...The officials had gathered for what they thought would be an announcement that would be a
major economic boon to Mobile, Ala., and the Gulf Coast region. Groups in Mobile, Gulfport,
Miss., and Pensacola, Fla., expected to hear that EADS North America had won a $35 billion
contract to build aerial tankers.
...They were in for a disappointment. Word started filtering through the room in Mobile that
the contract was going to Boeing. Then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, his face giving it away,
came out to address the gathering.
...“This is a sad day,” Bentley said, and confirmed Boeing had won.
...At the Pentagon shortly later, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said Boeing would
build the KC-46As, modified Boeing 767s. The difference in price between the Boeing and
EADS offering was 10 percent, enough that the Air Force never considered non-mandatory
capabilities that led to the Northrop-EADS win three years earlier.
...Had EADS won, modified Airbus A330s would have been assembled at a $600 million plant
in Mobile that would have employed 1,500 workers. A supplier network would have grown in
Mobile and the Gulf Coast region. It would have put the region in an exclusive club of
locations that build wide-body aircraft.
...But what remains in the aerospace region is still significant. Economic development officials
have pointed out for some time now that the tanker was just the biggest, most high-profile
aerospace project in a region with a long aerospace history. Across the Gulf Coast activities
range from NASA and commercial space programs to aerial weapons development and from
building unmanned aerial systems to remote sensing and materials work.
...It’s become a key location for foreign aerospace companies. The list includes EADS’ Airbus
engineering center, Finmeccanica’s Selex Galileo, ST Aerospace owned by Singapore
Technologies, Optech International of Canada and the United Kingdom’s Rolls-Royce and
BAE Systems. More recently, China entered the region with the purchase of Teledyne
Continental in Mobile.
...And the aerospace region is growing. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is growing so fast there are
concerns about traffic congestion from the influx of special forces personnel and those
associated with the new F-35 training center. The base is a major R&D facility, spending $600
million to $700 million annually on the research and development of aerial weapons.
...Although there’s uncertainty about what the future holds for Michoud Assembly Facility in
New Orleans, 40 miles away at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Miss., the future is bright.
Considered a model for federal agencies sharing costs, SSC has been testing rocket engines
since the 1960s, and has about two dozen tests lined up for this year. And while the Obama
administration’s effort to shift a lot of NASA’s work to commercial companies may seem
revolutionary, SSC has been working for years with private companies.
...SSC is where Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne assembles the RS-68 engine, and soon will be
assembling the J-2X engine. It’s also where Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space and
Technology Center assembles the core propulsion system for A2100 satellite series. There’s
also a growing geospatial technologies cluster in and around SSC.
...The region is also a player in the high growth field of unmanned aerial systems. Northrop
Grumman, one of the premier builders of robot aircraft, makes portions of the Global Hawk
and Fire Scout in Moss Point, Miss. There are also indications the plant may wind up doing
work on the larger unmanned helicopter, the Fire-X, that Northrop is developing with Bell.
...While the tanker loss still stings in Mobile, it’s not the first time an aircraft assembly plant
slipped away. In the 1990s Mobile was chosen for a turboprop plant by an Indonesian
company. That deal fell apart when Indonesia’s ruler was forced out as the economy tanked.
Then there was the Boeing Dreamliner plant in 2003. Mobile and Hancock County, Miss.,
were on the short list. Boeing opted to stay put in Washington.
...Economic development officials say being in the running several times for aircraft plants
says a good deal about the appeal of the Gulf Coast. They believe the tanker won’t be the last
aircraft production project.
...Publicity on the tanker caused a lot of eyes to focus on this region, and economic
development officials plan to use that to tell the Gulf Coast story. Sometimes, the one that got
away tells as much about an area as the one that landed. –
David Tortorano

April 2011
Seeing beyond the tanker loss
The tanker loss was the third time the region missed getting an aircraft plant, but that may
say as much about the appeal of the Gulf Coast as a win...