Farnborough Air Show

America’s South Rises Again On Aerospace Wave In Mississippi

 - July 10, 2012, 12:40 AM

The southern U.S. state of Mississippi is continuing to grow as an aerospace center, having recently announced major plant expansions by General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Systems group and Rolls-Royce. It is home to companies that produce helicopters, airborne early warning radar systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), parachutes, electromagnetic launch systems for aircraft carriers and composite jet engine components.

The roster of companies with aerospace operations based in Mississippi includes GE Aviation, Stark Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Eaton Aerospace, Aurora Flight Systems, Alliant Technicsystems (ATK) and American Eurocopter. Most recently, Rolls-Royce built its first engine test facility outside of the UK in Mississippi adjacent to the Stennis Space Center (see box). Among mid-size metropolitan markets, the state’s Gulf Coast region hosts one of the highest concentrations of avionics and aircraft maintenance personnel in the nation.

Beneficial new state tax laws and incentives could expand the sector there even more. Mississippi’s Aerospace Initiative Incentives program, enacted in 2010, gives tax incentives to companies that manufacture or assemble components for the aerospace industry; provide research, development or training services for the sector; and are looking to locate or expand in the state. The incentives include a 10-year exemption from income and franchise taxes, as well as a sales and use tax exemption for the startup of the facility. In order to qualify, companies must invest a minimum of $30 million and create at least 100 full-time jobs.

“The state of Mississippi invented economic development incentives back in the 1930s,” said Skip Scaggs, a senior executive with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA, Hall 2 Stand A10), who cited one long-standing incentive: “If you locate on the property of an airport authority, it exempts you from property tax. It helps the growth of our airports.” He said most aerospace manufacturers in the state are located on airport authority land.

“We continue to fine-tune our economic incentive packages to make sure we are offering what the market demands,” said Scaggs. This goes beyond the traditional tax credits the state provides, he added. “We do a lot of work on public infrastructure, providing pad-ready sites, so the companies need to focus only on building design and the equipment they need. We also focus a lot of incentives on workforce skill sets so the workforce is able to perform productively on day one.”

The efforts already have paid off handsomely for the state. American Eurocopter assembles the U.S. Army UH-72A Lakota and the AS350-B2 and -B3 in Columbus, where 355 are employed at the company’s 325,000-sq-ft plant. The facility includes an assembly hall, flight line, paint shop, warehouse, administrative offices, flight operations and flight test engineering. American Eurocopter is adding to the area’s skilled workforce. Working with East Mississippi Community College, it is establishing training courses in electrical systems/avionics, sheet metal and mechanics.

Commenting on Rolls-Royce’s recently announced plans to construct a $50 million outdoor jet-engine test stand adjacent to the Stennis Space Center, Scaggs said, “They liked the buffer zone around that location and our ability to work through the regulatory process in terms of environmental permitting. We could do that rather quickly and that was a key factor for them.”

Indicating that continued participation in international airshows, including Farnborough and Paris, is essential to Mississippi’s aerospace marketing efforts, Scaggs told AIN, “We see Farnborough and Paris as more marketing events as opposed to sales events. We will put the time, effort and resources into marketing the state at trade shows, knowing full well that we may not get sales out of it [at the show]. However, at the same time we are exposing our state and getting face time with all the key executives in one place.”

Scaggs explained that discussions at last year’s Paris Air Show led to GE Aviation’s decision to construct a composite components facility in Mississippi. He also said that ATK will make composite stringers and frames for the Airbus A350 in Iuka. The ATK/Airbus deal is worth $1 billion and will result in a direct investment in Mississippi of $175 million and hundreds of new jobs.

University Involvement

Mississippi has a long history promoting aerospace and composites. The University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Polymers/Mississippi Polymer Institute focuses on the development of high-performance composites and integrating them into production aircraft, Scaggs said. The first aircraft application of these materials is sometimes done at the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University in Starkville. Founded in 1948, Raspet is the largest university flight lab in the U.S. and features a complete aircraft manufacturing facility and more than 90,000 sq ft under roof. The facility includes a precision machine shop, a 10- by 55-foot autoclave, atmospherically controlled lay-up room and cutting rooms, as well as aircraft assembly and structural test rooms.

Innovative aircraft developed by Raspet include the Honda MH02 research jet, forerunner to the current HondaJet. The all-composite MH02 featured an above-wing engine mount and a forward-swept wing. It first flew in 1993.

Current projects under way at Raspet include development of a high-speed Vtol aircraft with DuPont Aerospace for the Office of Naval Research (ONR); development of composite helicopter hangar doors; evaluating the structural integrity of composite structures at high temperatures; and, with Bosch Aerospace, developing a cycloidal propeller system (which generates thrust in any direction in the plane of propeller rotation) for lighter-than-air and Vtol aircraft. Other projects include the development of a long-duration UAV for the Army, fabrication of a composite hydrogen fuel tank, testing ethanol in piston aircraft engines and damper-free rotor designs for helicopters.

“We tend to have very good and close relations with [aerospace] manufacturing [companies] and our universities,” said Scaggs. “[The MDA] can make those connections a little faster and a little better. Our research capacities within our universities are an unknown jewel.”

Scaggs said Mississippi is well-positioned to take advantage of what could be a coming boom in the UAV market. “We’re looking to establish a greater presence in that market.” He noted that the area around Pascagula “is one of only two areas within the national airspace system where the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration currently authorizes UAV flights” and that UAV players Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aurora Flight Systems, Stark Aerospace and General Atomics already have facilities in the area. General Atomics makes the famous Predator UAV; its Mississippi facility is not concerned with UAV operations at this time, but rather with building launch systems for aircraft carriers, Scaggs said.

He estimated that 65 to 70 percent of Mississippi’s aerospace production is military-related and said the state is trying to attract more commercial aerospace firms. “Mississippi is a player in the aerospace industry and we want to grow that,” he said.