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“Aviation Transformation in Ozark – Window on a New Economic Era in Alabama”

Dr. James W. (Jim) Williams

Exciting things are happening in Ozark, Alabama. Aviation developments are creating opportunities, at least partly turning economic disaster into a pathway to a brighter future. The changes ripple beyond Ozark to other parts of the state and even to other countries. Moreover, these changes reflect a larger transformation of Alabama’s core economy.

This Ozark story has several moving parts. One is an association with Army aviation that goes back to the early 1950s, when the Army Aviation School moved to Fort Rucker. For more than 50 years, this association has created a demand for skilled, high-value workers. This demand, in turn, spawned and expanded educational structures to provide those workers. An aviation-rich, aviation-friendly environment has drawn outside businesses. These businesses’ successes have increased the demand for aviation workers. A highly competitive labor market resulted, with jobs offering high starting pay and good benefits. The loss over the past decade of Alabama’s textile industry – an economic mainstay for over a century – created both a supply of potential aviation workers and an urgent need for new jobs that aviation education has expanded to help fill. A key element in the story has been energetic, creative people who repeatedly proved the saying, 'One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.'

Refurbished and repainted Huey- US Helicopter
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The City of Ozark has been a key catalyst in at least three ways. One is by welcoming newcomers connected to aviation. This openness, along with Alabama's Congressional clout and the vision of some aviation enthusiasts within the Army, brought the Aviation School to the area in 1954. Second, Ozark initiated education to meet local needs of aviation. Growth at Fort Rucker demanded more technicians with aviation skill. In 1960 that led the city to start an aviation technical program as a part of the high school system. In 1962 Ozark's Aviation Technical Institute became part of a statewide network of technical colleges. These aviation programs gained facilities next to Ozark's municipal airport.

Blackwell Field- Ozark Municipal Airport
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Today, as part of Enterprise-Ozark Community College (EOCC), the original Aviation Campus at Ozark has smaller satellite programs at Mobile and Andalusia. Finally the city – especially under Mayor Bob Bunting –promoted aviation activities through material help to potential businesses. Offers of land and help with facilities have brought new businesses to Ozark. A recent example of success was the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF), subject of another article.

Reworking the Huey at US Helicopter
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BellAero, doing business as US Helicopter, is a prime example of the mutual benefits deriving from conditions in and around Ozark. Today's US Helicopter started out in the 1970s as Wilco, a company to provide maintenance and to rework cast-off helicopters for resale. Wilco became Southern Aero Corporation, acquired in 1992 by Maryland-based UNC and renamed UNC Helicopter. In December 1994. UNC Helicopter became US Helicopter through a small-business buy-out. Key to this transition were cooperative efforts of a willing Ozark banker, then-Ozark director of economic development Bob Bunting, and two retired military officers.

Completed Huey II in the US Helicopter paint area
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These two entrepreneurs – neither from the Ozark area – achieved the purchase via a loan guarantee from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and a referral from Alabama Senator Howell Heflin. From 1995 onward, as the Army shed its Hueys and Cobras, US Helicopter grew. In 2005 Bell Aerospace Services, Inc (BellAero), acquired US Helicopter. BellAero is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Helicopters, which built the Huey II kits that US Helicopter used to give the veteran aircraft new life. Since 2005 the City of Ozark has helped again by making land available, as well as expanding and improving infrastructure to support the adjacent airport and US Helicopter's location.

Willy Wilson, head of Production Operations

Today US Helicopter produces the Huey II – a radically more capable aircraft than the Vietnam-era Huey -- for a wide array of customers at home and abroad. US Helicopter is also beginning similar work on Cobras. The head of production operations, Mr. Willy Wilson, reflects the longstanding Ozark-Fort Rucker association. Wilson finished a long Army career by serving as Fort Rucker's post command sergeant major and heading Fort Rucker's Noncommissioned Officers' Academy.

Cobra Full Motion Simulator at DynaLantic
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New York-based DynaLantic is another business reflecting aviation at Ozark today. In 1984 DynaLantic arose from a long-established builder of simulators. By the late 1990s DynaLantic saw a potential in providing training, as well as in manufacturing and supporting simulators. DynaLantic acquired some Huey simulators and targeted foreign users buying Huey IIs from US Helicopter.

Cockpit entry for new Huey Simulator - DynaLantic
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When the Army scrapped its Cobra simulators, DynaLantic saved the last one. Locating in Ozark was a natural choice. Collocating at Blackwell field with US Helicopter meant that Huey II users could go one place both to pick up the aircraft and to train in its operation. Also Ozark – notably, Mayor Bob Bunting – directly invited DynaLantic, helped acquire land for their new facility dubbed “DynaFlight Training Center”, and provided vital temporary facilities.

New training console for Huey- DynaLantic
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Finally, nearness to Fort Rucker would let foreign trainees and representatives visiting DynaLantic meet with others with similar interests and skills. For its training operations DynaLantic has developed an impressive, new visual system. Simulator upgrades parallel those going into the reworked Hueys and Cobras. Thus, pilots trained at DynaLantic won't suffer from the common problem of mismatched training devices and aircraft flown. Once potential users realize the huge advantages of this training, DynaLantic expects as much traffic as it can handle. This extra flow of visitors will benefit Ozark and the Wiregrass through increased visibility in the worldwide aviation community.

The biggest obstacle to rapid expansion of aviation is a lack of people with key technical skills. Here, the decisions made and actions taken decades earlier in Ozark have combined with recent events to open promising, new avenues for the whole community. The Aviation Campus of EOCC, working cooperatively with aviation businesses, is producing a vital flow of people to meet growing and changing demands for aviation technicians.

Tom Kirk and Students rebuild a Cessna - EOCC
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The Ozark campus currently has about 515 students in two maintenance tracks – Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) and Avionics. The campus is expanding to a thousand students with 300 to 350 graduates each year. To meet the urgent demand for workers, EOCC created a one-year certificate. That lets students work at entry level in nearby aviation companies while pursuing their associate degree and license. Meanwhile, US Helicopter, located just across the municipal runway from the Aviation Campus, hires these students to do less-skilled work while they complete their degree. Other companies in the area, including Sikorsky at Troy, do similarly. This arrangement helps lowers labor costs for the company while students earn good pay and gain practical experience.

New EOCC Academic Building
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This combination of opportunities and efforts has helped soften a heavy social and economic blow. Since 1995 Alabama has lost more than 57,000 textile jobs – a 60 percent decline. This decline hit hundreds in the Ozark area, which had six plants close over a 25-year period. Many unemployed had deep local roots and lacked education or financial reserves to make leaving practical. Partly using state and federal grants, EOCC and aviation companies began working together to reemploy former textile workers. For many of these workers, transition from textile to aviation meant being kicked upstairs in salaries, benefits, and job security.

Starting wages sometimes above $42,000 per year put these new hires well above the state's median household income of $38,180. For Ozark and other communities where these people live and work, new aviation jobs mean economic gains, including purchasing power for local businesses and higher tax base. Employment in the aviation field now provides jobs for over five thousand workers in Dale County alone. As a result, the county's unemployment rate hovers around 4 percent, with 3.6 percent for the First Quarter, 2007.

City of Ozark Mayor, Bob Bunting-
Office of the Mayor

Aviation development in Ozark wouldn't be what it is today without the active hand of specific individuals. Key has been Ozark's mayor, Bob Bunting. Bunting is intimately and personally tied to aviation in the locality. A 30-year Army aviation career began at Fort Rucker and ended there as chief of staff. While in flight school, he married an Ozark girl. Upon retiring from the Army, Bunting became Ozark's director of economic development. In that role he helped with the buy-out of UNC Helicopter that became US Helicopter. In 1996 Bunting became mayor of Ozark. As mayor he has consistently and effectively sought to make Ozark and aviation benefit mutually.

One last, vital element in the Ozark story is a uniquely helicopter-friendly culture. Around the world intolerance of aircraft noise increasingly restricts flight activities. People in the Wiregrass have long regarded the sound of rotor blades as meaning economic and national security. Both citizens and those engaged in aviation recognize that much of what happens in the Wiregrass could not happen elsewhere. So a priceless bond of mutual support prevails.

Ozark's transition from textile to aviation is part of a major shift toward diversity in Alabama's economy. Along with the recent advent of automotive manufacturing elsewhere in Alabama, the aviation development evident in Ozark is moving the state into another stage of its economic history. See more at Photo Gallery. All images special to Alabama Aviator.

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