Channel 2 Investigates

Peaches, poultry, peanuts? Georgia's No. 1 export may surprise you

It’s not peaches, poultry or peanuts that tops Georgia’s exports list, but planes.

Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer met with local businesses to look at the jobs Georgia’s aerospace industry is creating, and how the state is keeping them here.

One of those businesses is Thrush Aircraft in Albany, Georgia.

“The Thrush line of aircraft are flying in more than 80 counties around the world,” Thrush Vice President Eric Rojek told Farmer. “Whether they're spraying peanuts in South Georgia, bananas in Costa Rica or spraying for mosquitos, they're making our life that much better.”

Thrush is among more than 800 aerospace companies in Georgia. Last year those companies sold nearly $8 billion in aerospace exports -- that's planes and parts. Rojek said Thrush is much more than agriculture planes. It retro fitting the aircraft to fight forest fires and provides boarder surveillance for allies overseas.

“We fully do all of our manufacturing in-house so, take skill laborers. We rely heavily on tech schools to provide these trades within the state of Georgia,” Rojek told Farmer.

Thrush's diversity has created jobs for more than 270 people, including local resident Charlotte Bryant.

“Did you ever think, Charlotte, you'd be building airplanes one day?” Farmer asked. “No I did not, Justin,” Bryant told him.

After working in a sewing factory, Bryant took a course at a local technical school to become a riveter. She's been with Thrush for 12 years.

“I love building aircraft,” Bryant said.

She is one of more than 99,000 Georgians working in the aerospace industry.

“The jobs are all across the spectrum so you have Ph.D.s in aerospace and you have people cleaning the planes at Hartsfield-Jackson,” said Amy Hudnall, the direction of Georgia’s Center of Innovation for Aerospace.


Her team finds partners state resources, such as schools, with aerospace companies.

“The economic output was $63.7 billion. That's a significant piece of our economy,” Hudnall said

According to the state, last year Georgia aerospace received $6.4 billion in defense contracts alone.

“Our primary customer is the Department of Defense and developing technologies for the war fighter,” said Nick Alley, CEO of Area-I in Kennesaw, Georgia. “We're able to do certain things a lot better than the big companies.”

Area-I specializes in unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, technology. One project, the Prototype Technology Evaluation Research Aircraft, or PTERA, is a flying laboratory. They’ve worked with NASA and Boeing on a wing that folds in-flight.

“It was developed to test those crazy, high-risk technologies that would be too difficult, too costly and too dangerous, frankly, to test on a manned aircraft,” Alley said.

Alley said his young staff is the secret behind Area-I’s innovative technology. Most are in their late 20s and are Georgia Tech graduates. They are the next chapter of aerospace in Georgia.

“Every da,y it's really something new,” Area-I staffer Dan Kuehme said.

He started with the company as an intern, and is now the chief technology officer.

“We're all kind of young so no one's told us what we can't do,” Kuehme said.