It’s a far cry from the days when the Naval Aviation Depot had thousands of workers, but aircraft maintenance continues to be a multimillion-dollar business in the Pensacola metropolitan area.
When discussions turn to aerospace and aviation jobs, it’s the headline-grabbing newcomers that get attention: Airbus in Mobile, VT MAE in Pensacola, SpaceX in Mississippi.
But in the Pensacola metropolitan area, the Navy remains the oldest, most consistent creator of civilian aviation jobs going back to the dawn of naval aviation itself. Today, the handful of defense contractors who maintain the Navy’s large fleet of training aircraft at Naval Air Station Pensacola and Naval Air Station Whiting Field provide at least 800 jobs in the metro area.
“About 20 percent of jobs in the metro area are government jobs, and about 80 percent are tied to the military,” said John Hutchinson, president of Pensacola’s Community Economic Development board.
Structure engineers, aircraft mechanics, ground support equipment workers, rotary wing mechanics, sheet metal workers and more have plenty of work ensuring the Navy’s ubiquitous orange and white trainers remain airworthy. And that’s no small feat.
NAS Whiting Field in Milton is the busiest air station in the world, according to the Navy. Whiting logs over 160,000 flight hours per year, representing 14 percent of USN flight hours. The more than 250 aircraft and 1,200 students are responsible for a staggering 1.5 million flight operations each year, well beyond the 970,000 annual flight operations at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.
The Pensacola metro area had even more of these jobs in the past, thanks to the sprawling Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP) at NAS Pensacola. It employed thousands of civil service, military and contract workers involved in aircraft maintenance and repair, not only of aircraft from this region but those that flew in from other locations.
But in 1993 the largest industrial complex with some 2,600 workers at that time was shut down as a result of base realignment and closures. The site was taken over by the Naval Air Technical Training Center, which moved from Memphis, Tenn., as a result of the same closure round.
Although NADEP is gone, the Navy still required a local workforce to keep the aircraft from the two training bases flying. Now the job falls to defense contractors that compete on a regular basis for the multimillion-dollar Defense Department contracts.
The current Navy contract holders are DynCorp International, Sikorsky, L-3 Vertex and Rolls-Royce. Combined they are working contracts for the Chief of Naval Air Training valued at more than $200 million, though not all of the work is done in this region.
Pinning down just how many workers are involved is a bit difficult, in part because of competitive pressures. But one contractor, DynCorp International, said it has 400 workers. But that’s just one company. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2777 would only say it represents 800 workers at NAS Pensacola and NAS Whiting Field.
What’s unusual about the arrangement is that a technician who works for one company today might have worked for another company a few years earlier when another company held the contract. By the same token, a few years down the road they might be employed by a new contractor. That arrangement means experience is not lost even with a new contractor.
They certainly have their work cut out for them. Whiting field has over 250 aircraft, including fixed-wing T-6B Texan IIs and TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopters. NAS Pensacola has about 130 aircraft, including fixed-wing T-45C Goshawks, T-6A Texan IIs, T-39 Sabreliners; T-1A Jayhawks; F/A-18 Hornets and KC-130F Hercules. The only aircraft that is not maintained by defense contractors are the Blue Angels aircraft at NAS Pensacola’s Sherman Field. That work is handled exclusively by Navy personnel.
DynCorp International in October 2014 won an $83.4 million contract to support and maintain nearly 400 aircraft primarily at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, NAS Whiting Field and NAS Pensacola. The work in Florida is on the single-engine T-6 Texan II aircraft. The one-year contract has up to four, one-year options with a potential value of $443.3 million.
For DynCorp International, winning the contract greatly enhanced the company’s Navy market share, which company vice president James Myles described as a “key strategic goal.”
“DynCorp International has been a trusted partner to the U.S. Navy for more than 40 years, a tradition we will build on with this new work,” said Myles. “We take pride in serving our Navy customers and supporting their vital training missions.”
In addition to DynCorp International, in September 2014 the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., also awarded a $19.1 million contract modification to Sikorsky Support Services to bridge the gap between the Sikorsky and DI contracts.
George Mitchell, Vice President, Aircraft & Support for Sikorsky’s Defense Systems & Services business, said his company prides itself in its “world-class” support of CNATRA and the Naval Air Training Command during the past seven years.
“Our outstanding workforce delivered exceptional performance, meeting the Navy’s stringent requirements,” Mitchell said. “In fact, for the last year aircraft availability exceeded our contractual specifications.”
In addition, the Naval Air Systems Command in September 2014 awarded a $12 million contract to L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace to support and maintain the Navy’s training aircraft, primarily in Pensacola.
In late March 2015, Rolls-Royce was awarded a $93.6 million contract to maintain the T-45 F405-RR-401 Ardour engines. Most of the work will be done in Meridian, Miss., but about 6 percent will be done at NAS Pensacola.
What is interesting for Pensacola is that while it lost an industrial complex, it got in its place a military training complex that’s training the aviation technicians who may one day return to the region to work on the same aircraft, but in a civilian capacity.