Mobile Airport Authority Leads Efforts to Develop Brookley Aeroplex & Surrounding Community

Author: 
Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 
March-April
2015

Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, keeps the photograph of a child he barely knows on his desk as a reminder of the authority's mission. The young boy was playing in an old park that used to be part of the Brookley Air Force base. These days, the park serves a lower-income community adjacent to Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM), and the airport authority is helping renovate it. 

factsfigures
Project: Aeroplex Development
Location: Mobile (AL) Downtown Airport 
Runways: 14-32 (9,618 ft. long); 18-36 
(7,800 ft. long)
Cargo Facility: 48,000 sq. ft. of sorting, distribution and warehouse space
Mixed-Use Industrial Park: 
Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley
Size: 4 million sq. ft. of industrial 
space on 1,650 acres
Total Employment: 4,700+
Key Tenants/Customers: Airbus Assembly Line; VTMAE; FedEx, Signature Flight Support; Continental Motors; Airbus Engineering; Star Aviation
Current Construction: $600 million Airbus facility for A320 assembly; $30 million Taxiway Realignment & Widening Project
Taxiway Funding: 90% FAA; 10% Mobile Airport Authority

Aeroplex Development Team
Solicitation, Selection & Design Mgmt: Hoar Program Management; Hatch Mott MacDonald
Airfield Consultant of Record: Michael Baker Int'l
Stormwater Pipe System Construction: Hosea O. Weaver & Sons
Other Service Providers: Honeywell; Brasfield & Gorrie; Asphalt Services; Clark Geer Latham & Associates; B. L. Harbert Int'l
Other Stakeholders: State of Alabama; city of Mobile; Mobile County; Alabama Power Co.; other 
utility providers

"Frank was there with his mom when we were doing some on-site research ... and he was tracing the path of a 747 with his finger," Wehner explains. "(His photo) reminds me of who we're working for here. When we're quibbling about facades (or other details), I tell myself: It's about this kid, Frank. It's the fascination of youth. It's the opportunity for our community." 

The work Wehner refers to extends well beyond the park renovation. In fact, it is just one small detail in the authority's larger, long-term initiative to turn Mobile, AL, into an international aerospace cluster by leveraging its two airports and their respective industrial parks. Development of Brookley Aeroplex - named for Brookley Air Force Base, which was once the very lifeblood of Mobile - figures prominently into those plans.  

Long Ascent

When Brookley Air Force Base closed in 1969, it kicked off an area-wide depression that lasted a decade or more. Families were quickly moved to other bases, leaving Mobile devastated by the largest base closure in U.S. history at the time. For years, Brookley Air Force Base and the enterprises that supported it were the very essence of the community. The city took over the Brookley Air Force property and began operating it as two individual business units: a mixed-use industrial complex and a general aviation airport, BFM. Soon after, Teledyne Continental Motors began leasing a large portion of the complex to build piston aircraft engines and is still present today.  

In 1982, city officials created the Mobile Airport Authority to own, control and operate BFM, the Brookley Complex and Mobile Regional Airport (MOB) - beginning what would become a focused effort to recruit aviation business to Mobile. 

The authority's first significant project was securing bonds to construct a new passenger terminal at MOB, located in west Mobile. It succeeded - despite tough market conditions that included airline bankruptcies - and the M.C. Farmer terminal was dedicated in 1986. Today, MOB is home to Signature Flight Support, Airbus Military, the U.S. Coast Guard, Army National Guard and others. 

Fifteen miles across town at BFM, Singapore Technologies announced plans to open a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility. Since opening in 1991, VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering has grown to occupy more than 1 million square feet and employ more than 1,300 workers.

Currently, more than 75 companies lease space at Mobile Aeroplex, including FedEx, Signature Air Support, Airbus Engineering, VTMAE and others.

But the authority landed its biggest fish in 2012, when Airbus announced it would build its first North American final assembly line for the A320 family of jetliners at Brookley Aeroplex. As such, Mobile became the home of the company's first U.S.-based fixed wing aircraft production facility. 

A diverse mix of transportation modes has proved invaluable in attracting companies like Airbus to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. In addition to its airport resources, the facility's logistical confluence includes water (the Port of Mobile), rail (all five Class 1 railroads at the port; CSX on property) and roadways (interstate highways 10 and 65).
BFM's two runways are key air assets. At two miles long, Runway 14-32 can accommodate huge aircraft like Antonov 
An-225s.  

Michael Baker International, Mobile Airport Authority's airfield consultant of record for more than 25 years, is currently working on a parallel taxiway project at BFM. The multi-phase initiative will realign and widen Taxiway A to a consistent 75 feet, making the airfield compliant with new FAA standards and more operationally efficient. 
Construction of the Airbus facility began in April 2013, with a $600 million project; aircraft assembly is scheduled to begin this summer. 

"The airport spent countless hours pursuing Airbus, working tirelessly to get a facility established in Mobile; it is a testament to their vision," says Claudia Holliway, senior vice president and national aviation market lead for Michael Baker International. "They did a fantastic job on their marketing. Airbus took notice - in addition to location and other strategic elements, I believe Airbus chose Mobile because of the authority's diligent sales efforts, which resulted in a solid partnership plan for the future."

For its part, the airport authority has initiated landscaping, signage and roadway projects in addition to airfield improvements. With many projects finished and others close to completion, the authority indicates there is much more to come. A local firm recently opened the first 5,000-square-foot phase of a new retail development at the aeroplex.

Airside Improvements

BFM's current $30 million Taxiway A project has been on the books for more than 10 years, notes Thomas G. Hughes, A.A.E., IAP, deputy executive director of Mobile Airport Authority. 

The airport began the taxiway project construction at the end of 2013 and was on schedule to finish by the end of 2014; but weather delayed construction. Completion for the first phase is now expected in March 2015. Phase II begins in April 2015 and is slated for completion in the 2016. The updated taxiway, designed with 35-foot paved shoulders on each side, will accommodate up to aircraft design group 5.  

"We had been working with the FAA to straighten Taxiway Alpha," Hughes says. "Due to the old configuration of the military runways, there was a hotspot that the FAA recognized - some pilots did not stop at the hold short line as required, but rather entered onto the active runway."

Jeff Hester, Baker's assistant vice president and operations manager of its Mobile office, notes that limited design time, budget ceilings, airfield tenant coordination and operational constraints have made the taxiway project challenging. Having worked with Mobile Airport Authority since 1988 (first with LPA Group, which Baker acquired in 2010), Hester has a healthy frame of reference. 

"The Taxiway A project had to be initially designed and bid in a very short time span at the start of 2013," he recalls, adding that bid documents had to provide options before specific funding amounts were determined. "We were certainly hopeful for a full-funding scenario; but in order to meet FAA grant funding deadlines, we had to move ahead in anticipation that whatever amount was awarded could be accommodated with a realistic bid award option."  

When bids were received in June 2013, the FAA could only commit to partial funding, which translated to a "base bid award - asphalt option," with an approximate FAA grant issuance of $15 million. The current base bid project started in December 2013 and is ongoing, with completion anticipated this spring. Since then, the FAA has been diligent in its partnership with the airport authority to seek the additional funds to complete the project as designed, reports Hester.  

In late fall 2014, Mobile Airport Authority was officially awarded the remaining funds, via a separate grant issuance of approximately $15 million to complete Phase II of the BFM taxiway project. This segment will complete the new partial parallel Taxiway A from existing Taxiway F (located midfield) southward to Runway 18-36, adding about 3,500 linear feet to the taxiway. The entire project from Runway 14 threshold southward to Runway 18-36 tie-in will include 9,200 linear feet of pavement (including connector taxiways) once completed.  

In order for the Airbus project to begin construction - and therefore stay on schedule - Airbus designers called for the removal of a section of the existing taxiway before the new taxiway project began. This presented operational challenges for the airport, as aircraft had to be re-routed to taxi from various locations of the airfield. The airport implemented creative aircraft taxi procedures and phasing to accommodate this temporary measure, notes Hester. During one phase, planes taxied back on the same runway on which they landed. BFM's operations team, Airbus consultants and the airport authority worked together to create a communication plan to keep everyone informed as changes were made, he adds.  

Site drainage was another major challenge during the design phase of the taxiway project. With city stormwater runoff regulations restricting any increase in offsite flows from site-related drainage, planners had to review options carefully to ensure compliance with requirements and FAA advisory circulars when addressing drainage for the relocated parallel taxiway.  

General consensus was against building a large aboveground retention pond due to concerns about attracting waterfowl and other wildlife. Instead, Baker personnel designed a massive series of underground storage pipes that detain stormwater, and then slowly release off site. The pipes, some measuring 60 inches in diameter, run for thousands of feet. Hester's team designed the system and supervised its construction by local contractor H.O. Weaver and Sons. 

Landside Work

Hoar Program Management in association with Hatch Mott MacDonald managed the solicitation, selection and design management for all Airbus facilities at Brookley Aeroplex, and consequently worked closely with Baker International.  

"We knew we had to hit the ground running because of the schedule," recalls Kendall Kilpatrick, vice president and division manager for Hatch Mott MacDonald. "We jump-started the project by self-performing the design of the mass grading of the site. We designed the construction drainage as well as the permanent outfall for the Airbus facilities, and we knew we had to accommodate a 100-year storm event to be compliant with the city of Mobile stormwater regulations; so we installed 84-inch-diameter pipe. When (Baker International) created the drainage system on their end, we worked together to ensure that the separate but coordinating drainage systems were seamlessly functioning together." 

Along with the ongoing taxiway and Airbus projects, all the major roads and sidewalks within Brookley Aeroplex are on track to be repaved by spring. 

"Practically every road and drainage system on the property was in need of repair," reports Hester. "Years of deterioration - some dated as far back as 1939 - necessitated major reconstruction throughout the complex."

Wider Implications

As plans developed for Mobile Aeroplex and BFM, nearby MOB also saw its fortunes improving. Airport executives are particularly proud of adding a new United Airlines flight to Chicago's O'Hare International in April 2013. "United knew we had the business market to support the flight and could see the growth and potential," explains Hughes. "A full 65% of the traffic at Mobile Regional is business travel, which would be a coveted number at any airport. Our relationship with Airbus has increased our visibility even more, and more business travelers will be routing back and forth from other Airbus sites." 

MOB recently modernized its facilities with updated flooring and new airline and rental car counters. It also added a cyber bar/charging station, an art program, a new shoeshine stand, and an Executive Club. 

With the aeroplex hosting 4,700 aviation-related jobs on its campus, the community in and around BFM is buzzing and growing.

"In the '60s, we had 17,000 civilian employees, not including military personnel, at Brookley (Air Force Base)," says Wehner. "When it closed, the impact was devastating. We lost a lot of residents, businesses and it depressed the community for a long time. Now, we're going in the right direction. This new development has been great for the aeroplex, but the ripples across the community are great for everyone. As we rebound, we're seeing changes in the community that are very promising."

At the request of Airbus' senior leadership, Wehner visited the company's business units around the world to evaluate each program and generate ideas to ensure success in Mobile. 
"We traveled to various aerospace clusters as research investigators and studied them in detail," Wehner explains. "We tried to understand best practices, mistakes and what was positively correlated with success. Then we created what we call the playbook - that's the manual we use at the aeroplex every day. Two things stood out: first, a holistic workforce development model. We saw that the most efficient way is to build people up through an organization; it's homegrown. And the second thing is to bring the intellectual capacity to bear in the most vibrant fashion you can." 

The team consequently developed the Alabama Aerospace Innovation Research Center (A2IRC), or, as locals refer to it, "AIR." The airport authority earmarked the old commander's building and two other facilities - a total of more than 80,000 square feet - for the center. It also invited all of the state's research universities and local two-year colleges into the space to create an ecosystem of education and business working closely together.

"We have the university interacting with industry, plus high school programs to further education in aerospace in Mobile and surrounding areas," chronicles Wehner. "They're offering opportunities to conduct research and workforce training, and, most importantly, a long pipeline of kids who are interested in moving up through our industry. We have a major focus on children in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and focused efforts on women, minorities and veterans in aerospace."

With lower-income schools bordering BFM, Wehner considers the research center a "beautiful opportunity to build up our community at large." Factor in the Airbus training center the state built on airport property and a two-year college aviation training center, and the formula is even more promising. "There are a lot of companies lining up to support the programs," he reports. 

Bottom line, Wehner anticipates huge results from programs at the research center over time.   

"This transcends a taxiway project or even our master plan. It transcends the entire community," he explains. "It will be transformational to the Gulf Coast. If you take every major aerospace cluster that exists, we would have to be dramatically different for this to not dramatically impact not just the airport, but (also) the 200-mile radius in every direction. Jobs ... advanced manufacturing - this is a game-changer."

Michelle Hurdle, director of economic and community development for Airbus, agrees about the impact the aeroplex will have: "This greatly benefits Mobile and the whole Gulf region. Mobile will now be only the third location in the U.S. where large aircraft are built, and a new aerospace hub in the country. The Mobile you see today will change over the next five to 10 years for the better, with growth bringing more opportunities and different career options to the city and state. Airbus has already been a part of the community with our Airbus Defense & Space and Airbus Engineering facilities here. The A320 Family Assembly Line is just one more example of our commitment to this community."

Green Spaces & Tributes

In addition to airside and landside projects, Mobile Airport Authority is also addressing the human side of its long-term development initiative. As such, it is leading the creation of a veterans' memorial garden at the aeroplex.  

"Two beautiful, mature oak trees will serve as a gateway to a sanctuary that will honor past and recent service and sacrifices of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard," describes Wehner.

The airport authority is also helping renovate Doyle Park, where Wehner met young Frank tracing airplanes in the sky. By participating in a public-private partnership that is investing $1.5 million in the park, the authority is helping change it into a safe place where local children can grow and thrive, Wehner explains. 

"We have seen a great diverse group of kids watching the flights in wonder," notes Wehner, of the park that sits directly on BFM's flight path. "When you watch these kids, you can picture this aspirational springboard on which they can swing on a swingset, see the new Airbus buildings, and see aircraft in flight. If they have a tiny bit of interest in math and engineering, and we can keep them engaged, we can keep them in Mobile. With all we have to offer in this area, everything they need to succeed is in walking distance. They can become a technician in 18 months and make $70,000 a year. If you think about the tremendous cost of students walking away from student loans, this is an amazing opportunity. 
"Let's say a kid grows up right by Doyle Park," he continues. "And instead of leaving the area, they become a leader in that community and become an agent of change in that community."

Perhaps Frank, whose picture still sits on his desk, will be one of those future leaders. 

Wehner's passion for the airport and community - and their collective future - is shared by many people working on projects at Mobile's aeroplex and airports. Kilpatrick, of Hatch Mott MacDonald, is especially happy to be an active part of improving the local area.

"From day one, when we began pursuing the project, we thought the revitalization of Brookley was really important," explains the Mobile native. "I see more opportunities and ways to improve life for my children." 

Wehner also highlights the teamwork that has occurred to spur development. "All of our stakeholders have done a fantastic job working together with the businesses in Mobile," he comments. "The Airbus project would not have happened if not for the cooperation of the city, county, state, Alabama Power and the Chamber, among others."

Not surprisingly, he's optimistic about the future: "Between our legacy assets in tenants and land, we continue to grow ... FedEx now has 757s - up to three flights a day. The whole aviation side is growing." 

 

Subcategory: 
Landside Development

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