Pioneer Aerospace production up

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Published: October 15,2007

For almost 70 years, Pioneer Aerospace has been helping the economy of Columbia and Marion County. Now the plant is giving the community another boost by adding new employees as the operation gets busier.

A manufacturer of parachutes, Pioneer Aerospace makes cargo, ejection, deceleration and recovery parachutes. These are serious parachutes made for the U.S. Department of Defense, the space program and foreign militaries.

“We are getting busier,” said Chris Powell, director of operations. “We had a low year last year, but we’re back up to normal and expect to be above normal next year.”

Currently 225 to 250 people are employed at the facility, but Powell said 50 to 75 workers will be added in the next three months and another 100 over the next year. He anticipates employment building up to 500 workers in the next few years.

“It’s because the Army is replacing parachutes for airborne troops,” he said. “The ones they’re using now are 30 to 40 years old. Our company designed a new one, and the Army wants to replace the old ones.”

Pioneer won the prime contract to make the new parachutes. That’s in addition to the ones the company is making for the Army’s Special Forces. The company headquarters, including design, sales and contract teams, are in Connecticut. The Columbia plant, however, does the manufacturing for all systems.

“This is a sewing plant, but we’re not making something simple,” Powell said. “It’s an item that saves lives, and it’s complicated.”

For that reason, he’s happy that employees tend to have longevity with the company. “The average worker has been with us 20 to 25 years,” he said. “We’ve got some who don’t want to go home and we’re glad to have them stay.”

The employees don’t just come from Marion County. They come from 12 counties in Mississippi and two parishes in Louisiana. The average salary for workers on the floor is $8.50 per hour. The annual payroll is $4 to $5 million and continues to grow.

“By this time next year we should be in good shape when we start on the other contract for the Army,” Powell said. “That means more jobs and more dollars for the local economy. We’re going through the same thing the makers of uniforms went through when the Army replaced those. We will have a surge in sales that could possibly triple the company’s sales over the next few years.”

Training is important for new employees. “With the build up of employees, we certainly want them to be properly trained,” Powell said. “We’re concerned about that and are getting assistance with hiring and training.”

The company works with Pearl River Community College, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s WIN Job Center. Hiring began in September and will continue over the next several months.

“We’ve been working with Pearl River Community College since 1992 and always get good help from them through the workforce development program,” Powell said. “That’s a valuable program and we depend on it.”

Pioneer Aerospace delivers parachutes to 80 countries around the world. The facility in Columbia was built in 1933 as a result of the Balance Agriculture with Industry program under Gov. Hugh White. For several years, it was a manufacturer of pajamas until Pioneer bought the plant in 1938 and started making parachutes there.

“Pioneer has a strong engineering capability. Most of the parachutes you see on space shuttles were designed and made by Pioneer,” Powell said. “These parachutes carry some of the largest loads on record.”

The company is currently working with the space program’s Aries I rocket for a larger chute than it has ever made. Because of the size, it will hang from the ceiling while it’s being made.

Powell, who grew up in Marion County and worked up through the ranks with Pioneer Aerospace, said the market for parachutes looks excellent for the next few years. “That’s good for Marion County and South Mississippi,” he said. “We like helping the economy and the community.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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