Zodiac Parachute & Protection AmericaBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
Zodiac Parachute & Protection America, which was formerly known as Pioneer Aerospace and was recently purchased by Safran in 2018, has been operating in Columbia for more than 50 years and plans to remain for generations to come.
The business mainly operates on government contracts despite starting as a company to build uniforms.
At its largest stage, the company produces everything to do with airplanes, from engines to refreshment carts, seats and safety slides. At the Columbia office, though, the specialty is building parachutes and harnesses that support parachutes.
Director of Operations Craig Thompson said there are only two other companies in the country that build parachutes for the government, and Zodiac’s ability to produce a quality product has kept it in business.
“That’s one of the keys,” he said.
Thompson said most parachutes have a 10 to 12-year warranty, and a lot of the current ones being used are at the tail end of their lifespan. He said while Zodiac would like to earn a lot of the contracts for new parachutes, it wants to get the contracts it wants.
“Obviously we don’t want to just get contracts just to be getting contracts because when you give me a contract, you want your product on time. We definitely want to put ourselves in a position to get our share,” he said. “The government promotes the ability for multiple companies to get part of the pie if you will.”
Thompson said the business is a hidden gem in small-town Mississippi, and he has even talked to state politicians that were unaware of the company’s existence.
Thompson said that 90 to 95 percent of what Zodiac does is sewing, and a lot of the longtime employees are from the local, surrounding area.
“To me it’s almost a lost art with everything going electronic. We still have a lot of team members that physically sew 90 percent of everything that goes on a parachute,” he said. “My staff is 97 percent female, and I believe we are 78 percent African American. Sewing is truly a skillset because when you watch what these ladies do, it’s remarkable.”
The oldest employee is 87 years old, and a lot of the 163 employees have been at Zodiac for 30-plus years. Thompson said the staff has stayed together because it’s a family to them, and its longevity and willingness to train others is why it’s still successful today.
“They’re buying into making sure that when they do leave, they can hand it off to this young lady here and say, ‘I’ve handed off my skill. You keep doing what you’re doing so this place can stay here,’” he explained.
Zodiac does have plans to industrialize and has created a training program for its employees that Thompson believes will be a self-sustaining boost. But it has also been involved with some eye-opening projects.
Thompson said the prospect of flying cars is a very real thing and that Zodiac is working with companies on building the emergency parachutes. The NASA InSight Mars lander that reached the red planet’s surface in November used Zodiac’s parachute, and Thompson said it was a great accomplishment considering all of the potential problems that could arise when operating in an untested atmosphere.
“We had all unknowns because obviously everything was computer generated. It operated perfectly,” he said. “That’s the third time they’ve used our parachute successfully.”
Zodiac has two other locations, one in Milton, Fla., and another in South Windsor, Conn.
Pictured Above: Front row, from left, Erica Matthews and Samika Howard; back row, Rick Sentell, Director of Operations Craig Thompson and Owen Mitchell are five of the 163 employees at Zodiac Parachute & Protection America at 1 Pioneer Drive. The 52-year-old company was originally Pioneer Aerospace before being renamed Zodiac Aerospace and eventually Zodiac Parachute & Protection America. Zodiac was purchased by Safran in 2018. The company sews parachutes used throughout the world — and even beyond earth. A Zodiac parachute helped the NASA InSight Mars lander safely reach the red planet’s surface in November. | Photo by Joshua Campbell