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Building for Building Planes

Birmingham’s Hoar Program Management is overseeing the construction of the first U.S. assembly plant for European commercial air giant Airbus. Even as the first steel rises, it’s all about building airplanes.

The final assembly hangar, centerpiece of the Airbus final assembly line, takes shape at Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile.

The final assembly hangar, centerpiece of the Airbus final assembly line, takes shape at Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile.

Photo by Todd Douglas

The massive hangar now under construction at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex – like the mythical phoenix – is rising from ashes of dreams.

Seven years ago, Alabama thought it had won, for the Aeroplex site, a plant where the European aerospace giant EADS would team with an American partner to build tankers for the U.S. Air Force.

Those hopes were dashed when the Pentagon reversed its contract award and gave the prize to Boeing.

But the prize for hard work and patience has been even more substantial — a commercial aircraft final assembly line, the only one in North America for Airbus, EADS’ commercial division.

And this time, the project is proceeding right on schedule.

Steel is rising over Brookley and all the internal steel work of the final assembly hangar — 100 feet high and 270 feet wide — is in place.

“Over the last year, the Airbus teams of Germany and U.S. have worked closely with our partner Hoar Program Management and our subcontractors to build a world class A320 assembly line and to meet our schedule, budget and quality demands,” says Michelle Hurdle, director of economic and community relations for Airbus’ Mobile project.

Since Hoar Program Management was selected to supervise the construction in February 2013, five major design contracts have been let with construction in progress on several and other construction contracts about to be let.

“Design is under way for all the buildings, site work and infrastructure,” says Mike Lanier, president of Hoar PM. The Birmingham firm worked in concert with the Mobile office of Hatch Mott McDonald, an international engineering and aviation design firm, to award design contracts.

Key elements of the first design package were the final assembly hangar — destined to be the largest building on the Airbus site — along with the logistics and support centers. Ohio-based design firm Austin Co. won that contract, paired with Mobile’s Gulf States Engineering.

Next came design for the final phase hangar, flight line hangar and gauging hangar, says Lanier. “These three are all right together adjacent to the final assembly line.” Tulsa-based Frankfort-Short-Bruza is the lead on that team, paired with local firms.  While the goal was to include as much local participation as possible, selecting Austin and FSB brings in “big firms with large structural and aviation experience. We had to go national for that experience.”

The final architectural package, including the transshipment hangar, where parts arrive at the site en route to the assembly area, plus the main gate and its security area and renovation of an existing building, went to Fairhope’s Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects, Lanier says.

Mike Lanier, president of Hoar Program Management, enjoys his role in helping clients get the results they want — and the chance to learn how aircraft are built.

Photo by Cary Norton

Mobile-based Thompson Engineering won the contract for paving, lighting, infrastructure and site work.

“In our conversations with Airbus,” says Lanier, “we put a lot of emphasis on being local. For this project to be successful, a European-based company making its first entry into the American market, it needed local leadership — it needed to put an American face on their project, not just American but an Alabama face. 

“We wanted to hire the best firms we could to do the work, but because of the incentives and so forth, we wanted to make sure we had as much local flavor as we can.” Several other big recent projects were awarded to out-of-state design and construction firms, Lanier says. “We wanted to try to change that and Airbus agreed with us, that we should make this a focus.”

In consequence, says Lanier, the Airbus team is made up of “great firms with a lot of Alabama connection.”

At the same time, Airbus awarded two other contracts, one for the powerhouse and one for the paint shop, both of which Hoar PM is coordinating.

Construction on the $600 million project hit a major milestone in January when the final truss went into place on the final assembly hangar.

“It’s right on schedule,” says Lanier. “It’s a major milestone to get that done. That’s over 1,000 tons of structural steel in four months.” 

The teams celebrated by taking a picture but went right ahead with the work and by the following week the skin was going on the outside and the roof over the top of the building that is nearly 100 feet clear vertically with a 270-foot span. Roof and skin are slated for completion in summer.

Contracts have been let for foundations — Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie and Mobile’s Hosea O. Weaver are at work on those projects — and another construction package was due to be let in early February.

“That will put us at the halfway point in terms of dollar value of contracts,” says Lanier.

So far, work is proceeding on schedule, Lanier says. Airbus gave them the key milestones — primary among them dates for the start of production and the target for delivery of the first aircraft — and Hoar developed the detailed schedule.  “We’re right where we’re supposed to be — on schedule for delivery of the first aircraft in two years, just as they’ve been saying all along.”

The team lost a couple of work days to ice in January and for a hurricane scare in October — workers had to secure everything and shut down, but the site was spared, so no damage and no clean up. “We lost three days but we’ve been able to make it up and keep on rocking.”

Created as an offshoot of Hoar Construction in 1998, Hoar PM has since supervised building projects for school districts, colleges and more. While the Airbus project is its biggest single project, the firm’s $1 billion worth of work over nine years for the University of Alabama eclipses any individual project.

Lanier enjoys the opportunity to work as an advocate for a project owner. “Our folks become an extension of the owner,” he says, making sure their clients get the best possible structures for their investment.

And working with Airbus has special rewards, he says, in the international friendships that have been built around the projects. Alabama teams have taken their European counterparts to sample hunting, fishing, bowling and American football, along with great area restaurants.

Since Hoar personnel have visited Airbus sites in Germany and China and Airbus team have visited the Mobile site, the teams have developed a good working relationship and more.

“These are good folk who understand their business and know what they want,” Lanier says of the Airbus teams. “We regard each other as experts. They know what they want, and we know about U.S. construction so they get what they want.”

“I’ve learned a ton about building airplanes,” Lanier says. “You have to know what a building’s going to do, how an aircraft goes together. You can see things on drawings and you think you understand what they’re trying to communicate, but until you see how it works, how it supports putting the plane together, you don’t know how important it is.”

Moreover, says Lanier, learning the process, “you gain a new appreciation for every time you climb on one to go someplace, for how intricate they are.”

Nedra Bloom is copy editor for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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