U.S. for military training.
Leonardo Helicopter said in September that it will build a 100,000 square-foot
customer support center adjacent to Naval Air Station (NAS) Whiting Field in
Northwest Florida if it’s chosen to supply the Navy’s Advanced Helicopter Training
The Navy is modernizing its rotary-wing and tilt-rotor pilot training program at
Training Air Wing Five at NAS Whiting Field, near Milton, Fla., and its helicopter
training Navy Outlying Landing Fields in Florida.
The Advanced Helicopter Training System will replace the TH-57 Sea Ranger training
helicopters and simulators, and the training tempo will also increase. There will also
be changes in operational tactics based on a new curriculum, construction of
temporary and permanent supporting facilities, and an increase in personnel.
Leonardo, one of three companies competing to build the trainer, is offering TH-119
single-engine helicopter to replace the Navy’s TH-57. Its planned support center will
create up to 50 jobs to maintain the trainers. The center would be built at the 267-
acre Whiting Aviation Park, adjacent to NAS Whiting Field. The other competitors are
Airbus Helicopters and Bell. The Navy was expected to make its selection for the 130
helicopters by the end of 2019.
Also in September, the Navy said that replacing the TH-57 with a more advanced
helicopter will have no significant impact on the quality of the human environment. A
finding of no significant impact means preparation of an environmental impact
statement is not required.
Earlier this year, NAS Whiting Field began receiving 10 new TH-57 helicopter
simulators, the first new ones at the base in 40 years. The simulators were provided
by Flight Safety Systems International of Denver, Frasca International of Urbana, Ill.,
and Aechelon Technology of San Francisco.
In late November, the 35,000th helicopter aviator was winged at Naval Air Station
Whiting Field. Training Air Wing 5 conducts primary flight training and advanced
rotary training at NAS Whiting Field. The wing flew 129,937 hours in fiscal year 2019,
which accounts for 46 percent of all of Chief of Naval Air Training hours and 15
percent of all United States Navy flight hours. It is responsible for training all Navy,
Marine Corps, and Coast Guard helicopter pilots and winged 457 rotary wing aviators
in fiscal year 2019.
In January, the Navy's newest outlying landing field, Site X, was officially opened near
Jay, Fla. The Navy and two counties, Escambia and Santa Rosa, worked out a deal
where Escambia took over an outlying field, Site 8, in that county in exchange for a
new field in Santa Rosa. Both are some 600 acres. Escambia County wants to
develop the field it took over. The National Defense Authorization Act in 2015
authorized the land exchange, the first of its kind for the Navy.
The Blue Angels this year retired the C-130 that had been “Fat Albert,” and replaced
it with a C-130 from the British Royal Air Force. The purchase of the C-130J Super
Hercules means a $50 million savings over the cost of a new aircraft. The former Fat
Albert had reached the end of its flying life after 17 years with the team, accumulating
more than 30,000 flight hours.
The 4th Special Operations Squadron, part of the 1st Special Operations Wing at
Hurlburt Field, Fla., in March received an upgraded version of the Ghostrider
gunship, the Block 30 model AC-130J.
The 4th SOS, the Air Forces most deployed squadron, currently uses the AC-130U
Spooky, which is slowly being retired from active duty after more than 20 years of
operation. The new model will have the same role as the current one, air interdiction,
armed reconnaissance and close air support, but with upgraded avionics, navigation
systems and a Precision Strike Package that includes trainable 30mm and 105mm
weapons. It also costs less to operate per flying hour because of upgraded turboprop
Near Panama City, Tyndall Air Force Base has been continuing its rebuild following
the damage caused in Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018. The base has
undertaking most of its missions again. At an industry day event in September,
Col. Brian Laidlow, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, said airmen have
implemented temporary fixes to bring missions back online. Permanent construction
is expected to go into fiscal year 2024. Tyndall will get up to three squadrons of F-
35s starting in 2023 and remains the “preferred alternative” as the future home of 24
MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft, Laidlaw said.
In May, the Air Force said Eglin Air Force Base was the preferred alternative to
receive an additional F-35A Lighting II training squadron. Eglin AFB was the location
of the F-35 initial joint training site hosting Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps F-35s.
The Marine Corps relocated its F-35Bs in 2014 and the Navy, after seven years at
Eglin, deactivated its squadron in May at Eglin and relocated it in California.
Additional F-35As are expected to begin arriving in the fall of 2021. The new
squadron is expected to reach full operational capability by spring 2023. Eglin will
only receive the additional F-35 training unit if the F-22 Raptor formal training unit
temporarily operating at Eglin is permanently moved to Joint Base Langley-Eustis,
Va. In March, the Air Force acknowledged plans to move the F-22 training unit to JB
Langley-Eustis, pending the outcome of the National Environmental Policy Act and
other regulatory and planning processes.
In January, the year started off with a ceremonial groundbreaking for the $300
million A220 final assembly line at the Mobile Aeroplex, right next to the Airbus A320
The same month, JetBlue, which received the first A321 assembled in Mobile,
confirmed an ordered for 60 A220-300 aircraft to be produced in Mobile. In addition,
a low-cost carrier code-named Moxy Airlines, confirmed an ordered for 60
In March, Airbus selected several design-build teams for construction of the A220
assembly line, and the first employees of the new assembly line reported to work to
begin new hire orientation training while the line itself was in the early phase of
construction. They later went to Mirabel for on-the-job training with workers at the
primary A220 assembly line for three more months.
The first large aircraft components for the first A220, the aft fuselage and cockpit.
were delivered by truck to the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility in June. Wings,
vertical and horizontal tail planes, tail cones and landing gear arrived in later weeks.
Airbus in August officially started manufacturing the A220 in Mobile, using A220
stations set up in the A320 assembly line building, and newly-built support hangars.
The first U.S.-made A220, an A220-300 destined for Delta Air Lines, is scheduled for
delivery in the third quarter of 2020.
Airbus in May delivered its 12,000th aircraft in its 50-year history, an A220-100
assembled in Mirabel, Canada, to Delta Air Lines. Two months later, in July, Airbus
delivered to Delta Air Lines its 50th A320 series aircraft produced in the Airbus U.S.
production facility in Mobile.
The A321 was the first of a total of 20 aircraft being delivered with a blend of
sustainable jet fuel over the next year. Airbus offers this option to its customers in
order to promote a more regular use of sustainable aviation fuels within the industry.
In the longer term, Airbus also envisions supporting industrial production of
sustainable fuels for aviation in the southeastern U.S.
Airbus Canada Limited Partnership marked its first anniversary on July 1, one year
after Airbus became the majority partner in the A220 aircraft program. Highlights of
this first anniversary include orders and commitments signed for more than 230 A220
aircraft, the ground-breaking for a new A220 manufacturing facility in Mobile, Ala.,
and expansion at the Mirabel manufacturing facility in Canada.
Airbus Canada has delivered more aircraft in its first year than the total delivered up
to July 1, 2018, when it took the lead of the program. In total, the A220 ends the first
year of Airbus leading the program with a firm order book of over 500 aircraft, plus
80 additional commitments announced at this year’s Paris Air Show.
In September there was concern that a World Trade Organization ruling could
impact the Airbus operation in Mobile, Ala., but it wound up that major sections
shipped from Europe would not be subjected to tariffs - at least not for the time being.
The WTO ruled the United States could impose billions in punitive tariffs on EU
products in retaliation for illegal subsidies granted to Europe's Airbus. Sections
shipped to Mobile appeared on the initial list, but did not appear on Washington’s list
after the ruling.
The ruling is the culmination of a decades-long dispute on whether EU countries
have illegally supported Airbus by granting subsidized loans known as “launch aid”
for the development of the A350 and A380 models. A parallel complaint by the EU,
alleging illegal U.S. subsidies for Boeing, is also being examined by the WTO and a
ruling is expected in the spring or summer of 2020.
Facing a need for a lot more workers in the coming years, Airbus in May announced
the launch of two new programs designed to employ applicants with little-to-no
previous aerospace experience. FlightPath9 and Fast Track are intended to
train candidates to become workers on the A320 and A220 jetliner assembly lines in
FlightPath9 is a nine-month program for high school seniors, run by Flight Works
Alabama, which has partnered with Airbus, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University,
Cintas, Snap-On Tools, Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and
Employment, and the National Coalition of Certification Centers. Students attend
training after school during their senior year. Upon graduation, students who
complete the program can start their career with Airbus through the second program,
Fast Track, a 12 to 15-week program for people with no aviation experience. It
provides them with the skills needed for a career in aerospace maintenance.
In Pensacola in March, ST Engineering announced the ST Engineering Scholarship
Program. Starting in 2020, four scholarships will be awarded annually to Escambia
County high school students. Each recipient will receive $2,500. Students can use
the scholarships towards any accredited college or tech aviation school.
Pearl River Community College broke ground in December on the Phil Bryant
Aviation and Aerospace Workforce Academy across from Stennis International
The academy will be an estimated 25,000 square feet that will consist of
classrooms, labs, reception area, faculty and staff offices, and more. Part of the
complex will be a hangar of 18,000 square feet. The facility is expected to be
complete in 2021. Students will be able to study welding, precision manufacturing,
instrumentation, industrial electronics, and more.
The ambitious $210 million project to expand the ST Engineering maintenance,
repair and overhaul campus at Pensacola International Airport (PNS) from one to
four hangars landed some major funding during the year.
In July, one of those additional hangars got a boost when the U.S. Department of
Commerce Economic Development Administration said it would invest $12.25 million
to help establish a new aircraft maintenance training facility at PNS. The money will
be matched by more than $36 million in local and state funds.
The new 175,000-square-foot hangar will be used for commercial and technological
aviation and will create 400 jobs. ST Engineering says the new facility will have state
of the art technology including robotic delivery systems.
The new hangar will be similar to the first, $46 million hangar that opened in June
2018, but a significant difference will be the attachment of a 65,000 square-foot
support services center.
The previous month Gov. Ron DeSantis in June vetoed $131 million of proposed
spending from this year's budget, including $1.5 million for the expansion of the ST
Engineering MRO campus, which will create 1,325 jobs.
The governor’s decision was a minor setback. In February the project got another
$20 million when the Florida Department of Transportation upped its commitment to a
total of $45 million. FDOT's work program and budget will still need to be reviewed by
the Florida Legislature, but if approved, Pensacola will receive the funding in 2021.
Triumph Gulf Coast, which oversees the distribution of recovery money provided as
compensation for the 2010 BP oil spill, agreed earlier in the month to provide another
$10 million for the project on top of the $56 million previously granted. It increased
from three to seven years the time commitment for keeping the jobs in Pensacola.
Earlier, the Pensacola City Council and Escambia County Commission each
approved committing an additional $5 million a piece to the project, bringing the local
governments' contribution to $15 million each.
PNS also got a new tenant in May. Blue Air Training, which provides training for
military close air support personnel, opened a facility at the airport. In 2011, Blue Air
Training received permission to begin training Air Force attack controllers and fighter
pilots. The company has operations in Las Vegas, Yuma, Oklahoma City and now
Pensacola. Its fleet includes A-90 Raiders, BAC-167 Strikemasters, IAR-823 Brasovs
and AH-6 Little Birds.
A new Mobile Downtown Airport terminal opened in May at the Mobile Aeroplex,
three miles from downtown Mobile. The new $6 million, 22,000-square-foot terminal in
a portion of the building used by Airbus.
Commercial flights are primarily at Mobile Regional Airport, in west Mobile, but the
Mobile Airport Authority (MAA) is in the process of shifting the flights to the downtown
location. The regional airport is currently served by United, Delta, and American
A feasibility study commissioned by MAA found the benefits of moving passenger
service from the regional airport to downtown outweighed drawbacks. In addition to
being closer to downtown, it has easy interstate access and is closer to Baldwin
County, making it more competitive with airports in Pensacola and Biloxi.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines opted to establish flights at the downtown airport,
and initially provided non-stop flights to Denver and Chicago’s O’Hare. But the
Chicago flights were put on hiatus in mid-November during the slower winter season.
In August, Northrop Grumman said it planned to more than double production
capacity for the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicles to 12
aircraft per year in anticipation of growing demand for the intelligence, surveillance
and reconnaissance platform. The company previously produced between three to
five RQ-4 Global Hawk or MQ-4C Triton aircraft per year. Typically it takes 162 to
174 days to build the UAV: 150 days to build the fuselage in Moss Point, Miss. and
12 to 24 days for final assembly in Palmdale, Calif.
In late June, the Navy declared initial operational capability for the Northrop
Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. It cleared the way for the
unmanned air vehicle to begin fleet operations and training. The MQ-8C is to deploy
aboard the Navy's littoral combat ships in FY2021.
The airframe is the commercial Bell 407, with seats and other manned avionics
equipment stripped out and replaced with remote controls and extra fuel tanks. Over
the next few years, Northrop Grumman plans to deliver 38 MQ-8Cs to the Navy.
Final assembly and flight testing of the MQ-8C is done in Moss Point, Miss.
Airbus Helicopters delivered on Aug. 19 the 200th UH-72A Lakota for training with
the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Airbus Helicopters has built more than 550 aircraft for the U.S. government since
2006. The UH-72A Lakota is operated by Navy, Army and other military units
Bell Helicopters, which operated an assembly facility at Lafayette Regional Airport,
agreed in June to pay Louisiana $9.5 million over its failure to meet job-creation
Swiss helicopter company Kopter Group AG took over the facility and held a ribbon-
cutting in March. It will assemble SHO9 helicopters, creating 120 direct jobs.
Assembly and deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2021.
In another Bell-related story, the company said that if it’s selected to build the Navy’
s Advanced Helicopter Trainer, it will assemble its 407GXi in Ozark, Ala., where it
does assembly work for the Fire Scout drone. Ozark is near Army aviation’s Fort
The Navy wants 130 aircraft for the program to replace the TH-57. Bell is
competing against Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters.
United Technologies and Raytheon said in June they would create a “merger of
equals” in one of the biggest corporate mergers of 2019.
UTC owns engine-maker Pratt & Whitney and Collins Aerospace. Raytheon produces
missile defense systems and cybersecurity solutions. Both supply Airbus and Boeing.
The combined company will be Raytheon Technologies Corp., based in Boston, and
will be second in size to Boeing in the U.S. and tied for third in the world with Airbus.
The deal needs regulatory approval, but UTC and Raytheon have almost no
overlap. Collins Aerospace does jet engine podding work in Foley, Ala.
ST Engineering in April was given approval by U.S. regulators to acquire GE Aviation’
s nacelle unit.
ST Engineering U.S. subsidiary Vision Technologies Aerospace will acquire all the
shares of Baltimore, Md.-based Middle River Aircraft Systems, sole supplier of certain
nacelle equipment for GE engines powering the Airbus A330, Boeing 747-8,
767, Comac ARJ21 and Embraer 190.
It specializes in the development, production and aftermarket support of nacelles,
thrust reversers and aerostructures. ST Engineering has maintenance, repair and
overhaul operations in Mobile and Pensacola.
- David Tortorano