The state’s largest cities are not the only hotspots for aerospace and aviation, says Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission Executive Director Vic Bird.
“Oklahoma has 500-plus aerospace firms,” says Bird. “You’ll find pockets of aerospace companies in Ada, Duncan, Grove and Okmulgee – basically all over the state. Oklahoma has the big players, but many are very small businesses with as few as three employees. There are major success stories, like Pro-Fab and Valco Manufacturing, and many of these started in someone’s garage.”
One such company is Ada-based General Aviation Modification Inc., says Bird. GAMI’s 150 workers service nonturbine, nonjet general aviation aircraft powered by gasoline. The GAMIjector fuel injector has equipped 22,000 engines to date and was named Aviation Consumer Magazine’s product of the year in 1996.
“GAMI is developing new, unleaded fuel for piston-powered aircraft, and this is cutting-edge technology,” says Bird. “It is a real challenge to develop a reliable unleaded gasoline that can do the job.”
GAMI President Tim Roehl says leaded fuel in aviation will eventually be banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. This will have a significant impact on the revenue of companies depending on piston aviation, as sales of those crafts already have decreased in anticipation of the ban.
“The state does pretty well supporting aviation businesses, but we could really use some financial help in developing the unleaded general aviation gasoline,” says Roehl. “So far we’ve been able to move forward out of in-house cash flow, but not at the pace we’d like to. We’d like to find multimillion dollar resources for investment into this technology. We are in a unique situation as a small business with unique capabilities and have already done noteworthy things in the aviation piston industry. Now we have the opportunity to pull off something companies like Chevron, Shell and Phillips have been trying to figure out for the last 15 years.”
“There are seven MRO centers – for maintenance, repair and overhaul – in the world,” says Bird. “Two are in the U.S., with one of those in Oklahoma. In the industry, we are known for the fact that we can keep them flying. To give you an idea on the importance of MRO, the U.S. Air Force introduced the B-52 bomber platform during the Eisenhower administration. Now, 60 years later, B-52s are still our country’s primary bomber. They are still viable because of private contractors such as Boeing and smaller ones like Valco. Older aircraft we rely upon for bomber missions are still flying because of the superior MRO in Oklahoma.”
Tinker Air Force Base is the state’s largest single employer, with 27,000 jobs and a yearly economic impact of $3.4 billion, says Bird. American Airlines does its own maintenance, repair and overhaul in Oklahoma and also works on aircraft for other airlines. MRO drives the aviation industry.
“We don’t manufacture aircraft like, say, Wichita, Kan., so we were less impacted by the recession,” says Bird. “Keeping older aircraft flying is the heart of our industry, and Oklahoma is extremely well positioned to continue to meet that need.”