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Seeds for burgeoning industry in Golden Triangle sown decades ago on campus

Aerospace engineering has long history at Mississippi State

The Golden Triangle’s impressive aerospace, defense and high-tech industrial sector may be a recent phenomena, but the seeds were sown many years ago at Mississippi State University (MSU). Since 1934 the university has been working with the communities to leverage its engineering expertise in this field. That’s when the Aerospace Engineering Department was begun at what was then Mississippi State Agriculture & Mechanical College.

“It grew out of the mechanical side,” says Dr. Tony Vizzini, department head. “Mississippi was ahead of the game and saw that aviation would be an important, growing sector for the state. We have the ninth-oldest department of aerospace in the country.”

Ideal conditions

He says the area is ideally suited for aviation research because it’s open with great distance between the cities, there are no high structures, the weather is excellent for flying and the geographical features are distinctive enough to allow flying by visual aids.

The early department head, Gus Raspet, conducted research in low-speed flight by studying buzzards. Vizzini says Raspet saw the possibilities for the state and acted on them. Raspet, however, died in 1960 while testing an aircraft that was using suction to increase lift.

“He had phenomenal capacity and foresight,” Vizzini says. “The Raspet Flight Research Laboratory was dedicated to him in 1962.”

Vizzini and Dr. Kirk Schulz, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development, agree the Raspet Lab plays a key role in attracting aerospace industries to the area that encompasses Starkville, Columbus and West Point.

“The lab is a large space that allows us to engineer and construct large aviation pieces, and it’s flexible space,” Schulz says. “Companies can locate there like an incubation space, but it’s much more than that. The difference is the expertise of the people at the lab. The companies can utilize the space and expertise before they build space of their own.”

Public and private partnerships

Providing the lab and expertise are the main ways MSU supports the efforts of the public and private sectors to recruit high-tech companies to the Golden Triangle.

“Companies can be here working in the area while they scope out the state,” Vizzini says. “They have a presence here and can hire people and be strong when they begin. We’ve been actively involved with American Eurocopter, G.E. Aviation, Aurora Flight Systems and Stark Aviation.”

He adds that these new companies get tied into MSU at that time, learn who has expertise in various disciplines and hire some engineering students.

Schulz goes so far as to say providing aerospace and mechanical engineering graduates who want to stay in the area is the most important thing the university does for new industries.

He also feels that the synergy created in the Raspet Lab is a motivating factor. “If companies come to visit and see there are other companies located there, it creates a snowball effect,” he says. “Five years from now, you may find 15 companies here.”

He points out that other parts of the state also benefit from new companies working in the laboratory at MSU. Such is the case of G.E. Aviation, a manufacturer of turbine blades that will locate its plant in Batesville.

New technology,
new opportunities

“We have the incentives to make the area attractive and are developing a corridor for aerospace industries,” he said. “If someone is interested in a location, MSU will play a central role with the economic development community and the congressional delegation in Washington to tell them why they should look at us.”

Looking ahead, Vizzini sees continued response from industries to what MSU and the area have to offer.

“We are now focused on unmanned flight systems and developing a platform to provide highly efficient systems,” he says. “We will play a very strong role in economic development in the future. We have great growth capability and a facility that can be used to attract and bring in companies who can get their feet firmly established here.”

The Aerospace Engineering Department currently has 17 faculty members, 160 undergraduate students and 30 graduate students.

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


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