Into tech: automobiles to aerospace

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Published: August 2,2004

Choctaw — With the signing of contracts with two prestigious international companies, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is a giant step closer to fulfilling its goal of creating higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs for its tribal members and fellow Mississippians.

“Mississippi Choctaws are dedicated to bringing high-technology jobs onto the reservation to provide greater opportunities within the global market to both tribal and non-tribal members,” said longtime Chief Phillip Martin.

Allen Hines, president of Applied Geo Technologies Inc. a tribally-chartered corporation responsible for securing sizable technology-based federal contracts, said the most important value of the transaction “is bringing an opportunity to the reservation to support a higher standard of living.”

“Those outside the reservation will reap the benefits of the ripple effect,” he said.

In Choctaw on July 1, Martin signed a certificate of acknowledgment with AgustaWestland USA, the second-largest helicopter manufacturer in the world, to provide support for the production of high-tech wire harnesses for the aerospace industry, and a letter of intent with AAI Corporation, one of the most technologically advanced manufacturers of test equipment in support of hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, mechanical and fuel requirements for the defense and aerospace industry.

By 2005, both partnerships should create about 100 high-tech jobs, with hourly pay “significantly higher than commercial manufacturing rates,” said Hines. (The tribe is the second-largest private employer in Mississippi, with about 9,500 employees.)

The AgustaWestland deal

Agusta and Westland first collaborated in the 1960s, when Westland started license production of the Agusta AB47, later renamed Westland-Agusta/Bell 47G, better known as the “Sioux.” Beginning in 1964, Westland built 250 of these small helicopters at Yeovil. Over two decades, Agusta’s relationship with Westland evolved to include collaboration on the development and production of the 15-ton multi-role EH101, the largest European helicopter program ever undertaken.

The British-Italian aircraft manufacturer is hoping to win its share of a $1.6-billion contract to build a new fleet of Marine One helicopters. Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense contractors, hopes to replace Sikorsky, which has held the federal contract for 46 years, as the builder of 23 presidential helicopters with the US101, the U.S. version of a three-engine helicopter built by AgustaWestland and used by five NATO countries and Japan.

In 2002, the Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space and Technology Center opened at the Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The company also has a plant in Meridian.

Industry watchers say the winner of the relatively small federal contract, which should be awarded Nov. 15, may gain the inside track for future helicopters needed by the U.S. military.

“We have the expectation not only of this contract, but also to help assemble wire harnesses for more than 150 helicopters that were bought by the U.S. Marines to be used for search-and-rescue operations,” said Hines, who added that work would be done from an existing building in Choctaw. “It’s the same type of US101 helicopter, using the same chassis as the presidential helicopters. The internal and external options can be reconfigured.

“This is a long-term commitment — a very broad sweeping acknowledgment — by AgustaWestland to have the Choctaws, through AGT, be part of several different programs, whether commercial or government related.”

If Lockheed Martin wins the bid to build the presidential helicopters, “it gives us goose bumps to think about playing a part in making them,” said Hines. “When you see it on TV, you can say, ‘wow! I helped build that!’ From a tribal standpoint, there’s a huge amount of pride.”

The tribe’s reputation as one of the top wire harness makers in the nation for the automobile industry has prompted international corporations to take a closer look at working with the Choctaws.

“There’s a natural graduation to the next level — the aerospace level — where you just don’t have failures,” said Hines. “You don’t take that kind of recognition lightly.

Working with AgustaWestland, the second-oldest rotary-winged company in the world, is a very prestigious thing.”

AgustaWestland representatives were out of the country and unable to return phone calls by press time for this article.

The AAI deal

Also based in Maryland, AAI Corporation, a subsidiary of United Industrial Corporation (NYSE: UIC), is well known in the Department of Defense arena as a provider of various types of military equipment. The company will partner with the Choctaws to negotiate the production of the next generation of ground support equipment (GSE) .

“The ground support equipment used in the Iraqi War can be towed at about 15 miles per hour, and if you remember the early days of U.S. troop movement into Iraq, it slowed them down,” said Hines. “The Army wants to take a real hard look at new technology to come up with a new version of ground support equipment to make it much more portable — moving from diesel engines to power cells generated by the movement of Humvees, for example. Liquid is so heavy and volatile, and the Army wants to get away from having volatile liquids near the troops. They want to basically shrink the package. It’s a very interesting opportunity. Obviously, if we get past the R&D and engineering phase, we’ll go into production.”

In June, the federal government awarded AAI a $6.5-million contract for two new ground control stations to operate U.S. Marine Corps Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems. The Pioneer ground control stations will be designed and built on the same sophisticated technologies already employed with the U.S. Army’s highly-acclaimed RQ-7A Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle systems, a number of which are supporting U.S. and coalition warfighters in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

AAI president and CEO Fred Strader said the company “is delighted to be working with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.”

“In an effort to provide the best value to the government, we are always looking for opportunities to partner with high-quality, cost competitive manufacturers,” he said. “We find just such a resource with the Choctaws.”

Strader called the agreement “a win-win: Choctaws create great products at competitive prices and we keep the jobs in the U.S.”

“We look forward to a mutually beneficial working relationship here in Mississippi,” he said.

Moving Mississippi higher tech

Both agreements were indirect results of the Choctaws High-Tech Conference, sponsored annually by the Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA).

“The conference has definitely given us exposure,” said Hines. “I get out all the time and talk to people who know about us because of communications through this annual event.”

MTA executive director Andy Taggart said he was not at all surprised that both companies selected the Choctaws “for work of this level of sophistication and importance.”

“They have proven their ability in increasingly more complicated manufacturing, and Chief Martin made it clear a while ago that the tribe was going to be very aggressive in the pursuit of high-tech opportunities,” he said.

“These two contracts further demonstrate the ability and commitment of Mississippians in the defense industry,” he added. “We have been supporting and building freedom for a long time in our state. Now we are just doing it in different ways and at a new level, and I am proud of the success that Chief Martin and his economic development team are enjoying in this sector.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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