If it weren’t for oil, Tulsa might have remained just another small town by the river, and Oklahoma City would not be home to Tinker Air Force Base, the largest aircraft-maintenance complex and military-aviation logistics center in the world. But the cities thrived, and that growth would not have continued if not for aviation and aerospace – Oklahoma’s fifth-largest industry. The state is home to more than 500 aerospace- and aviation-related companies that provide 143,000 direct and indirect jobs with an estimated yearly economic impact of $12.4 billion.
Aviation and aerospace continue to impact Oklahoma’s revenues and international presence with the latest high-flying accolades, including a spaceport in the far-western part of the state.
According to Tulsa Historical Society records, the prosperity of the post-World War II oil boom laid a foundation for the fledgling aviation industry. Many of Tulsa’s oilmen were flying enthusiasts, and World War II solidified the state’s importance as an aviation center. Pilots were trained at Spartan School of Aeronautics, and the Douglas Aircraft Co. built bombers in the mile-long Air Force Plant No. 3, completed in 1942 near the Tulsa municipal airport (later Tulsa International Airport). McDonnell-Douglas and Rockwell International facilities would contribute to space programs and national defense. American Airlines built a major maintenance center, and SABRE reservation system relocated from New York to Tulsa.
That oil boom was also spurred by a unique geographical circumstance that makes Green Country a natural nexus for transportation. Tulsa’s “centralized location facilitates cost-effective distribution and market access to all areas of the country,” says Dennis Altendorf, director of aerospace development and strategy for the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
“Tulsa is a true intermodal city offering four forms of transportation – ground, air, rail and water. Tulsa offers air cargo service through three freight carriers at Tulsa International Airport, more than 50 local motor freight companies, rail service through two mainline carriers and four short-line carriers and year-round ice-free barge service through the Port of Catoosa,” he says.
Aviation in Oklahoma is adorned with household names, beginning with Clyde Cessna’s aircraft testing in the 1910s. Before Will Rogers and Wiley Post died in an airplane crash in 1935, the pair made both individual and joint contributions to the industry, including the 1934 discovery of the jet stream.
Aviation industry giants make Oklahoma home, including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, FlightSafety International, Spirit Aerosystems, Lufthansa Technik, The NORDAM Group, Helicomb International, Southwest United Industries, L-3 Communications-Aeromet, Omni Air International, CSI Aerospace and, most recently, BizJet International, a completion center employing about 1,800, according to Aircraft Technology magazine. Tinker Air Force Base is the U.S. Air Force’s largest maintenance base. Also in the Oklahoma City area, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center is the core of the FAA’s operation and development center as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s financial-management center. In Tulsa, American Airlines Maintenance and Engineering Center is a major regional employer, providing more than 7,000 jobs.
“Aerospace and aviation is one of Tulsa’s targeted industry sectors,” says Altendorf. “As a result, the Tulsa Regional Chamber aggressively markets the region to attract aerospace and defense companies. As for new companies moving to the area, we have been and continue to be in discussions with several companies looking at the potential of establishing operation in the region.
“We also spend a lot of time on business retention and expansion efforts to grow the companies we have. Since the first of January, there have been two aerospace announcements – one involving BizJet International, which is planning to create 250 new aerospace jobs” Altendorf adds. “There are several other existing companies seriously considering expanding operations in the Tulsa area.”