COLUMBIA — How many people can say, “I helped build a parachute that went to Mars?”
It isn’t unusual for people who work at Pioneer Aerospace to see parachutes they made on the nightly news or on a video about space exploration. From Mars to Iraq, the company that has been making parachutes here since 1938 has provided parachutes for programs to explore space and support the country’s military efforts.
Pioneer Aerospace has designed and manufactured the recovery systems for the Jupiter Galileo Probe, the Mars Pathfinder Probe, the Genesis Solar Particle Return Capsule, the Stardust Comet Intercept Probe, the International Space Station x-38 Crew Return Vehicle and the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Recovery System.
Military products include airborne troop parachutes, tactical parachute systems, emergency parachute assemblies, ejection seat parachutes, training parachutes, aerial delivery parachutes and para foils, extraction parachutes and weapon delivery and recovery systems.
“Pioneer Aerospace is to Columbia what Nissan is to Mississippi,” said Joey Grisham, executive director of the Marion County Economic Development District. “Obviously they are one of our largest and oldest industries. We are elated they are in Columbia. Their type of industry is always fascinating. People come from all over the world to tour the plant. For the military and definitely for our community, they contribute a whole lot. Besides what they do for the military, they also give back with their time and efforts to help the community in a number of different ways.”
Since 9-11, the demand for the parachutes produced at Pioneer Aerospace has increased significantly, leading to a doubling of the work force to a total of 430 jobs. Most of the employees are involved in the cutting and sewing operations.
“Obviously they are a big economic boost to Marion County and also the state,” Grisham said. “They also contribute heavily to the tax base. The people of Columbia recognize the importance of having a military manufacturing facility. People in Columbia have come together like others areas of the country to show support for what Pioneer Aerospace does. The community recognizes the importance of military manufacturing. Without those facilities obviously our military would not be able to function like it does. And they appreciate having a unique industry like that here.”
The plant in Columbia is the production facility for Pioneer Aerospace Corp., which originally began as Reliance Manufacturing in 1933 producing tents and pajamas, expanding into making parachutes during World War II.
“During the years we have diversified in other products but have always stayed with parachutes as our core product,” said Christopher Powell, plant manager for the Pioneer Aerospace plant in Columbia. “That’s the only product we are building right now. We are up to about 430 employees. Two years ago we were at about 200. We aren’t a high-tech company. You don’t have to have a lot of skills to come to work here. We have been able to put a lot of people to work. Housewives and mothers can come in here and bring their sewing skills. Nissan and others need higher education, training and skills.”
Powell said it has been a major effort training enough people to double the size of the workforce. Workforce development is one of Pioneer’s biggest initiatives.
“We offer leadership, basic skills, GED classes, basic blueprint and computer classes,” Powell said. “We work closely with the Pearl River Community College. Most of our workers are able to attend classes every week in one of those categories. We are changing some of the ways we are manufacturing right now to a lean manufacturing approach. With all training it allows our workers to accept change and be involved in the process. When you are in a learning mode, you are more likely to step up and accept the change.”
Half of the workforce has experience of less than a year and a half. And the company was able to double the capacity of its plant without expanding the size of the facility. “It has been a tough thing to do that, double the capacity inside the same plant,” Powell said.
The company uses a massive amount of supplies each month: more than 400,000 square yards of fabric, 500,000 yards of tape and webbing, 2.3 million yards of cord and more than 3,000 pounds of thread.
Powell said the workforce has pride in being one of the better parachute plants in the U.S. Many people who work at the plant have relatives who are deployed in Iraq. Yellow ribbons were placed on the machines of the workers with loved ones in Iraq.
“It makes it more personal knowing we are building parachute systems in support of military personnel,” Powell said. “There is definitely pride in the products we make because of the end use for personnel safety in support of our country in the military. This is safety and life support. Sometimes it may not just be a human you are trying to save, but a multi-million-dollar weapons system being deployed.
“We work with the defense industry in support of our country in the war against terrorism. We also have high-profile contracts with NASA. The products we build are different from clothes and apparel you see in other plants. We try to get NASA photos and videos of projects that use our parachutes. The things we build are things you will see on the news. Normally in a production plant you don’t get that kind of recognition. With some of the space programs, our employees can say, ‘I built a parachute that went to Mars.’ Or maybe they worked on a parachute that saved a pilot’s life over in the war.”
About 300 of the employees at Pioneer Aerospace are sewing machine operators, with another 130 providing indirect support. Employees come from several counties around Columbia. Many have long years of experience.
“Most of the workers we have employed since before the expansion have had 15, 20, 25 years experience,” Powell said. “We rely on that experience to make our products.”
A lot of people don’t realize Pioneer is in Columbia. They are very surprised a parachute plant is in Mississippi, Powell said. And while many sewing operations have been moved oversees because of lower labor costs, right now the Buy America Act protects companies like Pioneer Aerospace from having their jobs exported.
“As long as the Buy America Act is not repealed, defense products are going to be made in the U.S., and we are in good shape,” Powell said. “There is an effort to repeal it for things like clothes and other non-critical items. We don’t want our military products coming from foreign countries. It is a matter of pride. Do you want to wear a military beret that is made in China? It is a symbol of pride. You want something that is made in America by Americans.”
Pioneer employs one of the largest parachute engineering departments assembled anywhere — 20 degreed engineers plus drafting and field test support — and is currently engaged in the development of a number of advanced parachute systems for a wide variety of applications. Expertise and capabilities range from the study and development of sophisticated systems for aerial deceleration, precision delivery and recovery systems to the mass production of all types of parachutes and ancillary equipment.
Pioneer Aerospace is currently working on several space exploration programs such as Stardust and Mars Exploration Rovers. Stardust is a U.S. space program to collect space material and return it to earth for analysis. It was launched in February 1999, is due to collect samples from the “Wild 2” comet in January 2004, and is due to return to Earth in January 2006. It’s the first mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from beyond the moon.
ation Rovers is a NASA space exploration program to land two more rovers on Mars by the end of this year. Both Rovers are bigger than the pre