By PAUL SIMS
LOWNDES COUNTY — An aircraft designed to stay aloft for five days and provide surveillance at an altitude of just under four miles got its formal debut Monday.
Officials with Aurora Flight Sciences put the Orion on display before a crowd of community leaders, Air Force personnel and other dignitaries.
In September, company officials announced U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory selected the Orion to meet standards spelled out for the Medium Altitude Global ISR and Communications Joint Capability Technology Demonstration.
Company officials have previously described the Orion as an all-composite aircraft with a wingspan of 132 feet powered by twin diesel engines.
Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s two U.S. senators, addressed the audience gathered at Aurora’s facility at Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
The project is important to the fight in Afghanistan because it allows “a persistent, unblinking eye in the sky, watching over cities or outposts” there and other interest areas, Cochran said.
“Our challenges in Afghanistan include locating insurgents and defending against their operations. Unconventional responses are required for success in this war. Aurora has responded to that challenge by developing here in our state an effective way of helping to win this war,” the senator said.
Aurora set up temporary shop to begin with at Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Laboratory while their present facility was under construction, he said.
This “was key to its success,” Cochran said.
The aerospace industry has invested more than $100 million and created 1,000 jobs in the Golden Triangle, he said, adding these figures did not include the investments of steel-maker Severstal and diesel-engine maker PACCAR.
“In order for Mississippi and the Golden Triangle to attract quality business and industry, we cannot afford not to work together. I am very proud of the economic progress being made in the Golden Triangle and today I’m particularly proud of the impressive work of the employees at Aurora,” Cochran said.
After the event, Wicker said:
“This represents the first time our military will have the capability of flying at 20,000 feet and doing surveillance in the same place for five days.” Company officials have said the aircraft can carry a payload of about 1,000 pounds.
“So it is a new capability we haven’t had before to make America safer, to prevent drug traffickers; to give our troops more information in the field and to fight a terrorist wherever he might exist,” Wicker said.
The altitude at which the aircraft is designed to fly is about 3.79 miles.
During his remarks Wicker said: “This spot today is as representative as any spot in the United States where national security and job creation intersect.”
Aurora currently has 35 employees, Wicker said, adding that hopefully by the end of next year the figure will extend beyond “100; hopefully as this project unfolds to 200 employees – quality-level employment for Mississippians, helping their country be safe.”
Also after the event, Wicker said: “This is a Manassas, Va. company who decided that their next important effort should be in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi and I’m grateful for that.”
In a statement on Monday’s rollout, company officials said they expect Orion will take its first flight in mid-2011.
Aurora CEO and President John Langford said to the audience “if all stays on track,” officials hope to have Orion available in 2012 “to begin early service to the warfighter. A lot has to happen between now and then. This is an important milestone. It’s still only the beginning of the road on this program but it’s following a well-traveled path” as both the Global Hawk and Predator began as JCTDs.
Staff members at the Golden Triangle Aurora facility started work on the aircraft in 2006. Aurora operations in Bridgeport, W. Va., Manassas, Va. and Cambridge, Mass. are all likely to join in on the MAGIC JCTD project, company officials previously said.