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Tuskegee greets Italian ambassador as city seeks to lure T-100 trainer jet project

Armando Varricchio, the Italian ambassador to the United States, visited Tuskegee's Moton Field Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. Italian company Leonardo is hoping to land a contract to manufacture the U.S. Air Force's next trainer jet. (William Thornton / wthornton@al.com)
AL.com

By WILLIAM THORNTON | Alabama Media Group, Birmingham | Published: February 6, 2018

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Italy gave the Tuskegee Airmen a home. Now an Italian corporation hopes to make its home in Alabama for what could be a transformational project.

Italian ambassador Armando Varricchio visited Moton Field in Tuskegee, touring the training home of the celebrated World War II fighter pilots. Along with Varricchio was William Lynn III, CEO of Leonardo DRS, the North American arm of the Italian aeronautics and defense contractor.

The company hopes to build the T-100 trainer jet for the U.S. Air Force at Tuskegee. But that's if the U.S. Air Force awards the contract for the project. Company officials believe that decision will come this summer.

Tuskegee traveled - or perhaps flew - over many competitors to get to this point. The Macon County city beat out 142 sites for consideration, and one big factor was the history of the Airmen, who made their base in Italy during World War II.

Varricchio, who had never before visited Alabama prior to today, later had dinner with Gov. Kay Ivey in Montgomery. He came away impressed by Tuskegee, saying it is "perfectly matched and equipped to host a state-of-the-art new facility." He also praised local and state officials for their "determination, readiness and eagerness in building on the historic tradition of bonds between Italy and this part of the United States."

State and local officials for more than a year have stressed the importance of the Leonardo project to Macon County and the region. The company plans a manufacturing facility with 750 workers at Moton Field with an initial investment of $200 million to $250 million. The company would build 350 of the jets over an estimated 20 years. The jet would replace a 50-year-old trainer jet now in use.

As with some of the state's other automotive and aerospace projects, the potential for supplier jobs is also great.

Joe Turnham, director of the Macon County Economic Development Authority, said a fully operational Leonardo plant in Tuskegee would translate, in about five to 10 years, into adding about $303 million to the county's GDP. For a Black Belt county with a population of around 20,000 and a poverty rate of about 30 percent, the effect can't be overstated.

But Varricchio said the importance for Italy is also crucial, given Leonardo's profile there.

"Leonardo DRS is one of the largest companies (in Italy) and very engaged in research and development," he said. "Working for the U.S. Air Force for my country would be very important. We are strong partners, we are strong allies in many fields, and we are engaged in many important operations overseas, and being able to share technology and new products is very important."

Lynn said getting the contract and locating in Tuskegee would be "gamechanging" for his company.

"It establishes us at a new level and a different sphere," Lynn said. "We have a training aircraft that's been in the international market, but bringing it here would expand and solidify our role. To bring that technology here would be fabulous."

In December, the Air Force decided to locate the new F-35A fighter jet program in Montgomery. Lynn said that decision "can't be a negative" for Tuskegee's chances. For example, the T-100 trainer jet is already used to train Israeli pilots on their version of the F-35.

"We have already proved we can do the mission that the U.S. Air Force intends for this aircraft," he said.

Turnham said the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the City of Auburn have also thrown their support behind the Leonardo project. Winning the project would see a transformation to Moton Field, increasing the size of the runway and creating an adjoining aerospace park.

Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haygood said he was encouraged by Varricchio's visit, demonstrating that if Leonardo comes to Tuskegee, it will be part of the community.

"He was very open, and positive," he said. "The energy was great. We felt the warmth."

Haygood said the project would allow the community to draw not only on the example of the Tuskegee Airmen, but on the heritage of Tuskegee University and the figures who have written the county's history.

"It could immediately launch us from a community that's challenged economically, but thriving and setting an example and bringing others along," he said. "It's always been a story of Tuskegee doing what couldn't be done. If you tell us what needs to be done, and give us a fair chance, we'll do what needs to be done."

©2018 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
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