Business

Warplane business booming at Lake Norman

Ron Howard, CEO of Mooresville-based IOMAX USA, celebrates the completion of the fist Archangel precision-strike aircraft produced in North Carolina.
Ron Howard, CEO of Mooresville-based IOMAX USA, celebrates the completion of the fist Archangel precision-strike aircraft produced in North Carolina. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

If you tried this setting for an espionage novel, your editor would say it’s too far-fetched. Nobody builds spy planes on a little airstrip nestled among lakefront mansions in a town synonymous with motorsports.

And yet, there it is. IOMAX USA is a family business turning out surveillance and precision-strike aircraft on a peninsula of Lake Norman on the edge of Mooresville.

On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory turned out for the unveiling of the company’s latest version of its Archangel aircraft, a compact surveillance and heavy-strike weapons platform designed for border protection.

McCrory praised the firm, established in 2001, as an example of the state’s military-support industry.

“We cannot live off the service industries or government jobs,” McCrory said. “This is the kind of talent we need to promote.”

Filling three hangars at Lake Norman Airpark, privately held IOMAX has grown to employ about 150 people – 47 percent of them military veterans – in highly skilled jobs with an average salary of $113,000. Its annual payroll is nearly $20 million.

Started with cellphones

Company founder Ron Howard, whose ancestors settled in the N.C. mountains in colonial days and have been in military service since the Revolutionary War, retired as a warrant officer from a 31-year Army career in May 2001 after serving in Vietnam, Beirut, Bosnia, Kosovo and other places.

His last assignment was at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where research was focusing on how to exploit the fast-developing cellular phone technology to hone in on individual signals.

After retiring, he launched his company to work on the problem of how to pinpoint where selected cellphones were in use and how they could be jammed. If authorities knew what phone a terrorist was using, then they could determine the location.

Their “Eureka!” moment came in 2004. An employee sat in the Target store parking lot on N.C. 150 in Mooresville chatting on a cellphone while Howard and others hunted for the signal. And suddenly they found it.

“As we drove down 150, a circle appeared on the screen,” Howard said. “We knew we had it.”

With the war on terrorism in high pitch, government contracts followed for their technology. At first, Howard said, they could locate a phone within a 50-meter range. “Now they can narrow it down to the chair you’re sitting in.”

In the years since, cellphone geo-location technology has advanced to a point where law enforcement, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, use it to locate fugitives.

And into the skies

In 2008, IOMAX won a contract from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to support operations against drug lords and terrorists in Afghanistan, where six of the company’s employees are still stationed.

In 2009, a military associate hooked Howard up with the government of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally based in Abu Dhabi. They needed surveillance planes for border security.

IOMAX engineered the aircraft by significantly modifying crop dusters for safety and performance. Modern crop dusters are built for heavy loads and for relatively low-level flight at slow speeds, making them ideal for surveillance work and carrying missiles.

After the first delivery of 10 aircraft, 14 more were ordered. With State Department approval, United Arab Emirates has now signed a contract for two dozen additional second-generation Archangels, which sell for $8 million to $13 million apiece, depending on specialized equipment. Its first plane will be ready in two weeks.

Howard said customers have been pleased by their combat performance. “That’s why there’s an order for 24 more.”

Small-company advantages

Howard, 63, who grew up in Haywood County, wanted to locate his company in North Carolina. Business recruiters from Lincolnton, Concord, Statesville and Hickory offered incentives, but he settled on Mooresville because he liked the quality of life there.

Neighbors were startled when IOMAX aircraft began flying across Lake Norman with missiles attached to the wings. They were only dummy munitions, Howard said, and couldn’t be fired.

IOMAX has received one state incentive grant for $75,000 that was matched by Iredell County. Under the terms, IOMAX had to create 35 jobs and make an investment of $1.7 million over three years; the company created 43 jobs and exceeded the investment in only two years.

Howard’s son and daughter work for IOMAX, and his wife, Mary, is the company’s event coordinator.

Small companies, Howard said, can get things done in a hurry.

“We move so much faster,” said Mark Johnson, IOMAX’s chief operating officer, whose career includes 10 years at aerospace giant Boeing. “We’re delivering the first fully operational precision strike Archangel seven months after the contract was signed. That’s unheard of in the industry.”

Isaac Calvin, an avionics technician, joined IOMAX after a 26-year Navy career. “I love it here,” he said. “It’s like a family.”

People are still surprised to learn that Lake Norman has a warplane plant, said Howard, who likes his company to keep a low profile.

“We don’t talk about it much. It’s just too hard to explain.”

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Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

Made in Mooresville

Built on the modified airframe of a Thrush S2R-660a, the Archangel is produced by IOMAX in Mooresville as a surveillance and weapons platform.

Engine: Pratt and Whitney PT6A turboprop with 1,700 horsepower.

Cruising speed: 175 mph.

Maximum altitude: 25,000 feet.

Crew: 2.

Weapons capability: Laser-guided bombs, Hellfire II missiles, Cirit laser-guided missiles.

Flight time before refueling: Up to 10 hours depending on payload.

Other features: A powerful camera and laser-targeting component on the nose; armor protection for cockpit and engine; fixed gear capable of landing on desert, gravel or dirt.

Where else the planes have served: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and six are used by the Royal Jordanian Air Force. A demonstration model is headed to the Paris Air Show this month.

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