Aerospace Reaches New Heights in Oklahoma

Article by Jack Money for The Oklahoman

Economic incentives, the continued growth of military-related aviation missions and the hard work of local, state and regional economic development specialists and educators are showing results when it comes to the economic impact of the aerospace and aviation industries to Oklahoma’s economy.

A study released by the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission estimates the industries now are the second-largest sector of Oklahoma’s economy, generating an annual economic impact of about $43.8 billion.

The industry — which consists of 109 airports, hundreds of off-airport aviation/aerospace employers and military aviation — employs more than 200,000 people and creates an annual payroll of about $12 billion.

The study estimates military aviation continues to be the largest contributor, bringing an economic impact of $19.3 billion. Off-airport aviation and aerospace employers are next, with $13.9 billion. The state’s 109 general and commercial aviation airports, which employ 74,002 workers, have an economic impact of $10.6 billion, the study estimates.

Charlie H. Dry, a University of Oklahoma physics graduate who went on to become a test astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and has spent most of his life in the field, said the current economic impact numbers are sound, adding he believes the state hasn’t seen anything, yet.

“This is a hardworking aerospace and aviation state,” Dry said after Victor Bird, the aeronautics commission’s director, presented the study’s results at a gathering at the Oklahoma History Center. “We’ve been after this for a long, long time,” Dry said. “I think there is a great future here for our state.”

Bird said the study is the first the commission has conducted to evaluate the impact the aerospace and aviation industries have had on the state’s economy since 1994.

“This is the most comprehensive study on the economic impact for our civilian and military airports and our aviation and aerospace industry ever done,” Bird said.

He said analysts have speculated the past two decades about whether the state’s aerospace and aviation industries continued to grow with the help of state-created incentives, educational programs and the hard work of economic development specialists, despite the Great Recession’s impact.

“The answer to … those questions is a resounding yes,” Bird said.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who also spoke at the event, agreed.

“Right here in Oklahoma, we have the world’s largest military aircraft repair facility in Tinker Air Force Base, and the largest commercial aircraft repair facility in Tulsa, for American Airlines,” Fallin said.

The governor also mentioned various other companies that have brought aviation-related jobs and facilities to Oklahoma, thanked the state’s Congressional delegation for its efforts to protect the state’s military bases and thanked state legislators for protecting state-created economic incentives.

She also noted educators’ effort to boost numbers of science and math graduates from Oklahoma colleges and universities also has played a role.

“The footprint of aviation and aerospace is strong and growing in Oklahoma,” Fallin said. “(This report) is dramatic proof that our policies … have helped us build a stronger, vibrant, diversified economy.”

Drones taking flight

Unmanned aerial systems is where Dry sees significant future growth in Oklahoma’s aerospace and aviation industry.

Dry said he has a couple of companies involved in the development, evaluation and production of unmanned systems.

A report issued by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in 2013 estimated Oklahoma could see hundreds of new jobs and perhaps as much as nearly another $1 billion annual economic impact from that part of the aerospace industry by 2025.

The Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission believes Oklahoma is one of the top states in the country when it comes to related academic programs supporting the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, thanks to ongoing research at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

While Dry said drones were not well received initially when they were released as toys, designs being worked on now will be used for everything from inspecting wind turbines, pipelines, tanks, electrical lines and homes to surveillance and rescue tools for emergency responders.

“When you are talking about professional drones, they can do anything and everything,” he said.


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