|Alabama's aerospace footprint
Long known for space and missile work in north Alabama, the south part of the state
is a growing commercial aviation hub, and points in between are getting in on the
The large Airbus assembly facility in Mobile, Ala., Hangar 9, still has a new car smell
to it, so to speak. It’s only been around since 2015, with its formal opening in
September. It was less than two years ago, in April 2016, that the first Mobile-built jet,
an A321, was delivered to customer JetBlue.
But by the middle of December 2017, Airbus in Mobile had delivered its 50th
passenger jet, that one to Delta Air Lines. And the $600 million U.S. Manufacturing
Facility at the Mobile Aeroplex has reached its goal of four aircraft a month.
And now plans are in the works to create a second assembly line at the Aeroplex, this
one building Bombardier CSeries jetliners in the wake of an agreement where Airbus
takes a majority share in the project. While it initially was prompted by threatened
tariffs, it seems clear it’s a way for Bombardier to cope with an expected increase in
CSeries orders and gain the Airbus marketing clout.
Mobile and its growing aerospace sector is just one of the hot spots in a state that
has been a player in aviation since the Wright brothers in 1910 established a flying
school in Montgomery. Today Alabama can say its aerospace activities run the
gamut, from designing spacecraft to maintenance, repair and overhaul and more.
“When we measure project activity, the second-fastest growing sector in the state is
aerospace and aviation,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “I think
for the future of aerospace in the state of Alabama, activity is going to continue to
Aerospace and aviation operations can be found across the state. According to
Canfield, about 400 aerospace companies from 30 countries have operations in
Alabama. Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Raytheon and GKN
Aerospace are among them. Canfield said 83,000 Alabamians work in aerospace
“We’re a state that’s built around an aerospace sector that is pretty diverse,” he said.
“We do everything from Raytheon SM-3 and SM-6 missiles to 3D printing of jet fuel
nozzles that go on the new neo engine … from space to general aviation, we’ve got it
The Aerospace Industries Association says that aerospace and defense accounts for
1.7 percent of Alabama’s Gross Domestic Product, higher than aerospace-intensive
Florida. Alabama in 2015 had $8.7 billion in sales revenue and $887 million in A&D
export sales, according to AIA.
Aerospace is one of the largest industrial groups in the state, along with automotive,
with wages among the highest.
Alabama is in the top five states for aerospace engineers, coming in fourth after
California, Texas and Ohio. Alabama has the highest concentration of jobs and
location quotient in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from
May 2016. Huntsville has the highest employment level of aerospace engineers in
Southeast Alabama is ranked second among non-metro areas with the highest
employment of aerospace engineers, and second with the highest concentration and
location quotient, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2016.
Made in Alabama, a service of the Commerce Department, reported that by
November 2017, aerospace companies unveiled plans to invest at least $500 million
and bring more than 2,200 jobs to Alabama in new facilities or expansions of existing
operations. In 2016, project announcements involved $260 million in new investment
and 2,000 additional jobs.
Long the place most think of when it comes to aerospace, north Alabama is home of
NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal, a major
research, engineering, and test center that houses the Army’s missile defense and
Home to Cummings Research Center, the second largest research and technology
park in the United States, Huntsville’s reputation as a high-tech haven is underscored
by the highly popular U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
The transformation of Huntsville from a cotton town into one of the nation’s premier
technology centers began in the 1950s, when the Army transferred its missile
program to Huntsville, followed by the arrival of NASA and its space program.
Companies involved with the Army and NASA came in, thanks in no small measure to
the establishment of the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the development of a
research park that would become Cummings.
The growth has continued. Last year Blue Origin announced it would make its BE-4
engine in a $200 million facility. In addition, Aerojet Rocketdyne said it would expand
its Huntsville operation with a manufacturing plant for its AR1 rocket engine and other
Decatur, west of Huntsville, is known for its United Launch Alliance production facility,
a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing created in 2006. Next door to ULA,
work got underway in the summer of 2017 on a three-structure $21 million Dynetics
facility. The test stand, test control center and integration facility is designed to
support NASA’s Space Launch System program and commercial customers. It’s set to
open this year. RUAG Space of Switzerland leases space in the ULA facility.
“If we look at aerospace from a space perspective and missile defense, with the Blue
Origin announcement in Alabama and with Aerojet Rocketdyne moving its defense
headquarters from California to Huntsville, Ala., I think that Alabama’s looking good,”
It could be argued that Mobile has for years been a sleeping giant in aerospace.
Today it’s fully awake.
Mobile has been interested in aerospace and aviation since the days of World War II-
era Brookley Air Force Base. But the city took a hit when the base was shut down.
Converted to Brookley Industrial Complex, it did manage to attract some aerospace
companies as well as a range of other tenants. But the trajectory of the former base,
today called the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, changed when Europe’s Airbus picked
Mobile as a site to build aerial tankers for the Air Force.
But the Mobile-Airbus story actually began earlier. In April 2004, as part of a strategy
to build its U.S. industrial base, the company decided to establish a customer service
and training facility at Mobile Regional Airport to support Coast Guard’s HC-144
(CN235) aircraft. It became operational in 2005.
That was followed in June 2005 with the announcement that the company chose
Mobile’s Brookley Complex to build tankers should it win the Air Force contract. The
decision to build the engineering center followed. It opened in 2007.
The Air Force contract eventually went to Boeing, but Mobile ended up getting the
A320 series assembly line, arguably a better deal in the long term. Mobile, which
assembles the jetliners from sections shipped from Europe, is the newest location to
build A320 series jetliners. The others are in Hamburg, Germany; Toulouse, France;
and Tianjin, China.
Then came the startling news in October 2017 that Airbus would partner with Canada’
s Bombardier to bring a new production line for Bombardier’s CSeries passenger jets
to Alabama. That deal is moving forward, according to Bombardier CEO Alain
Between the first announcement at Airbus would build a plant in Mobile and the
Bombardier announcement, at least two dozen suppliers have come to Mobile, and
more are expected with a second assembly line.
Safran was the first Airbus supplier to announce it would open an operation in Mobile
in the wake of the Airbus announcement. The planned engineering center didn’t work
out, but Safran opened a manufacturing operation to produce and install aircraft
engine nacelles, the housing for an aircraft engine and its related components. In
addition, Safran company Messier-Bugatti-Dowty has an operation at the Mobile
Across the bay in Baldwin County, UTC Aerospace Systems in August 2017 unveiled
a new 80,000-square-foot manufacturing and nacelle assembly facility at its campus
in Foley. The Foley site assembles nacelles for integration with the Pratt & Whitney
Geared Turbofan engine for a number of aircraft, including the A320neo, CSeries,
Mitsubishi Regional Jet and Embraer E-Jet E2.
UTC in Foley trucks finished A320 engines to the Airbus U.S. manufacturing plant
about an hour away. In early February 2018, UTC announced it delivered the first
two fully integrated propulsion systems for the A320neo to the final assembly line in
In addition to Airbus and its suppliers, the Mobile Aeroplex is also the home of VT
MAE, which has operated a large MRO facility since 1991, and Continental Motors,
which builds piston engines for small aircraft.
Mobile is also home to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Training Center, which trains pilots
to fly Coast Guard-specific aircraft.
“I think that we will continue to see a lot of growth in the commercial aerospace and
aviation sectors. We’re seeing a lot of preliminary interest particularly with the
announcement of the potential for the Airbus Bombardier CSeries to be assembled in
Mobile, Ala., alongside the existing Airbus final assembly line,” said Canfield. “We
think that’s all going to portend a really good future in terms of a supply chain that will
go to support aviation and aerospace in the state.”
Fort Rucker, established during World War II as Camp Rucker, is the primary flight
training base for Army aviation - home to the Army Aviation Center of Excellence and
Army Aviation Museum. The base is bordered by Daleville, Ozark and Enterprise and
is northwest of Dothan.
All Army aviation training has been handled by Fort Rucker since 1973, as well as
the training of Air Force and allied helicopter pilots and air crew. The center of
excellence is home to the U.S. Army Aviation Technical Test Center, which conducts
developmental aircraft testing for the Army.
Fort Rucker is the nucleus for the area’s aerospace activities. The helicopter-related
activities are a magnet for suppliers providing everything from fleet support to flight
Miami-based Commercial Jet has a 400,000-square-foot maintenance, repair and
overhaul (MRO) operation at Dothan Regional Airport that provides passenger-to-
freight conversions. It also operates CJET Academy, an eight-week training course
for jobs at Commercial Jet.
There’s also the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC) campus in Ozark, which has trained
students to become FAA-certified aircraft mechanics for more than five decades. The
AAC offers programs on unmanned aerial systems, advance material composites and
flight simulation technology.
In Enterprise, Alabama Aircraft Support has an MRO facility for helicopters, and
Vector Aerospace, an Airbus company, has an MRO in Andalusia. Further north in
Troy, Lockheed Martin produces the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM)
and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.
The 300,000-square-foot GE Aviation advanced manufacturing plant in Auburn
produces precision, super-alloy machined parts for GE jet engines that will power
future commercial and military aircraft, and also to support the fleet of GE jet engines
now in service.
The plant also uses additive manufacturing to mass produce fuel nozzle injectors.
The company said the nozzle is the first complex jet engine component produced with
3-D printing technology. GE chose Auburn as one of eight universities to participate
in an innovative program focusing on 3-D printing research and education initiatives.
Auburn was selected by GE Aviation in part because of its access to skilled workforce
and proximity to Alabama's university system.
It was big news Dec. 21 when Montgomery learned Alabama National Guard’s 187th
Fighter Wing at Dannelly Field would host a new F-35 mission. It will mean 1,000
jobs over the next few years and have a $24 million annual economic impact.
Montgomery is also home of Maxwell Air Force Base (Maxwell-Gunter), under the Air
Education and Training Command, and occupies the site of the first Wright Flying
School. The base is the headquarters of Air University, and is the center for Joint
Professional Military Education.
The host wing is the 42nd Air Base Wing, and tenant units are the Air Force Reserve’
s 908th Airlift Wing, the only operational flying unit at Maxwell. It operates C-130H
aircraft for theater airlift worldwide.
About 35 miles from Montgomery in Tallassee is the 380,000-square-foot GKN
Aerospace facility, which has been in operation since 1985. It has a new composite
design engineering center at its advanced composite structures facility.
Initially, work at the new Elmore County center will focus on design and development
of advanced composite technologies for rotorcraft.
A highly anticipated contract coming down the pike is the competition between
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Leonardo to build 350 training jets for the U.S. Air
Force to replace the T-38.
As in the former tanker competition, the winning company will determine what area of
the country will benefit from the jobs. In the T-X competition, Alabama wins if
Leonardo is chosen to build the jets.
Italy’s Leonardo, originally partnered with Raytheon, initially planned to build the
planes in Mississippi. That changed when Raytheon pulled out of the partnership.
Leonardo opted to go it alone by teaming up with subsidiary Leonardo DRS. It shifted
the site where it would build the twin-engine jet trainer at Tuskegee’s Moton Field.
The project calls the creation of 750 jobs over a 10-year period beginning in 2019.
Moton Field is where the legendary Tuskegee Airmen trained during World War II.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest, from the military side, if Leonardo is successful in
securing the T-100 competition to provide jet fighter trainers for the Air Force for the
next 20 to 40 years. That’s going to look really promising for the state in that regard,”
The states commercial airports are heavy with aviation jobs. Birmingham, Dothan,
Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery all have primary airports that are the welcoming
for visitors, and provide an important first impression.
General aviation airports also dot the state and can attract aviation businesses.
Some are also locations for aviation education activities.
The state also hosts Army and Navy air fields that are used for touch and go and
other training operations. Four in Baldwin County are used by aviation students for
Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Fla., a primary military aviation base in the