CT beat out S.C., Florida, others for billions in helicopter work

Sikorsky's new heavy lift helicopter in flight testing.

Sikorsky Aircraft

Sikorsky’s new heavy-lift helicopter in flight testing.

Washington – Lockheed Martin was considering South Carolina, Florida and other states as places to build Sikorsky’s new CH-53K King Stallion helicopter – a Defense Department program expected to cost at least $25 billion – when the company and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy struck a deal to keep the work in Connecticut.

A Sikorsky facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., has built four prototypes of the heavy-lift King Stallion, which are currently in flight testing.

Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said that facility, and other sites “where Lockheed Martin had capacity” were considered for production of the rest of the fleet.

“The next stage would be low-rate initial production,” he said. “That’s why we need to make the production location decision by early October, per the U.S. Navy’s schedule.”

Joe McGee, the vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said Lockheed Martin facilities in Georgia and Texas also were in the running for the lucrative King Stallion contract. But Jackson declined to say whether those two states were contenders.

The Navy plans to buy 200 King Stallion helicopters for the Marine Corps. Right now it is considering Sikorsky’s bid to build the first 20 helicopters, a new contract the company hopes  will compensate for the military’s sharp drop in the number of Black Hawks it will purchase.

While the Sikorsky site in Florida and others were considered, the strongest competitor was Lockheed Martin’s facility in Greenville, S.C. It provides “nose-to-tail” aircraft modification, maintenance, repair and overhaul services for a number of military aircraft, including the F-22, F-35 and C-130. But the plant does not do any helicopter work.

Jackson said the lack of a helicopter production line and a workforce skilled in helicopter manufacturing in South Carolina and at other Lockheed Martin sites under consideration “were all factors in the decision” to negotiate a deal with Malloy.

Legislators, who will vote on a $220 million package of incentives and tax breaks on Wednesday, say a senior Lockheed Martin official told them the package is needed to help offset $400 million in higher costs to produce CH-53K helicopters in Connecticut rather than in competing states.

Unlike the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, where workers are members of Teamsters Local 1150, the Lockheed Martin South Carolina facility is not unionized.

Donna Dewitt, president emeritus of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, said there were several attempts to unionize the plant, but all failed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina had the lowest percentage of unionized jobs in the nation last year, just 2.1 percent, while New York had the highest, 24.7 percent. In Connecticut, 17 percent of the state’s workers were represented by a union.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, has pushed to bring manufacturing jobs to her state, but she has been an arch foe of labor unions.

“We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina,” she said.

Haley has also said she tells companies interested in relocating to South Carolina to leave their unionized workers behind because they would “taint the water” in her state.

South Carolina has attracted BMW, Michelin and Boeing, among other big manufacturers.

“Everybody wants to come to South Carolina because it’s the last place you go before going offshore,” Dewitt said.

The deal with the state is contingent on approval of an agreement between Sikorsky and Teamsters Union Local 1150. A vote is scheduled Oct. 9. Sikorsky laid off 150 Connecticut employees in late August, and employment is expected to dip as Black Hawk production declines, but the agreement calls for an eventual increase in employment as the King Stallion ramps up.

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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