Greenville would become the first location in South Carolina to produce a new military aircraft in its entirety if Lockheed Martin Corp. wins a bid to supply a jet to the U.S. Air Force for the purpose of training fighter pilots.
South Carolina is already home to the manufacture of civilian aircraft, the most notable example being The Boeing Co., which makes its 787 Dreamliner passenger jet in North Charleston.
There’s also civilian aircraft production on a much smaller scale in Walhalla, where a business called Just Aircraft makes kit planes for taking off and landing on short, rugged runways in bush country.
South Carolina is also home to the manufacture of parts for military aircraft.
A company called RBC Aerostructures, for example, makes parts for the F-35 fighter jet at a factory in Westminster.
And Lockheed Martin has been refurbishing various military aircraft at its complex in southern Greenville County since 1984.
But no company now produces an entire military aircraft in South Carolina, according to Deborah Cameron, director of aerospace initiatives for the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness.
That would change if the Air Force selects Lockheed Martin to provide a replacement for the aged jet it currently uses to train fighter pilots. That aircraft, the T-38 Talon, has been in service since the late 1950s, and the Air Education and Training Command says it’s no longer practical for training pilots in newer, more-advanced aircraft.
The Air Force has said it wants 350 new jets to replace the T-38. It’s scheduled to issue a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) late this year and is expected to select a vendor by early 2018.
At least four U.S. defense contractors have announced plans to pursue the business in conjunction with partners. Two of them say they’d develop a new jet from scratch.
Lockheed Martin proposes supplying a version of the T-50 Golden Eagle, a jet it helped develop in the late 1990s and early 2000s in conjunction with Korea Aerospace Industries, which manufactures the aircraft at a factory in Sacheon, South Korea.
The South Korean air force has already used the two-seat, single-engine jet to train more than 1,000 pilots, according to Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin says using an existing aircraft that’s already proven effective would save the Air Force money and time, compared to developing a new jet from scratch.
The South Korean air force also uses a variant of the T-50 as a light attack jet, and its aerobatic team, the Black Eagles, flies another variant.
South Korea has sold the jet to Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq and Thailand, according to the Korea Aerospace Industries website.
Lockheed Martin says it would ship pieces of the jet from South Korea and assemble them at its Greenville operations center if it wins the Air Force contract.
Lockheed Martin test pilots would take off in the supersonic jets from the airfield the company uses in Greenville County in order to test them before final delivery to the customer.
The company says winning the contract would mean at least 200 new jobs and a decade of work for its Greenville facility.
But the benefit would go beyond the jobs, according to Cameron, the director of aerospace initiatives at the competitiveness council in Columbia.
“Just the status of building a fighter aircraft in South Carolina would add to our prestige as an aerospace state,” she said. “It would give us more street cred.”
Among those in Lockheed Martin’s corner is U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel and member of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees.
“This new trainer would allow pilots to train in a plane very similar to what they would fly in combat,” Graham told The Greenville News during a recent appearance in Greenville. “So it’s upgrading our training by light years. To do it here would be a huge economic impact, I think, on the aviation community in Upstate, South Carolina.”
It’s not clear how much economic activity might be generated by other companies that would supply the proposed jet assembly operation.
General Electric Co., which makes the F404 engine used in the T-50, wouldn’t need an extensive operation in Greenville if Lockheed Martin won the Air Force business, said Matthew Benvie, a spokesman for GE Aviation in Cincinnati.
He said GE would ship the engines to Greenville by truck from its aircraft engine plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, provided Lockheed Martin continued using GE engines for the T-50A, the version of the jet it proposes to supply to the Air Force.
Lockheed Martin says it considered other sites within its corporate network as well as developing a new site before selecting Greenville for the job of final assembly and checkout.
Leslie Farmer, a local spokesperson for the company, said the Greenville site’s affordability, flexible work force and long record of successfully modifying aircraft were factors in the decision. She also cited the state Commerce Department’s interest in expanding South Carolina’s aerospace cluster.
Commerce Department spokesperson Adrienne Fairwell wouldn’t say whether the department had talked with Lockheed Martin about the possibility of providing incentives in exchange for jobs or investment.
None of Lockheed Martin’s three rivals for the business have said where they would manufacture their proposed jets, according to spokespersons for those companies.
How Competitive Is The Proposal?
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy in Fairfax, Virginia, said he figures Lockheed Martin stands a good chance of winning the competition because it’s the only company offering a true “fast jet” that already exists.
Lockheed Martin’s “off-the-shelf” solution is “a very big advantage,” Aboulafia said. “You’re reducing cost and a lot of risk.”
Two of Lockheed Martin’s rivals – Boeing/Saab and Northrop Grumman/BAE Systems/L-3 – are proposing to develop brand new jets from scratch.
The jet being offered by Raytheon/Finmeccanica, a version of the Italian M346 trainer, is “really not a true fast jet,” according to Aboulafia.
“It’s a very good trainer, but it’s not what you call a fast jet,” he said, and that makes Raytheon/Finmeccanica the “odd man out.”
In response, Raytheon spokesman B.J. Boling said the aircraft his company proposes to supply would “fully comply” with all Air Force performance requirements and is “already training pilots for the fifth-generation F-35.”
Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on defense policy, said it’s too soon to say which of the four competitors may have a leg up.
It’s not yet clear, he said, whether the Air Force wants the jet for training only, or intends to also give it a combat or air defense mission, or qualify it for sale to friendly foreign governments.
More information will be revealed when the Air Force releases a formal RFP, Gunzinger said.
In the meantime, he said, “It’s far, far too early to say any one prospective company has the edge in this competition.”
Gunzinger said using an existing jet could save money, but a brand new jet could be designed to fit current Air Force needs exactly.
He said cost will be a significant factor in the decision since the Air Force is already buying a new tanker, a new bomber, a new fighter and a new airborne early warning and control system.
Part Of An Aviation Cluster
Even with the addition of 200 jobs, Lockheed Martin’s head count in Greenville would be less than half of what it used to be.
Company spokesman Rob Fuller blamed military cutbacks and the transfer of work to military depots for the shrinking of the Greenville work force from about 1,600 at its peak in the 1990s to about 500 today.
Lockheed Martin’s Greenville facility includes 16 hangars and access to 8,000 feet of runway at the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, a former Air Force base turned into an industrial park.
Lockheed Martin currently uses the complex to provide modification, maintenance, repair and overhaul services for three turboprop aircraft: the P-3 Orion used for maritime surveillance and the C-130 Hercules and C-5 Galaxy transport planes.
Customers include the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and various foreign governments that use the planes.
The fighter jet work would add to growing aviation activity at SCTAC.
In addition to Lockheed Martin, tenants at SCTAC include Stevens Aviation, a 300-employee company that provides various services for civilian and military aircraft, including maintenance, interior upfit, exterior painting and avionics installation.
Stevens specializes in Beechcraft’s King Air planes, but it also works on other aircraft brands, including Challenger, Cessna, Embraer, Gulfstream, Learjet, Piaggio and Pilatus.
Also at SCTAC is a new South Carolina National Guard helicopter station with six Chinook and four Lakota helicopters and 91 full-time Guardsmen in 110,000 square feet of hangar and office space.
Nearby at SCTAC, the Guard is constructing a 95,000-square-foot armory and 45,500-square-foot vehicle maintenance shop.
The armory building will include a hangar with space for 12 aircraft and will house a school for training aircraft maintenance mechanics that the Guard will operate in conjunction with Greenville Tech. It will also house Greenville Tech’s program for training truck drivers.
Greenville Tech spokesperson Becky Mann said construction of the armory building is scheduled to be finished next year.
Other parts of the aviation industry in the Upstate include a GE jet engine parts factory at The Matrix industrial park in southern Greenville County and a Honeywell International plant in Greer that makes engine parts for military and civilian aircraft and the Army’s Abrams tank. The Honeywell plant also services and repairs engines for double-rotor Chinook helicopters used by the U.S. military.