Louisiana’s ties to the helicopter industry run deep, with large fleets of the vertical-lift aircraft ferrying crews to and from offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world. But soon, the state won’t just fly, repair, lease and maintain helicopters for energy clients worldwide. Louisiana will build them, too.
Texas-based Bell Helicopter will establish Louisiana’s first modern-era aircraft assembly plant in an advanced 82,300-square-foot facility to be built at the Lafayette Regional Airport in Lafayette, La. Construction of the new hangar will begin in 2014, with commercial production starting quickly thereafter, pending federal certification.
The final-assembly plant marks a milestone for both Bell Helicopter and Louisiana. The company’s new SLS, or Short Light Single, helicopters for civilian use will replace earlier versions of its famed Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter, which has been deployed around the world since the company began making the aircraft a half-century ago.
With SLS denoting a short-distance, light-payload, single-engine helicopter, Bell Helicopter is returning to an aircraft category it created with the JetRanger. The new aircraft will bear the imprint of that history in its name: Bell 505 Jet Ranger X.
Well-known for commercial aircraft and such military helicopters as the iconic H-1 Huey, Bell Helicopter will produce the new five-seat SLS aircraft in Lafayette for utility, flight training, law enforcement and other civilian clients around the globe.
The company chose Louisiana for final assembly of the SLS helicopter after a highly competitive, multistate assessment of both existing facilities and greenfield sites. Helicopter assembly will take place in a $26.3 million hangar that will be leased by Bell Helicopter, funded by the State of Louisiana and owned by the Lafayette Regional Airport. The project will create 115 new direct jobs with an average annual salary of $55,000 plus benefits, and will result in an estimated 136 additional indirect jobs. Bell Helicopter also will maintain employment of more than 60 existing jobs at a pair of aircraft service and component sites in the Lafayette area.
“This is more diversification of our economy with the arrival of aerospace manufacturing by a world leader in the industry,” said Paul Segura, a member of the Lafayette Airport Commission. “It’s certainly an indication of confidence in your workforce and your people when a world leader in an industry like this chooses to locate in your community.”
The state’s incentive package for the Bell Helicopter project includes performance-based grants of $4 million for lease support at the 14.5-acre hangar site, $3.8 million for infrastructure and equipment, and $200,000 for relocation expenses.
The availability of a skilled, technical workforce figured prominently in Bell Helicopter’s selection of Louisiana, and the company will gain access to LED FastStart®, Louisiana’s best-in-the-nation state workforce training program. LED FastStart aviation experts will work with Bell Helicopter to devise a custom training program in advance of Bell’s initial hiring of new employees for the plant in 2015.
An established partnership with Textron — Bell Helicopter’s parent company and the maker of military vehicles in Louisiana — further bolstered the company’s site-selection decision.
“Louisiana is a proven and growing aerospace market and has access to a skilled, experienced workforce as well as key resources and suppliers,” said Robert Hastings, Bell Helicopter’s senior vice president of communications and government affairs. “Bell’s operations in Lafayette will put us close to many of our key customers and can increase opportunities for collaboration within the company. Our experience has shown us that Lafayette Parish is a great place to do business.”
Louisiana’s growing aerospace infrastructure and operations span the state. At NASA’s 832-acre Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Boeing is building Space Launch System rockets for the nation’s next space exploration missions to the moon and Mars. For those same missions, Lockheed Martin is building and testing the Orion spacecraft at Michoud, which boasts more than two miles of manufacturing space under roof.
The Boeing and Lockheed Martin projects are the newest chapters in an aerospace manufacturing history at Michoud that includes the iconic orange external fuel tanks built for the nation’s Space Shuttle program and the first stage of NASA’s Saturn V rockets.
In Southwest Louisiana, AAR Corp. operates one of the world’s largest aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul centers — known as MRO operations — at Chennault International Airport. A massive new hangar under construction at Chennault through a state and local partnership will be capable of housing the largest aircraft in the world and will be part of a 750-job MRO operation for the company.
Also at Chennault, Northrup Grumman services the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of massive KC-10 air tankers in another MRO operation.
In Central Louisiana, England Airpark near Alexandria, La., is a former U.S. Air Force base that’s now a 3,000-acre master-planned transportation and industrial park. England Airpark is home to the Louisiana Air National Guard and extensive private aviation operations.
Bell Helicopter’s consideration of Louisiana for the SLS project, therefore, brought together the state’s established aerospace history and infrastructure with Louisiana programs that support a nimble and flexible response to business development projects.
The result was a swift decision by Bell Helicopter: It began the formal search for a new SLS assembly plant in July 2013, only weeks after unveiling the new SLS design at the Paris Air Show. By September, meetings and site visits with local and state officials in Louisiana were in full swing. Bell Helicopter announced its site selection decision in early December after intense analysis of sites in multiple states.
The speed of the decision reflected the company’s recognition of the strategic advantages offered by Louisiana and the Lafayette Regional Airport site.
“Bell had been working on the plans for the Bell SLS program for many years, and we had a clear vision of what we needed to be successful with the program,” Hastings said.
Louisiana had likewise been laying the groundwork for an aircraft manufacturing operation for years. For the past several years, LED has made a priority of visiting corporate headquarters across a range of sectors. The visits give Louisiana officials the opportunity to explain the state’s business incentive programs, industry infrastructure and top rankings in such areas as business climate and workforce training.
Louisiana’s record of successful collaboration with local governments and regional economic development groups — for instance, the Lafayette Economic Development Authority (LEDA) in the helicopter project — is another point of emphasis in meetings with corporate officials. Examples of local-state partnerships in the aerospace sector include construction of the massive new hangar at Chennault and upgrades to infrastructure there that helped Northrup Grumman win the KC-10 service contract. With the AAR Corp. announcement in August 2013, the State of Louisiana also committed $3.7 million to establish an Aircraft MRO Center of Excellence that builds on prior aviation training programs at SOWELA Technical Community College.
In Bell Helicopter’s case, interaction with top executives at the company also gave Louisiana Economic Development (LED) officials the chance to explain the state’s long history in aerospace, including its thriving helicopter maintenance and repair sector. Conveying the flexibility of the state’s response to Bell and Louisiana’s understanding of the industry was crucial from the start.
Bell Helicopter had been exploring consolidation of its Lafayette-area operations, which include a blade-repair plant and panel-manufacturing site, when the company contacted LED in early 2013 to inquire about the state’s Retention and Modernization Tax Credit. The potential project did not match that program’s criteria for capital improvements, but the conversation proved fruitful nevertheless: It marked the starting point for additional discussions between Bell Helicopter, its consultants and LED.
Louisiana officials scheduled a meeting with Bell Helicopter executives in Texas in May 2013 as part of the continuing corporate-outreach initiative. State and regional officials conveyed a central theme: Louisiana understands helicopters — and Bell’s role in the industry, in particular — and the state had been active and accomplished in the aerospace business for decades.
Within a couple of months of that meeting, Bell Helicopter’s search for an SLS assembly site — a search that began with an anonymous request for proposals — gave Louisiana another chance to demonstrate its focus on a fast and flexible response to the manufacturer’s needs.
“With such clear goals in mind, we were able to quickly assess proposals that would and would not help us meet those goals,” Hastings said. “While there were numerous sites that could have been selected, the State of Louisiana, LED and LEDA all worked quickly and demonstrated their excitement and commitment to making this partnership work.”