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Southeast Alabama Aviation Industry Soars With Ready Workforce

Building on the heritage of Army aviation at Fort Rucker, Southeast Alabama's aerospace industry is growing to serve companies throughout the region.

By Gary Wollenhaupt on October 14, 2014

With Fort Rucker as the centerpiece, Southeast Alabama’s aviation industry is soaring as it expands into new markets.

Fort Rucker in Dale County is the primary flight training base for Army Aviation and is home to the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. The Army trains helicopter and fixed-wing pilots there, and the center’s presence spurs business for local suppliers. It also provides well-trained workers to civilian employers. Its top-notch flight training draws Army pilots and others from all over the world.

High-Flying Future

The region is poised to play a role in the next generation of flight: unmanned aerial vehicles. Bell Helicopter Ozark is home to a program to convert civilian helicopters into high-tech rotary wing drones for the Navy.

“It’s one of the first aircraft of its type, the vertical takeoff and landing UAV,” says Barry Ford, general manager.

The Ozark facility also offers commercial aircraft customization and performs upgrades on venerable Huey helicopters. The skilled workforce, supplied by the military, as well as local aviation schools, helps the operation win new projects.

To prepare employees for building and maintaining unmanned aerial platforms and flight simulators, Bell and other companies, such as Computer Sciences Corp., are working with the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC) in Ozark. AAC, a Type 147 FAA-certificated aviation maintenance technician school that is part of Enterprise State Community College, is developing UAV- and simulator-specific curricula in addition to its traditional aviation maintenance technician and avionics programs.

“Being co-located on the same airfield as the Alabama Aviation College is a huge benefit for us,” Ford says “We have qualified mechanics graduating from that school every year.”

Simulator upkeep is a booming segment of the industry, because CSC maintains the helicopter simulators at the Army Aviation Center at nearly 100 percent availability for 1,500 students per year.

In addition to aerospace, aviation program graduates are in demand in other industries, such as rail, industrial robotics and theme parks, Harbert says.

Aspiring commercial airline pilots and flight training instructors can earn their wings through Trojan Aviation, a joint venture between the university and Mauna Loa Helicopters that offers a two-year associates degree and a minor in aviation operations.

The program provides concentrations in helicopter flight training, airplane flight training and unmanned aerial systems. Completing one of the training programs will enable students to earn a private pilot certificate as well as private and commercial licensure.

Alabama Aviation Center students can also take part in the program through Troy University’s chemistry and physics department. High school students in Troy and Pike County can also participate through an dual-enrollment aviation academy that will enable them to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree and a pilot’s license.

MRO On the Move

Maintenance, repair and overhaul of commercial aircraft is big business in the region, too. MRO provider Commercial Jet opened a $12 million facility at the Dothan Regional Airport that will employ up to 500 people. The company will perform conversion work and maintenance on a variety of air cargo jets.

“We were already getting a flow of new orders for our new facility before it opened,” says John Schildroth, vice president and general manager.

Also at the Andalusia airport, DRS Technologies opened a facility in 2012 for maintenance, modification, repair and overhaul services for fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, primarily C-130 transport aircraft and other large planes.

Sikorsky Helicopter’s Troy location produces helicopter components and upgrades for the military and other government clients, such as the State Department.

“Our workforce here in Troy is highly skilled and understands the importance of the work we do in support of our nation and military allies,” says Josh Cleveland, facility general manager.

Learn more about educational opportunities in Southeast Alabama.

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