|Mississippi's aerospace footprint
The state with the nation’s largest rocket engine test facility is also where unmanned
aerial vehicles, radar systems and helicopters are built, and military pilots trained...
Just north of Interstate 10 in Moss Point, Miss., is a manufacturing center that has
seen its share of expansion.
When first announced in 2004, it was to be the final assembly point for the Northrop
Grumman Fire Scout unmanned helicopters. Then, before construction began, it was
doubled in size to also handle fuselage work for the Global Hawk unmanned
But that wasn’t all.
In May 2017 it was it announced that the 101,000-square-foot plant would handle
more, including sub-assembly work for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the first manned
aircraft to be assembled in part in Moss Point. And there’s still room to grow.
Northrop has an option to expand its footprint should it find the need.
The plant at Jackson County Aviation Technology Park, adjacent to Trent Lott
International Airport, currently has about 60 workers and will add another 60 with the
additional work. But it’s just one of the activities in a state that has become a hotspot
for unmanned activities.
North of Moss Point just south of Hattiesburg, Camp Shelby is home of regional flight
center for the Army National Guard’s unmanned systems. And even further north in
Starkville, Mississippi State University was chosen by the Department of Homeland
Security as a center for drone research.
As large as the footprint is in unmanned activities, it’s just one of the aerospace
segments in the state. It’s also involved in space activities in north and South
Mississippi, and is a major player in training military pilots. It also has a footprint in
commercial aviation through testing jet engines in South Mississippi, producing jet
engine parts and coatings at two facilities and making fuel and motion control
systems. On top of all that, it’s where Airbus builds helicopters for the military.
The best-known aerospace operation in the state of Mississippi is John C. Stennis
Space Center (SSC), established in the early days of the nation’s space program. It
is the largest rocket engine test complex in the nation, and has more than 40 federal,
state, academic and private organizations and numerous technology-based
The 13,500-acre test area, called a fee area, is surrounded by a 125,000-acre
acoustical buffer zone that allows for rocket engine testing at any time without
disturbing surrounding residents.
In addition to testing engines for NASA projects, commercial companies also use the
facilities. In 2014, California’s SpaceX opened its rocket engine component testing
program at SSC. The company does initial testing of its Raptor methane rocket
engines at the E-2 test stand. SpaceX upgraded the stand with methane capability,
making it one of the most sophisticated high-pressure testing facilities in the world.
In addition, in November 2017 California-based Stratolaunch opted to use SSC to
test engines on the E1 stand. SSC is also working with start-up Relativity Space.
In northeast Mississippi’s Iuka, Orbital ATK Inc. builds composite rocket structures.
Established in 1998, the Large Structure Center of Excellence manufacturing plant
has produced Atlas V, Delta II and Delta IV large composite structures for United
Launch Alliance space vehicles. The 320,000-square-foot plant houses one of the
largest autoclaves in the world, 20 feet in diameter and 83 feet in length.
The ULA Delta IV composite structures made by Orbital ATK include nose cones and
aero skirts, fairings, payload attach fittings and diaphragms, interstages, centerbodys
and thermal shields. Structures manufactured for ULA Atlas V include heat shields,
interstages and boat tails.
In October, it was announced that Orbital ATK would expand its complex in Iuka,
investing $10.48 million and creating 50 jobs to the more than 100 already there.
The company will begin production of large composite aerospace structures for its
Antares, Pegusus and Minotaur launch vehicles and a large aerospace and defense
program at the facility.
“This expansion signifies the commitment Orbital ATK has to the employees,
community and state of Mississippi to continue bringing high quality manufacturing
work into the area,” said John Kain, Orbital ATK Aerospace Structures Division’s
Director of Operations, Iuka.
Mississippi plays an essential role in training the nation’s military pilots. East central
Mississippi is home of Naval Air Station Meridian, one of the Navy’s two jet strike pilot
training facilities in the nation.
The air station is the home of Training Wing One and training squadrons VT-7 and
VT-9, which operate the T-45 Goshawk and T2-C Buckeye, respectively. The air
station, which also supports aviation and technical training, is some 8,000 acres and
has an additional 4,000 acres at Outlying Field Joe Williams and a target facility.
Mississippi is also home to Columbus Air Force Base, which has trained pilots since
World War II. About half of Air Force pilots today went through training at Columbus.
In addition to providing training for new military pilots, Mississippi is also home to one
of the nation’s four Air National Guard Combat Readiness Training Centers.
The Mississippi Air National Guard’s Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC) is at
Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Scores of pilots from across the nation hone their
combat skills every year at the center, which provides a year-round realistic joint
training environment with air space, ranges, facilities and equipment, for units to
enhance combat readiness.
With offshore airspace that’s fully instrumented for recording air-to-air engagements,
it also utilizes air-to-ground ranges at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg.
The CRTC has two tenant Air National Guard units at the base: the 255th Air Control
Squadron and the 209th Civil Engineer Squadron. It’s also home to the 1108 Theater
Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, a full Army aviation maintenance depot
But the military aviation role goes beyond pilot training. Airbus Helicopters in
Columbus produces the H125 commercial helicopter and the U.S. Army’s UH-72A
Lakota helicopters. The Columbus location also produces the assembly and
customization of other Airbus Helicopters models and manufactures components for
use on new-production helicopters.
In 2013, Raytheon announced the expansion of its Forest, Miss., facility, which
produces some of the company’s most advanced radars and other electronics.
The $100 million expansion facilitates growth in the electronic warfare and
international airborne radar markets. The Forest location builds sophisticated
airborne and ground-based radars, electronic warfare technology and
communications systems for U.S. and allied forces.
In Columbia, Zodiac Parachute and Protection America makes parachute recovery
systems. It began producing military parachutes in 1938 when it was known as
Mississippi for quite some time now has pointed out that “every commercial airplane
in the world has had a least one component made in Mississippi,” according to the
aerospace section of the Mississippi Development Authority’s website.
Eaton Aerospace, then operating as Vickers, opened a facility in Jackson in 1957 to
design and manufacture hydraulic pumps. It became part of Eaton in 1999, and
today Eaton Corp’s 500-employee facility is a part of Eaton Aerospace Group, Fuel
and Motion Control Systems Division.
The 270,000-square-foot Jackson facility is home to one of the most advanced
aircraft hydraulic test labs in the world. Eaton is a leading supplier of hydraulic,
electro-hydraulic pump and generator products and integrated systems, engine and
airframe fuel pumps, electric motors, aircraft door actuation, flight and flow controls,
fluid, fuel and air delivery products and systems, nose wheel steering systems and
Eaton’s Jackson facility manufactures and services hydraulic system parts and
products for commercial and business jet aircraft and military vehicles which include
the following types of products and system applications: Vickers Hydraulic Pumps,
Hydraulic Motors, Electric Motorpumps, Power Transfer Units, Pump Packages and
GE Aviation operates a jet engine component plant in Batesville, which produces
advanced composite jet engine components.
GE Aviation partnered with the Mississippi Polymer Institute to support the company’s
hiring and workforce development needs. In addition to training employees, MPI
helps companies in the plastics/polymer industry solve technical challenges and
improve their processes and products.
The company initially demonstrated the manufacture of composite components at
Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory before opening the
In 2016, Praxair Surface Technologies and GE Aviation announced the formal
creation of joint venture PG Technologies in Ellisville. The grand opening was Dec. 1.
Located in the former GE Aviation facility, the joint venture provides the
development, support and application of specialized coatings for GE Aviation’s and
CFM International’s current and future engine models, including the GE9X and LEAP
engines. CFM International is a 50/50 joint venture company between GE and Safran
Aircraft Engines of France.
In addition to the facility in Ellisville, coating operations for PG Technologies are also
in Indianapolis, Ind., and Singapore.
GE Aviation delivers jet engine parts from its locations throughout the U.S. to PG
Technologies to undergo surface coating through various processes.
Stennis Space Center also plays a role in commercial aviation. In 2013, Rolls-Royce
opened its second jet engine test stand at the company’s Outdoor Jet Engine Test
Facility. The company performs jet engine testing on the most advanced Rolls-Royce
civil aircraft engines. The company opened its first test stand at Stennis Space
Center 10 years ago.
One of the most dynamic fields of aerospace is unmanned aerial systems. According
to the Teal Group’s 2017 market study, the field will more than triple in the next
decade. The study estimates that UAV production will increase from the current
worldwide UAV production of $4.3 billion annually in 2017 to $10.3 billion in 2026,
totaling $80.5 billion in the next ten years. Military UAV research spending would add
another $26 billion over the decade.
Drones of every size and shape are becoming ubiquitous, and orders for Fire Scout
and Global Hawk are going to come in for years into the future. The Federal Aviation
Administration predicts that combined total hobbyist and commercial unmanned
aerial system sales will increase from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020.
And several operations in the state make Mississippi a key player in the field.
Northeast Mississippi is home of the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, part of the
Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University. Established in 1948, it
provides leading-edge research, development and testing of manned and unmanned
flight vehicles and composite materials while supporting MSU’s goals of teaching. It
has also been an incubator for aerospace industries.
The Federal Aviation Administration selected Mississippi State University as the
location for its Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence.
Twenty-three of the world's leading research institutions and a hundred leading
industry, government partners comprise the Alliance for System Safety of UAS
through Research Excellence, or ASSURE.
ASSURE possesses the expertise, infrastructure and outstanding track record of
success that the FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems demands.
In October, Insitu opened its new facility on the campus of Mississippi State University
in partnership with the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Insitu creates and supports unmanned systems and software technology that deliver
end-to-end solutions for collecting, processing and delivering superior information. At
MSU, the company supports a combination of engineering, software development
and business development/customer service support functions.
The unmanned aerial division produces the ArrowLite small UAS, specially created
for U.S. Special Forces, the Army Hunter MQ-5B and the Heron at its production
center at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport. The Columbus location is Stark’s
main UAS production and support facility.
Stark Aerospace’s main facility is at Golden Triangle Global Industrial Aerospace
Park at the regional airport. It operates divisions for Unmanned Aerial Systems,
Sensors, Production Services and Engineering.
In April 2017 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security chose Mississippi as the new
base for small drones. The DHS drone demonstration range in Mississippi will use
2,000 square miles of restricted airspace up to an altitude of 60,000 feet, mainly in
the southern and coastal regions. Multiple sites will participate, including the National
Guard’s Camp Shelby, Joint Forces Training Center, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space
Center buffer zones and Singing River island, a former naval base in the Mississippi
Northrop Grumman builds portions of two cutting-edge unmanned aircraft systems.
The 101,000-square-foot Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss
Point, Miss., does final assembly work on the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and
central fuselage work on the Global Hawk fixed-wing unmanned aerial system.
The first Fire Scout, using a Schweizer airframe, rolled out of the Moss Point plant in
December 2006 and went to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for testing.
According to the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor’s June 2017 issue, by early 2017,
33 MQ-8Bs models and 19 of the larger MQ-8C Fire Scouts, which use the larger Bell
407 airframe, have come out of the Moss Point plant. There have also been 23
ground control segments for Fire Scouts produced in Moss Point.
Moss Point also handles the central fuselage work for all variants of Global Hawk,
including the Navy’s Triton. Although the Mississippi plant was not involved in early
versions of the Global Hawk, it’s been involved in all variants built after the plant
opened. As of early 2017, Moss Point has done central fuselage work on 45 of the
high-flying aircraft, according to company officials. It’s all a part of a major change for
“Shipbuilding and petrochemicals is our heritage, and will always be the backbone of
our economy,” said George Freeland, head of the Jackson County Economic
Development Foundation. And as the county pushes to diversify its economy, “the
unmanned systems center is the absolute centerpiece of that plan.”
“In context, we just resolved to make a significant run into the aerospace arena 16
years ago. That’s not very long in the economic development continuum,” he said.
But in that time frame Northrop has expanded and is now about the double in size.
The company also has an option on 30 additional acres contiguous and north of its
current 20-acre site.
Importantly, both the drone and F-35 program are projects with a long life many
years into the future.
“There’s no question, given the scope and the future of these programs, both the
manned and the unmanned, Northrop Grumman is going to have so many a
compelling reasons to maintain a presence in this community for many, many, many
years to come,” Freeland said.