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Lakeland fighter-jet company seeks state funds for expansion

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Published:   |   Updated: July 31, 2014 at 06:43 AM

— The world’s largest collection of tactical air support fighter jets is stored inside a 100,000-square-foot hangar across from the flight line at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

There are eight U.S.-built Douglas A-4K Skyhawks, nine Italian-made Aermacchi MB-339CB fighters and five Aero L-39 Albatross fighters. The hangar is also home to 28 Mikoyan MiG 21s, purchased from Poland, in various parts, waiting to be rebuilt.

It is a unique aerial armada that, among other missions, helps U.S. and allied combat pilots learn how to dogfight. And the company is about to add to the collection.

But the additional jet might not come to Lakeland.

Draken International, which owns the jets and employs 35 people in Lakeland, says the jets it already has in Lakeland represent a $25 million investment. During the recent Farnborough airshow in England, a major event on the aerospace industry calendar, the company unveiled a deal for up to 28 Czech fighter jets and is looking for money from Florida to expand its operations in Lakeland. Draken says without significant help, it may be forced to move the new jets, acquired in a deal the company says could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of jobs to Lakeland.

“We told the people from Enterprise Florida that a baby Lockheed-Martin was being born in Lakeland,” says the company’s CEO Jared Isaacman.

Officials from Enterprise Florida, the public-private entity that works to bring businesses to Florida, say they cannot talk about what, if any efforts they have on Draken’s behalf.

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Inside the main office, Draken operations personnel use a flat-screen monitor to keep track of where its jets are at any given moment, how much they’ve flown and when they are scheduled for maintenance.

Draken International was formed in November 2011 as an offshoot of the Black Diamond Jet Team, aerial acrobatics performers who dedicate each appearance to the Make-A-Wish foundation.

Draken International has a very different mission.

The capabilities, threat replication and performance of the jets are used to “train elements within the U.S. Department of Defense and our allies,” says Isaacman, an entrepreneurial whiz kid who founded his first company, Harbortouch, as a 16-year-old in the basement of his home.

“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” says Vice President of Client Relations Sean Gustafson, standing in the middle of the hangar, which is so big employees zip around in Segways.

Draken’s fleet of jets, considered advanced or what the military terms “4th generation” because of the radar, avionics and other technology onboard, offer distinct advantages as an adversarial force, says Gustafson.

An Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and experienced combat fighter pilot who owns the distinction of being the first Air Force Reserve pilot to fly with the storied Thunderbirds aerial performance team, he says the jets, which the company contracts out, are cheaper for the U.S. military than flying its own fleet of fighters. It costs the Air Force 10 times as much per hour to fly its advanced F-22s and F-35s (when the fleet is not grounded) than what Draken charges, Gustafson says.

Beyond cost, there is another advantage.

It’s good for fighter pilots to train against different aircraft, says Gustafson, a senior pilot with more than 2,500 hours flying F-16s.

Not only does the company fly advanced fighters, says Gustafson, but employs what the company highlights as “world-class, military-trained fighter pilots.” In addition to Gustafson, the company’s ranks include Jeff Scott, director of business development, who was the Marine Corps’ first F-35 squadron commander.

Aside from dogfighting, Draken’s jets are used to help train joint tactical air controllers, who call in aircraft for close air support. The fleet is also used during aerial refueling training and naval air defense missions, working with anti-aircraft missile crews on targeting training.

The company, says Isaacman, has contracted its services to the Navy and defense contractors. He won’t divulge which ones.

It is also seeking a future Navy contract, says Gustafson.

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“We really love it in Lakeland,” says Gustafson. “We want to stay here and we are trying to get incentives.”

The company just inked a deal with Czech aircraft manufacturer Aero Vodochody and the Czech Republic Ministry of Defense to purchase and rebuild up to 28 Aero L-159E Alca fighter aircraft and serve as the first Aero Vodochody approved maintenance, repair and overhaul operation. The company hopes to have seven Alcas delivered by the end of the year.

Draken will also exclusively market the Alcas and newer versions to customers in North and South America and assemble fighters from parts supplied by Aero Vodochody.

That deal represents a significant increase in revenue generation, says Isaacman, pointing out that while they can get up to $7,000 per hour to fly a Skyhawk, an Alca fighter can sell for $20 million. The company is eyeing the Central and South American markets, he says, where most planes being flown by governments there for combat or drug interdiction missions are at least 50-years old.

An F-16 can cost $60 million, says Isaacman. For that money, a government in Central or South American can buy a few Alcas from Draken. Most aircraft deals involved multiple planes, he says.

“That’s a hell of a lot of jobs,” he says.

Draken wants to expand to accommodate the deal. And that takes money.

The Czech fighter deal is a “major diversification initiative for Draken International and will result in a further $30 million investment in to the company,” says Isaacman. “We have not determined where this new and important segment of our business will be located. We would certainly like to see it based in Lakeland, but we have to look at all available opportunities.

One option is Spaceport America, according to Draken officials. The Las Cruces-based facility is already home to Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo private space vehicles, and is looking to expand its aerospace clientele.

Spaceport officials did not return a call and email seeking comment. Nor did officials from the Central Florida Development Council, which promotes “an economy based on high-skill, high-wage sustainable and evolutionary businesses” in Polk County, according to its website.

Draken officials say they are looking to Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that works to bring companies and jobs to the state. So far, they say the results have been less than satisfactory.

“We are working cooperatively with Enterprise Florida, but up until this point Draken has only been offered assistance with tax incentives,” says Isaacman. “That is a great option for a well-established and profitable defense company. In the case of Draken International, we are still in the entrepreneurial building phase of our business and need real capital support. There are some states that are willing to make those types of meaningful contributions towards our investment. Hopefully we can find a way to achieve similar financial support from Florida and keep all aspects of our business in Lakeland. That is certainly the objective.”

Sean Helton, Enterprise Florida Interim Vice President of Strategic Alignment and Communications, says “Draken is an important piece of Florida’s strong aviation and aerospace industry.

“We will continue to work with Draken, as we do with many Florida companies, to help them find the resources they need to be successful and continue their growth in the state,” he says.

Helton says that one way Enterprise Florida works with companies is by providing economic development incentives, which are “one of Florida’s most powerful tools in stimulating and diversifying the economy, creating jobs and expanding businesses.”

The incentives, he says, are awarded to businesses and local governments “based on meeting performance criteria benchmarks throughout the duration of their agreements with the state and each agreement contains important provisions to protect taxpayer funds.”

Helton won’t say exactly what, if anything, Enterprise Florida is doing on Draken’s behalf.

Enterprise Florida “works confidentially with companies on location/expansion projects so I can’t confirm or deny whether we are currently working with Draken on any financially incentivized projects,” he says.

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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