Building Airbus an A320 Sweet Home Alabama

Continuing our series of milestone projects from Austin's 100 years of serving the aviation, aerospace and defense industry ...

Four years ago, with airlines throughout North America increasing their demand for one of Airbus’ popular fuel-efficient jetliners, the aerospace giant was eager to put its footprint in the United States. It wanted to establish an A320 manufacturing facility in the United States, and after narrowing down its search, the European aircraft maker eventually chose Mobile, Alabama – “the Heart of Dixie” – for its first U.S.-based plant.

There was a backlog of orders for hundreds of the A320 family of aircraft and the new facility was expected to deliver its first aircraft – an A321 – to JetBlue by spring 2016.

To hit that deadline, Airbus needed to transform a 116-acre former Air Force base into a state-of-the-industry aerospace facility by mid-2015. For that incredible task, the aircraft manufacturer needed to rely on a trusted design, engineering and construction partner.

By 2012, when Airbus announced its decision to build its facility in Mobile, The Austin Company had nearly a century of experience in designing and building aerospace facilities in the U.S. and abroad. Austin’s designers, engineers and constructors were ready to share their immense expertise and experience with Airbus.

The Austin Company was ready to build on its reputation of a company that for decades has delivered more than just promises.

In March 2013, Airbus chose Austin to provide the design, engineering and construction administration services for the most critical buildings for the assembly of the A320 family of aircraft. Austin partnered with Mobile-based Gulf States Engineering and they immediately set out to design and engineer the facilities.

Transforming the former Brookley Air Force Base, which closed in 1969, in an extremely tight timeframe called for innovation at the design stage. In response to the project’s aggressive schedule, Austin expedited the design of the pilings and pile caps, allowing the construction work to begin just six weeks after the design contract was awarded. The Austin Company completed all design and engineering work for the complete construction documents five months after receiving the contract from Airbus.

Dan Wiegandt, one of Austin’s Subject Matter Experts for aerospace facilities served on the project team and was heavily involved in the facility’s design. “The site was just as you’d imagine an Air Force base to be,” he says. “It was a large flat plain with some runways. It wasn’t quite as flat as a pool table, but it was pretty close.”

With its location near the Port of Mobile (a large deep-water seaport in the Gulf of Mexico), the former air force base is ideal for Airbus to ship major aircraft components from its overseas operations to the Mobile facility for assembly. The location also means that the new buildings would need to withstand southern Alabama’s soil and weather conditions.

Wiegandt explains that an average of 5-feet of rain falls annually in the Mobile Bay area. “The soil conditions there are just this side of a wet sponge,” he says, wryly. The design manager adds that those conditions were especially challenging in designing and constructing the tunnels beneath the plant, particularly due to the high-voltage substation equipment that cannot be in wet or damp basements.

“There were some things that needed to be underground, but we worked to limit what was placed down below,” Wiegandt adds.

While Airbus wanted the Final Assembly Line (FAL) facility to be similar to its “sister” plants in Tianjin, China, and Hamburg, Germany, adjustments to the design and construction had to be made based on the Gulf Coast location.

“What Airbus had envisioned had never been built in a hurricane zone,” Wiegandt explains.  To account for the wet and sometimes harsh weather conditions, Austin’s designs of the three facilities took into consideration flood protection, local heavy rain, corrosion protection, deep foundations and the influence of hurricanes, including gale-force winds up to 135 mph.

Colin Wemer was Austin’s senior project manager for the Airbus facilities awarded to Austin. He explains that an additional study was provided at Airbus’ request. Austin developed a simulation plan to determine the number of finished A320s that could be moved into a hangar in the event of high winds or damaging storms.

“Airbus parks the finished planes outside on a large lot and they’re out there until the customer picks them up. They wanted to know how many could fit inside the hangar in case they get bad weather,” Wemer says. “We did the study and they can get six planes in there – away from hurricanes and high winds.”

Wiegandt says the project’s priority was the FAL because of its integral role in the assembly of the A320s. “This building had to be done first,” he says. “So, while we’re still in the design stage, Airbus awarded the steel and exterior skin. With that much structural steel and the need to get it fabricated and shipped, it was a huge deal.”

As the exterior of the FAL was being erected, Wiegandt says their focus was on the design, engineering and construction of the facility’s interior. “They were literally designing and creating the skin while we worked on everything inside that box,” he adds.

Wemer echoes Wiegandt’s overview of the project and explains that the FAL includes features that are unique to Airbus. These include special pop-up stations that rise from below the floor (much like a stage or an orchestra pit at a theater) that allow the plane to be moved along the assembly line and then plugged in for evaluation.

“It was a massive project – a very large, very tall building. This was not a WalMart box building,” Wemer says. The plant was completed on time and Airbus began assembly of its first A321 in early fall, 2015.

That jet was delivered on schedule in April 2016 to JetBlue Airways. By the end of 2017, Airbus expects the $600 million facility to produce four aircraft each month.

To the Austin team, the partnership with Airbus was more than a tremendous opportunity to create a state-of-the-industry facility for the European aircraft manufacturer. The project gave Wiegandt, Wemer, and several architects, mechanical, electrical and structural engineers, a chance to travel to two of Airbus’ A320 facilities.

Wiegandt said it was important for Austin to see the “sister” facilities, but it was just as valuable to get to know Airbus and learn their culture.

“We spent time in the Tianjin (China) plant and crawled around the building for about one week,” he explains. “And every evening, we’d spend time with our Airbus hosts. They took us to all kinds of restaurants – from the restaurants for people at the management level to restaurants for the regular workers. We got to know them and experience their culture.”

Wiegandt and Wemer also went to Airbus’ Hamburg, Germany location. “We were there to review the presentations for the construction bids – and evaluate the bidders, but we were able to see the Hamburg plant and understand the reasons for the way it’s built,” he says, adding that the building was originally used to manufacturer sea planes during World War II.

“It was fun to work on an international project,” Wiegandt says.

The A320 is a fuel efficient, twin engine single-aisle jet that’s often used on short- and medium-haul flights. In addition to the new site in Mobile, Alabama, Airbus has assembly plants in Toulouse, France; Hamburg, Germany; and Tianjin, China.

The company claims that an A320 takes off or lands somewhere across the globe every 2 seconds.

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