In Alabama, they say that Huntsville has the intellect; Birmingham has the money; Montgomery has the power; and Mobile has the bay.
Soon enough, Mobile also will have airplanes, which will be built at a factory that Airbus plans to open in 2016. And from there, the same folks that brought you the southern auto industry hope they can develop a southern aviation corridor.
And while it’s still going to be a leap to get from here to there, the South is where the Wright Brothers flew their first flight (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), where countless thousands of Air Force pilots have been trained, and where there’s already a small but growing aviation industry, in places like Columbus and Batesville, Mississippi.
But let’s get back to Mobile. I drove down on an August Saturday from Birmingham, a four-hour drive that’s legendary in Alabama for its tedium. (Actually, if you break it up with a visit to Peach Park, and you stop for green boiled peanuts and to see Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace in Georgiana, it isn’t that bad.)
Compared with the rest of the Deep South, Mobile is a city apart. For one thing, it’s on breathtaking Mobile Bay, which is shaped like an inverted U, with Mobile sitting at the top of the upside U.In appearance, and atmosphere, Mobile is much more like New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities than it is like other places in the South. It has the same shotgun homes as New Orleans and the same kind of tall buildings in its downtown. Like New Orleans, Mobile is an important port, and it’s also more Roman Catholic than Bible Belt.
But Mobile shares something with the auto towns across the South: determination. Airbus’ announcement this spring that it would build the A320 in Mobile was the culmination of more than a decade of work to attract an airplane factory. “We’ve had a long time to get ready,” says Bill Sisson, the executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, who joined a big cadre of local, state and national officials to attract the Airbus plant.
Originally, Mobile thought it was going to be home to tanker planes, built for the U.S. Air Force, a contract that Airbus won and subsequently lost to Boeing. Then, when all hope was gone, Airbus came through with a project that will be built not far from downtown, at Brookley Field. (My friend George Talbot, political editor of the Mobile Press-Register, is the authority on all things Airbus. You can read his archive here.)
Brookley opened as a commercial airfield in 1929, attracting notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In 1938, the Army Air Corps bought the property and established a base that remained open until 1969, when it was the largest closure at the time in military history.
Brookley became a private and cargo aviation complex (commercial traffic is handled by Mobile Regional Airport, a few miles away). There are 4 million square feet of industrial space, and 70 companies at the aeroplex, with nearly 4,000 people working there. But Airbus, needless to say, will be its biggest prize.
We rode up a tiny elevator and then climbed up to the control tower to survey the scene. The view is breathtaking. The runways and green fields spread out below us, the bay to our right, downtown on the horizon, and the ocean in the distance behind us. It was too hazy to see very far, but I was assured that when the skies are clear the view stretches for miles.
In front of us was the site where the Airbus factory will be built. It will be using the runways at Brookley to test its planes, which it will be able to deliver to customers such as Jet Blue and Delta without having to ferry them across the Atlantic. It’s likely that passengers will be flying on these American-built Airbus jets by the end of the decade.
Already, Mobile is seeing an influx of Airbus personnel, French and German, who have come over for meetings and to take a look around the South. They’re a subject of curiosity for restaurant staff like Justine, our server at Felix’s Fish Camp, who told us she’d noticed some Airbus business cards being passed around by some of her customers.
“It’s going to bring a lot of business,” she said. “I think that’s awesome. I’ve been waiting tables for a long time. Wherever the money is at, I guess.” She was excited to hear she could already submit her job application at AirbusAmerica.com.
Airbus already has an engineering center not far from Brookley, which opened back when it looked like Mobile would be getting the tanker plant. Many of the newcomers are drawn to the quaint towns around Mobile, such as Fairhope, which sits on the other side of Mobile Bay.
I spent an evening and the following day exploring Fairhope, and it gave me the same sense of peace and contentment I feel when I’m on Cape Cod.
Along with its charming downtown, decorated with flowers that change year around, Fairhope, population 15,000, has a quarter-mile long fishing pier where families gather to catch fish and crab, and watch the stunning sunsets.
Marvin Johnson, a retired school principal from Mobile, invited me to fish with him and his family. I hauled in a fish too small to keep, while I basked in the vivid colors of the sky, watched pelicans fly across the horizon, and looked at the motorboats humming quietly past.
Soon, that sky will also feature gleaming Airbus jets. Perhaps Justine will be building them rather than waiting tables. And if it’s anything like the impact of the automobile industry on the rest of the South, Mobile will find itself in a new league. Says Sisson: “The world will be looking at Mobile, instead of Mobile looking out at the world.”
Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.
The Brookley Aeroplex: http://www.brookleyaeroplex.com/index.php