Rich in history, Alabama aerospace industry climbing to new heights

The Alabama aerospace industry first took flight with the Wright Brothers and later flew to the moon with NASA’s Saturn V rocket. It has has now added passenger jet assembly and next-generation manufacturing technologies to a wide array of capabilities.

With industry officials gathered in London this week for the Farnborough International Airshow, it’s time to take a deeper look at aerospace in Alabama, which is home to more than 300 companies and significant government installations dedicated to flight.

Employee Juan Casar participates in a delivery ceremony for the first Airbus aircraft built in Mobile on April 25. (Mike Kittrell/Alabama NewsCenter)

Employee Juan Casar participates in a delivery ceremony for the first Airbus aircraft built in Mobile on April 25. (Mike Kittrell/Alabama NewsCenter)

With Airbus’ $600 million A320 Family assembly line turning out aircraft in Mobile and other companies launching projects in the state, optimism is high among state leaders that the sector is charting an upward trajectory.

“We are working hard to attract elements of the Airbus supply chain to Alabama while also increasing aerospace research and engineering activities that take place here,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“Our goal is to create more high-paying aerospace jobs and to spur more product development in the state.”

With that in mind, here are five things you need to know about Alabama’s aerospace industry as it enters a new era of growth.

No. 1: Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers opened the nation’s first commercial flight school in a Montgomery cotton field in 1910, seven years after their groundbreaking flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The first class numbered only five students, but the school drew the attention of thousands of tourists.

According to accounts, Montgomery officials worked hard to persuade the aviation pioneers to locate their school in Alabama, helping to line up a suitable site and build a hangar. At the time, city leaders saw the development as a bold step into the future.

Though the school lasted only a short time, the cotton field later became home to Maxwell Air Force Base, site of Air University, the intellectual and leadership center for the Air Force.

No. 2: Home to rivals

The fierce competition between Airbus and Boeing for aircraft orders was on full display at the Farnborough Airshow, but these two industry giants have found common ground in Alabama, where both have substantial operations.

The Boeing Co. employs more than 2,600 people in Huntsville and has added more than 200 at a technical research center it opened there last year. The company has been in Huntsville for more than 50 years, assisting NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the nation’s space program.

Boeing’s Alabama workforce continues to support NASA programs, as well as key missile defense programs. In June, it announced an expansion of its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) Missile program, creating 70 jobs.

Before Airbus began constructing its A320 Family assembly line at Mobile Aeroplex in 2013, the company operated an engineering center there with more than 220 employees. In addition, Airbus’ North American military aircraft unit operates a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at Mobile Regional Airport.

Today, Airbus’ only U.S. aircraft manufacturing facility employs around 300 people, with the operation eventually to support 1,000 jobs.

No. 3: Aerospace constellation

Airbus and Boeing have plenty of company in the Alabama aerospace sector. In fact, just about every big-name aerospace company has a presence in the state.

A cutaway shows the inside of a jet engine made by GE Aviation, one of the more than 300 aerospace companies with operations in Alabama. (GE Aviation)

A cutaway shows the inside of a jet engine made by GE Aviation, one of the more than 300 aerospace companies with operations in Alabama. (GE Aviation)

GE Aviation, a leading jet engine developer, is building two plants in Huntsville to mass produce unique silicon carbide materials needed to fabricate ceramic matrix composite components, or CMCs. The company plans to produce ultra-lightweight engine parts with CMCs.

In addition, GE Aviation is producing fuel nozzles using additive manufacturing technology at a plant in Auburn, the first time a jet propulsion component has been mass produced using 3-D printing.

Last year, Lockheed Martin began expanding its missile factory in Pike County as part of a $55 million project that will add 240 jobs. The plant produces the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Missile (THAAD).

Other major players with a presence in the state include Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance, GKN Aerospace and UTC Aerospace Systems.

Huntsville’s SES delivered the first HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to the Air Force last month. (Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle/U.S. Air Force)

Huntsville’s SES delivered the first HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to the Air Force last month. (Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle/U.S. Air Force)

No. 4: Helicopter hotbed

Alabama has a robust rotorcraft presence.

Fort Rucker, near Ozark, has been the training center for U.S. Army helicopter pilots since 1955. In addition, the U.S. Army’s helicopter command is at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

The state is also home to helicopter MRO operations, including Arista Aviation in Enterprise and Vector in Andalusia. Last month, a company called Yulista said it will set an operation at a 60,000-square-foot hangar at the Huntsville Executive Airport.

At the last Farnborough Airshow, Science and Engineering Services (SES) announced a $70 million, 450-job expansion at its Huntsville manufacturing operation. In late June, SES delivered the first of 21 repurposed HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to the U.S. Air Force.

No. 5: Rocking rocket science

It’s no secret Alabama has been home to some of the world’s smartest rocket scientists for more than five decades, and their work continues to be out of this world.

A 3-D printed rocket engine component generates a record 20,000 pounds of thrust during a hot-fire test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. (NASA)

A 3-D printed rocket engine component generates a record 20,000 pounds of thrust during a hot-fire test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. (NASA)

Since 2011, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville have been designing the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (SLS), the space agency’s next-generation rocket that will eventually take humans to Mars.

In addition to developing SLS, Marshall also manages the majority of science experiments aboard the International Space Station. The facility also designed, developed and continues to help manage images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Marshall has also become a center for NASA’s 3-D printing technology development.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.