Mercer contract keeps millions in midstate

jmink@macon.comOctober 13, 2013 

The Mercer Engineering Research Center has been doing its work for more than two decades, and now it has landed a contract that will keep millions of dollars in the midstate and save the Air Force millions of dollars, officials say.

MERC, a unit of Mercer University, is made up of working professionals and student interns who investigate engineering issues and develop solutions, among other tasks.

With about 160 professionals, the research team is gearing up for a significant new project: sustaining the Air Force’s aging fleet of special operations forces helicopters. The group recently snagged a contract of more than $12 million to perform that task.

“This is important for the community -- for the entire Middle Georgia community,” said Andi Mitchell, the research center’s director of operations.

Under the new contract, the center will identify and solve structural and mechanical helicopter issues, such as cracking due to fatigue, corrosion or other problems connected to the aircraft’s age.

“Robins Air Force Base has strategically planned the sustainment of the aging fleet ... by recognizing that long-term engineering research is required to maintain the safety and performance of its fleet,” Dave Barwick, the center’s executive director, said in a news release.

It’s not exactly a new task for the center, which has provided rotary wing engineering research to the Air Force for more than a decade, according to Barwick.

Besides a plethora of jobs under the new contract, the center will identify highly fatigued parts of the aircraft and develop ways to extend the airframe’s life as the aircraft ages.

MERC started as a research extension of Mercer in 1987, and it soon became an operating unit of the university, Mitchell said.

In terms of funding, it’s a self-sufficient program, operating off outside contracts. With a new $12 million contract, not only does the center get a boost but also the entire community, she said.

“Because what’s happening is the money is staying in the Middle Georgia area, and that’s ... critical. It really helps that the money has stayed local,” Mitchell said. “With the shrinking budgets, sequestration is impacting everybody. So this is good that the money stayed local.”

The Air Force doesn’t have a lot of helicopters, but the ones it does have are important, and all are managed by the Special Operations Forces/Personnel Recovery Division at Robins.

The aging choppers evacuate injured troops from combat zones, protect nuclear missile silos, rescue mountain climbers and ferry congressmen around Washington. The challenge is to figure out how to keep them flying safely until funding is approved for new ones.

That’s why the Mercer contract is important, said Dwayne Marshall, a program manager in the helicopter division at Robins.

“They are in extremely high demand, but we don’t have that many of them,” Marshall said the fleet. “We take every measure possible to try to keep them mission ready.”

MERC’s data will be used to shape maintenance practices, design repairs and determine when inspections are needed.

The helicopters to be examined are the TH-1H, a training helicopter; the UH1N Huey, which provides security for nuclear missile sites and does VIP transport in Washington; and the HH-60G Pave Hawk, which is used for combat search and rescue and is the Air Force version of the Army’s Black Hawk.

The Air Force has 98 Pave Hawks, with plans to get 21 more modified from lightly used Black Hawks. There are 63 Hueys and 28 trainers.Mercer has done similar analysis work in previous years, but those contracts were about $3 million.

“The amount of analysis is far more significant than it has been in the past,” Marshall said.

Because MERC is a nonprofit, there is not a competitive bid for the work, said Steve Fairfield, section chief in the helicopter division. The contract is designed to cover only Mercer’s costs in doing the work.

Staff writer Wayne Crenshaw contributed to this report. To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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