By Aaron Bowman
Half a century ago, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Fifty years later, space exploration in the United States is alive and well. Suborbital tourist flights and astronauts flying to the International Space Station are among the aerospace and defense milestones to look forward to in 2019, according to Aviation Week Network.
Jacksonville – home to the only licensed commercial spaceport on the East Coast – is a leader in the aviation and aerospace industries, one of the region’s sectors for growth and innovation. From my professional experience, I’ve seen unprecedented growth in these industries throughout Florida, but especially in Jacksonville.
Take a look at Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) – 2018’s fastest-growing airport in North America. In March of this year, more passengers flew though JAX than any month in the airport’s 50-year history. The airport, which has grown year-over-year passenger traffic for the last year and a half, is in the process of expanding to meet this growing demand.
In addition to the record-breaking growth at JAX, another airport in Jacksonville Aviation Authority’s diversified airport system is considered a crown jewel for aeronautical, manufacturing and logistics business – Cecil Airport.
Cecil is a former military training facility and Navy Master JetBase. It is equipped with four runways including Florida’s third-longest runway at 12,500 feet and is home to Cecil Spaceport, one of eight spaceports in the United States approved for horizontal launches. The Cecil Spaceport control center, which will be housed at the airport’s air traffic control tower, will give operators the ability to track and remotely collect data from their spacecraft.
Though there have been few horizontal launches in the country so far, that’s likely to change in the near future. Potential operators include Virgin Galactic, Generation Orbit, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, among others, with capabilities of long-range flights that would span the other side of the globe in half the time of a typical commercial flight.
With Cecil’s long runways, ability to accommodate horizontal launch operators and hundreds of developable acres of land with runway access, Cecil Airport provides fertile ground for aerospace businesses to grow.
Cecil Airport at Cecil Commerce Center is currently home to a wide variety of aerospace industry leaders including Boeing, Flightstar Aircraft Services, Inc., Navy Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, LSI and more. Florida State College at Jacksonville’s (FSCJ) Aviation Center of Excellence which offers workforce training is also based at Cecil Commerce Center.
Cecil Airport is a significant contributor to the region’s economy with an impact of almost $3 billion annually and 11,000 jobs. Jacksonville’s manufacturing base and logistical advantage positions the region well for the space industry.
Aviation and aerospace industries are hiring at all levels throughout the Southeast. In Florida, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting a 5 percent growth for aircraft mechanic and technical careers, and more than 12,000 new technical job openings in the next decade.
Nothing is more important to a company’s success than its workforce and Jacksonville offers a unparalled talent pipeline to meet the demands of the aviation and aerospace industry. The region’s four military installations provide a skilled, highly-trained workforce with the knowledge to staff technical and engineering positions. More than 3,000 personnel who leave the military each year choose to remain in Northeast Florida, providing a stream of diligent employees for local businesses.
Florida’s universities are among the nation’s top producers of STEM graduates, including many specializing in the industry. In addition to FSCJ and its Aviation Center of Excellence at Cecil Commerce Center, other aviation education programs in and near Jacksonville include University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, University of Florida, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and area high school aviation career academies.
Jacksonville represents the best in manufacturing, technology and innovation, and offers the business community and quality of life that companies and their employees need to thrive. There is a growing recognition among aerospace and aviation industry leaders that Jacksonville offers the assets that will help their businesses soar.
Aaron Bowman is senior vice president of business development for JAXUSA Partnership, the Jacksonville regional economic development agency for the seven counties of Northeast Florida.