VENEGONO, Italy — Executives of aerospace company Leonardo told an Alabama delegation touring an aircraft facility in Italy that preparations for a manufacturing operation in Tuskegee are on track to provide the T-100 next-generation jet trainer for the U.S. Air Force.
Leonardo invited the Alabama team, led by Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, to the Venegono Superiore factory for a detailed look at how the company manufactures an advanced trainer aircraft similar to the T-100 that is already in service in three countries.
On Wednesday, executives of Leonardo and its partners provided the Alabama group with an update on the T-100 project, which calls for the construction of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility with 750 workers at Moton Field, the historic home of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Guido Sibona, head of industrial engineering for the Leonardo Aircraft Division, outlined a series of project milestones leading up to the beginning of initial production in Tuskegee in 2022 if the Air Force selects the T-100 to replace its fleet of aging T-38 trainers.
The Air Force decision is expected in March 2018.
“We have a strong plan to transition production over to the U.S.,” Sibona told the Alabama group.
According to this timeline, construction at the Moton Field site would begin in July 2018, with final completion of the production campus coming in 2021.
Hiring for the Alabama manufacturing facility would commence near the start of 2020, with low-rate production of T-100 aircraft beginning there two years later, Sibona said.
Full-scale production is expected to begin in 2023.
Leonardo’s Venegono Superiore 300,000-square-meter manufacturing complex specializes in the production of military training aircraft, including the M-346, which will serve as the basis for the T-100.
A new trainer, the M-345, is under development there, and the facility hosts a ground-based integrated flight training system laboratory.
“This is really the place for training aircraft in Italy, and I think the most important site for training aircraft in the world,” Francesco Bernardi, head of business development and strategy for the Leonardo Aircraft Division.
ON THE FACTORY FLOOR
During a tour of the manufacturing center, Alabama officials learned how Leonardo workers produce individual aircraft components such as wings and the forward fuselage. The Alabama group also saw training aircraft in the final stages of completion at the facility.
At the end of the tour, a recently completed M-346, destined for the Polish Air Force, raced down the facility’s runway and lifted off for a test flight that drew cheers from members of the Alabama delegation.
Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haygood said observing the work flow in Leonardo’s manufacturing facility brought into sharper focus what Macon County officials need to do to better prepare Moton Fields’ infrastructure for the T-100 plant, and into the kind of jobs that will be needed on the manufacturing line.
“We got a chance to really see and understand what is happening here,” Haygood said. “We saw first-hand how the assembly takes place and what types of training may be necessary, so we got a full understanding of how this is done and what the process looks like from beginning to end.”
The project would bring production of the Air Force’s trainer jet to the site where the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen received their training. The unit of African-American pilots, known as the “Red Tails,” flew fighter planes from bases in Italy during World War II.
Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the T-100 project represents a special opportunity for the company and its partners and for the regions around the airfield where the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen received their training.
“It’s really an opportunity to rekindle history in an area of our state that is known for breaking new ground and for breaking the color barrier, while setting high standards for performance,” Secretary Canfield said.
“That’s what we want to do – we want to set new high standard for performance. We’re behind this effort.”
Steve Pelham, chief of staff to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, said he was pleased to represent the governor and participate along with community leaders from Macon county in this economic develop trip to visit with leadership of Leonardo.
“Alabama has a rich history with the aviation industry and continues to be a global leader. As Alabama’s chief economic developer, the governor is very supportive of the potential partnership with Leonardo and has pledged the state’s full support if they are selected,” Pelham said.
“Creating new business investment such as Leonardo’s and creating 21st century jobs for Alabamians continues to be the governor’s highest priority,” he added.
At the conclusion of the tour, Leonardo’s Sibona presented Pelham with a model of a T-100 aircraft.
Leonardo DRS, the company’s U.S. unit, is leading the project to build the T-100 in Alabama. The M-346 base model has been selected as the jet training aircraft by the air forces of Israel, Singapore, Poland and Italy.
Other partners on the project are Honeywell Aerospace, which will provide the twin F124 turbofan engines for the T-100; and CAE, which will provide a sophisticated integrated training system for the aircraft.
The Venegono Superiore complex, which employs about 1,700 people, includes laboratories and a center for structural tests, a wind tunnel, and an airport for flight testing. It also specializes in the production of nacelles, the aerodynamic coverings of aircraft engines.
Workers at the production site have built more than 7,000 aircraft, including about 2,000 trainers that have been sold to over 40 countries.
The Alabama Department of Commerce has been pursuing the company’s jet training aircraft project since 2010.
By Jerry Underwood, Made In Alabama