With an American flag fluttering from the pilot’s window, the first Airbus passenger jet manufactured in the United States rolled to a stop Monday next to the Airbus Manufacturing Facility at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley after successfully completing its first flight.
“We did it,” said Daryl Taylor, vice president and general manager of the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility, at a brief ceremony. “It has flown.”
Airbus workers cheered as the door opened and the flight crew emerged from the jet, all decked out in its glittering blue and white color scheme. The A321, which will be delivered to JetBlue in a couple of weeks, took off shortly after 9:30 a.m. and returned shortly after 1 p.m. Several hundred Mobile residents watched the takeoff and flight from Doyle Park.
Both Airbus and state and local government officials hailed the first flight as a triumph for the company, Mobile and Alabama. It brings Airbus closer to its customers in the world’s largest market for single-aisle aircraft, Taylor said.
“Our business is a global business,” said Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas. “This puts a punctuation mark on that fact. Airbus is a global business. We’re building and flying now airplanes built in Mobile, Ala.”
Eccleston said he felt personal satisfaction at the successful venture after the company’s failed effort to get a military contract to build tanker planes.
“It makes my blood tingle,” Eccleston said. “It’s very, very rare in aviation that you get to witness a first flight. We have been privileged to do that. I have done a few before – but especially this time, it makes my blood tingle and I hope you felt the same way.”
Gov. Robert Bentley weighed in on the historic occasion.
“It is a major milestone in the history of aviation manufacturing in Alabama to see the first Airbus aircraft produced in Mobile to schedule its first test flight,” Bentley said. “Aerospace and aviation industries are extremely important to Alabama, and it is exciting to know soon JetBlue will receive its first A321 proudly made in Alabama.”
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield also noted the test flight’s significance.
“The initial test flight of the first Alabama-made Airbus passenger jet is another exciting chapter in the partnership that Alabama has developed with Airbus,” Canfield said. “This is an inspiring accomplishment for the skilled workforce at the company’s Alabama manufacturing facility, and we know that there are many more impressive developments to come as Airbus ramps up production at the Mobile Aeroplex facility.”
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson described the day with two words: “euphoric” and “gratitude.” Walking around, just about everyone he ran into was smiling, he said.
“This is one of those ‘wow’ moments for all Mobilians,” Stimpson said. “Airbus gives all Mobilians something they can be very proud of. To say that this is a great day or a big day just doesn’t do it justice.”
Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, said he worked with Airbus as far back as 2005 and 2006. There was a time when the ill-fated tanker plane effort became a “nightmare,” he said. But out of that nightmare emerged a dream of building commercial aircraft in Mobile.
The tanker project boiled down to a political struggle with U.S.-based Boeing. The sniping didn’t end after the controversy was over.
“Boeing said we couldn’t build bicycles,” said Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl. “We’ve got 60 tons behind us there that say they were wrong.”
Stimpson noted “someone on the West Coast” who said no one could build airplanes in Mobile, an obvious reference to Boeing.
“I think they realize now that not only can we build airplanes, we’re going to build airplanes and we’re going to build a lot of them in the future,” Stimpson said. “We’re going to make a stamp on the aviation world that people will stand in awe and say, ‘How did they do that?’”
Alabama officials have said despite the conflict over airplane manufacturing, Boeing still has a significant presence in the state in other areas of aerospace.
As the project was getting started, Carl said his biggest concern was where the company would find the skilled workers it needed. But when he saw that Airbus was pleased with the applicants it was getting, he quit worrying.
“This group here, they make us proud to be Americans,” Carl said. “They make us proud to be Alabamians. They make us proud to be Mobilians.”
Ulrich Weber, project head for the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility, echoed that sentiment.
“We made it together,” he said, looking out at workers assembled for the ceremony. “We made it in Mobile and we demonstrated that Mobile is a world-class location capable of making world-class aircraft. We can proudly say we made it together.”