Contracts may secure area's high-tech jobs

Staff Writer

A record-breaking unmanned aircraft made in the Golden Triangle has landed its manufacturer a new contract.

Meanwhile, another of the region's big high-tech aeronautic companies says it needs a new U.S. Army contract to protect local jobs.

Aurora Flight Sciences, which was bought in October by Boeing, has been awarded a $48 million Air Force contract for continued work on the Orion, the long-flying, high-altitude UAV that Aurora hopes to fly for more than 100 hours without landing.

The Orion already has flown more than 80 hours non-stop and tests indicate it an go as long as 100- to 120-hours and carry as much as 1,000 pounds.

The Air Force and other agencies hope to use the device for long-term aerial surveillance for a variety of purposes, ranging from distant lands to vast areas of the oceans. The Coast Guard also is expected to do some test flights, according to industry publications.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Congress should approve funding for purchase of the Orion in the Pentagon's 2018 budget, so "an entire deployable system will be off the line in the next 18 months."

Work on the Orion, which has such a long wing span that it required a specially built addition to Aurora's Lowndes County's facility, began in 2006.

Its record flight came in 2014 and changes have been made since then. The project could peak in 2019, according to industry publications.

Aurora now employs almost 100 people at its three-building facility covering 19,000 square feet just south of Golden Triangle Regional Airport. Its Mississippi operations began in 2003 at the Raspet Flight Science Laboratory at Mississippi State University. It opened its first building in Lowndes County in 2005 and followed with two additional buildings, including the one to accommodate the Orion, in 2008 and 2013.

Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters, which employs about 200 people at its Golden Triangle operation, expects the U.S. Army to award it a $187 million contract to supply 28 of the company's UH-72 light-utility helicopters. The contract likely would not create new jobs at the company's manufacturing facility just north of GTRA but would prevent the company from potentially having to lay off workers, more than 40 percent of whom are military veterans.

Airbus, formally known as American Eurocopter, already has sold more than 400 of the helicopters to the military since it was chosen as the next generation chopper in 2006.

Federal budget woes blocked the Army's previous efforts to buy helicopters, putting some of the jobs at the Golden Triangle plant at risk. Congress now has approved the purchase and the Army has issued a "sources sought" notice for bids for a helicopter that only Airbus makes, making the contract an almost certainty.

"Significant obstacles have been laid in the Army's past efforts to meet its requirements for more Lakotas, and those obstacles have in turn jeopardized the livelihoods of all the American workers who build the Lakota in Mississippi," the company said in a statement.

"A new contract for them would mean they can continue to build on their unbroken record of on-time, on-cost deliveries to the Army," the company continued, referring to the plant's workers who faced uncertainty at the start of the year because of the budget stalemates and objections from members of Congress from other areas.

In addition to the Lakota, the company's 325,000-square-foot facility, which was expanded in 2014, manufactures the popular H125 medical transport and rescue helicopter. It also does customization and repair work on other Airbus models.

The last Lakota contract was $222.5 million in 2015 for 41 choppers