Small airplane may fly AAI to contract Md. company bids to build undersized version of Pioneer

Heading for Bosnia

Half of the work would be done at Cockeysville plant

September 18, 1995|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The little airplane that looks more like a toy than a serious fighting machine has put AAI Corp. of Cockeysville in position to vie for a military pact valued at more than $1 billion.

Richard R. Erkeneff, president of AAI, said the company has teamed with Raytheon Corp. in Lexington, Mass., to bid on a contract to build a smaller version of Pioneer, a miniature, unmanned, spy plane it currently produces in conjunction with one of Israel's largest defense contractors.

Mr. Erkeneff talked about the prospects of a new contract during ceremony last week marking the delivery of the first of an order of 30 Pioneer planes, technically called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

He said the smaller craft, called Shadow, would be about half the size of Pioneer, which would make it easier to transport and deploy more rapidly. A contract is expected to be awarded next year.

Mr. Erkeneff said that if the AAI and Raytheon team is successful in winning the pact, about half of the work would be performed at AAI's complex off of York Road.

Pioneer is a 14-foot-long plane with a wingspan of 16 feet. It is built by Pioneer UAV Inc., a Hunt Valley-based joint venture between AAI and Israel Aircraft Industries.

Pioneer made its way into the U.S. military arsenal 10 years ago and earned its wings in the annals of military history during the Persian Gulf War. It is about to go into combat again in the near future.

In accepting delivery of a $750,000 Pioneer last week, Navy Capt. Timothy J. Hallihan said some of the little planes are already aboard a war ship steaming toward the Adriatic Sea.

"That's military terminology for Bosnia," said a Pioneer UAV executive.

Pioneer is powered by a 26 horsepower snowmobile engine. It carries a tiny television camera in its belly that spies on enemy troop movements, scans targets for attack and does damage assessment after an artillery bombardment or bombing raid.

It also has infrared equipment for night operations.

The plane has a range of 100 miles and can hover over a target for up to six hours. It is operated by a "pilot" sitting at the controls in a ground station, and battlefield commanders see what the planes see on television screens.

During the Persian Gulf War, the planes were used to help enforce the naval blockade of Iraq by identifying ships operating in the region. Serving as a forward observer, flying 5,000 feet above the battlefield, Pioneers were used to direct the fire at lTC land targets from the 16-inch guns of battleships in the Persian Gulf.

They were also used in the search for Scud missile launchers, frequently following a meal truck to a nearly invisible underground desert missile bunker. Hungry and unsuspecting Iraqi soldiers gave away their hiding place by rushing out to meet the truck for their dinner.

The little planes have meant a big chunk of business for AAI, one of Maryland's fastest growing defense contractors during the 1980s but one that has struggled in recent years and eliminated nearly 2,500 jobs. Approximately 1,000 people still work for AAI.

"This represents a very significant part of our revenues," Mr. Erkeneff said as he slid his hand along the wing of a Pioneer parked in front of AAI's production shop.

"It will be $14 million or $15 million in business this year. That will be about 10 percent of our revenues."

AAI is involved in the final assembly of the planes. Workers also produce some parts including the wings, fuselage, landing gear and electronic equipment.

Pioneer represents about 25 percent of the production at the York Road complex, and it's one of the company's fastest growing programs.

The military is also looking at UAVs for a number of other missions, said Steven E. Reid, director of business development at Pioneer UAV.

In recent tests, the craft has been used to detect radiation leaks, chemical warfare agents and to serve as a flying antenna to improve ground communications.

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