By Dawn Azok
Made In Alabama

Alabama’s aerospace and defense industry added more than 1,400 jobs and $653 million in investment last year, advancing the state’s robust lineup of operations that develop leading products and innovative technologies for markets around the world.

Highlights of the 2018 announcements include Airbus’ second production line for A220 aircraft at its Mobile plant, a $264 million project that is expected to create more than 430 jobs.

Other major moves are DynCorp International’s plans to execute its $152 million maintenance, repair and overall contract for U.S. Navy helicopters in Andalusia and Lockheed Martin’s latest expansion of its missile assembly operation in Troy.

“The aerospace and defense industry is a cornerstone of Alabama’s economy, and many of the top international players continue to deepen their roots here,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“Since 2011, we’ve seen more than $3 billion in new investment and nearly 11,000 new jobs announced for this industry, bringing prosperity to communities across the state.”

The timing is right for Alabama’s aerospace growth story.

Canfield joined Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday for high-level meetings with aerospace industry decision-makers at the 2019 Paris Air Show, the industry’s most high-profile event this year. The Alabama team is seeking to lay the groundwork for future aerospace investment projects.

Employment in the sector is growing. Aerospace manufacturers added 1,200 jobs in Alabama between April 2018 and April 2019, according to figures from the state Department of Labor. More are on the way, thanks to expansion projects by Aerojet Rocketdyne and others.

‘Soft landing’

While expansions by global aerospace manufacturers drove most of last year’s growth in the state industry, smaller, new-to-the-state firms are also finding homes in the sprawling network of support businesses, according to Commerce Department data.

Among them are Resicum International, an aviation training and maintenance provider that is setting up its headquarters and a new hangar facility in Gulf Shores, a $2.5 million, 18-job project.

Elsewhere in the state, American Plane Painting Co. announced six jobs and a $35,000 investment in Selma.

And in Ozark, home to Fort Rucker and the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, California-based Coast Flight Training and Management Inc. said it would create 40 jobs and invest $880,000 in a new satellite training site for its Rotor Transition Program (RTP).

Ozark was the next logical move for the company, said Dan Verda, Coast Flight’s director of operations for RTP. The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence is the primary training site for Army helicopter pilots.

“There are a number of Army helicopter pilots who transition into the civilian workforce from Fort Rucker every year,” Verda said. “This new satellite site will afford them the opportunity to work on their civilian fixed-wing ratings while they’re still on active duty, drawing a paycheck.

“It keeps from putting our veterans in a tight financial bind and grants them the ability to have a ‘soft landing’ into the civilian workforce as an airline pilot.”

Verda said Ozark was a great fit because of its proximity to Fort Rucker, an airport that exceeds all of the company’s needs and is primed for expansion and strong support from the community and the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corporation.

Fireworks accompany a ceremonial groundbreaking for Airbus’ new A220 assembly line in Mobile. (Alabama Governor’s Office)

Building on growth

The Wiregrass region has become a major aerospace hub for Alabama, populated by key names such as Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, along with a host of suppliers and highly regarded flight training and aviation maintenance programs.Last year, Dale County alone landed six aerospace and defense economic development projects.

The region’s biggest asset is the Alabama Aviation College in Ozark, an FAA-certified Aviation Maintenance Technician School that offers programs such as Airframe Technology, Powerplant Technology and Avionics, said Veronica Crock, president of the Ozark-Dale County EDC.

While the number of FAA-certified schools fluctuates, Crock said recent data shows only about 160 schools of this kind in the U.S., which gives the local industry and community a distinct advantage in workforce training.

Moreover, the college and the college system have been proactive in developing customized training programs that meet industry needs, she said. As a result, programs have been and are being put in place to meet specific industry needs with companies such as Bell FlightM1 Support Services and Sikorsky.

“It goes without saying that aviation is an important industry in Dale County,” Crock said. “We’re fortunate to be home to the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and to have companies such as M1 that employ over 3,500 people in support of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.

“The jobs created by all of our aviation companies, and supporting companies, are high-wage, high-demand jobs. The increased spending power seen by citizens moving into these high-wage jobs results in increased interest in industrial, commercial, residential and community development.”

The goal is to keep building on that growth.

Crock said the county’s leaders are focused on ensuring their existing industry has the tools it needs to succeed and grow while they work to attract additional business.

“We’re capitalizing on and improving upon community assets to encourage an environment that is not only a great place to work, but also to play,” she said.

“We’re continuing to work with our workforce partners to ensure existing industry needs are met and to ensure programs are in place for industry we’re trying to attract. We’re also working closely with our regional partners to better market our area as a whole.”

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