Attack aircraft maker seeks incentives

Embraer takes a second run at Northeast Florida operations

Embraer’s Super Tucano is being marketed to the U.S. military as a low-cost fighter effective against insurgencies in remote areas.
JACKSONVILLE — Northeast Florida’s growing defense aviation sector will get a shot in the arm if Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer decides to assemble attack aircraft for the U.S. military here.

Embraer is considering adding 50 jobs and investing $3.8 million in a vacant 40,000-square-foot Jacksonville International Airport hangar where it would assemble turboprop light attack aircraft, known as Super Tucanos.

The aircraft would be used by the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps for training, reconnaissance and light attack, according to Embraer and the Department of Defense’s request for proposals.

Embraer’s presence in Jacksonville would bolster the local sector’s image and could spur the company to expand its operations in the coming years like The Boeing Co. has done by bringing new work to Cecil Airport, formerly known as Cecil Field. The average salary of Embraer’s potential workers is about $49,500.

Embraer spokeswoman Elisa Donel wrote in an e-mail that the company expects to know if it won the $950 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense by the end of June. She said the contract order calls for a minimum of two Afghanistan light-air support aircraft.

Embraer is asking the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission for $150,000 in local and state tax incentives. Donel wrote in an e-mail that Embraer is not considering any locations other than Jacksonville.

“The decision will be made in the very near future [regarding whether to set up shop in Jacksonville],” Donel wrote.

If it receives the contract, Embraer will use its existing work force of 200 to handle the work at the headquarters of its American subsidiary in Fort Lauderdale. The company plans to add another 200 workers at a facility in Melbourne, which is under construction, according to JEDC documents.

This is Embraer’s second try at building planes in Northeast Florida. Seventeen months after state and company officials celebrated the groundbreaking of a 71,000-square-foot facility for the company at Cecil Field in 2004, Embraer had to put its plans on hold.

The U.S. Army canceled its $879 million contract with Lockheed Martin to build a spy plane after it learned the company’s electronics were incompatible with Embraer’s ERJ-145 aircraft, which would have carried the airborne radar and surveillance equipment. Embraer had intended to invest $10 million in infrastructure and hire about 200 workers for high-paying jobs at Cecil Field.

The Super Tucanos “can handle counterinsurgency attacks and are for dealing in areas where there isn’t a lot of high-tech ground support available,” said Eric Wertheim, a defense analyst. “They are being offered to the [U.S.] Navy and [U.S.] Air Force.”

The plane, which costs about $9 million apiece, won favor with the U.S. Special Operations Command when its operators tested the plane in 2009, according to Strategy Page, a military news website. The Super Tucanos are inspired by the A-1 Skyraider, a popular ground support aircraft used during the Vietnam War.

Colombia and Brazil have ordered 144 total Super Tucanos. About 650 older version planes are used by 15 air forces for primarily internal security and border protection, according to Strategy Page.

Northeast Florida’s defense aviation sector is expected to add hundreds of high-paying jobs over the coming years. For instance, Northrop Grumman Corp. plans to increase its work force in St. Augustine by about 510 to more than 1,260 workers.

Boeing plans to add about 40 jobs in the coming year at Cecil, bringing its work force to about 285, as it ramps up work on a contract to convert retired aircraft into testing and training drones. The sector’s niche in getting extra life out of aging planes has spared it cuts through the shrinking defense department budget, said John Haley, vice president of business recruitment for the Cornerstone Regional Development Partnership.