Story by Fally Afani
If you’ve ever flown across the globe or taken a quick flight over the Midwest, the airplane parts that made the trip possible were likely produced in Kansas. With the biggest players in aircraft manufacturing choosing to call the Sunflower State home, Kansas is one of the hottest spots for the aerospace industry.
Innovative spirit, a flat terrain and plenty of sunny days initially brought early developers to the state (see more about Kansas aviation history below). Then investments from the oil boom in the 1920s provided the industry’s first big push. Since then, companies like Spirit AeroSystems, Beechcraft, Cessna, and Bombardier Learjet have moved in, taking aerospace to new heights. “The reason Learjet started and came to Kansas was because they were trying to come quickly into marketing a new jet concept,” says Randi Tveitaraas Jack with the Kansas Department of Commerce. “Learjet found out there was a lot of expertise in Kansas already and came to Wichita to do it quickly.” Together, Cessna, Beechcraft, and Learjet are responsible for a whopping 43 percent of U.S.-manufactured general aviation aircraft shipped in 2013 (a total of 690 aircraft).
Developing the Industry
The mad dash for aerospace excellence boosted not only the local economy but also education, research and development. “Because the Wichita area is one of the five great aerospace clusters in the world, it’s certainly a priority for the state to support the industry,” says Chuck Alderson, the Kansas Department of Commerce director of Aviation Industry Development. “The fact that you have the industry, which drives the need for engineers and highly technically skilled employees through the tech colleges, it drives our education system to support those needs, to make sure we have the pipeline of both the current and future employees that our employers require.”
Training future employees is key because once a generation of workers settles into the aviation industry, it’s likely their children will continue the tradition. Right now aerospace keeps 32,000 people employed in Kansas, thanks to the major aviation industries and more than 350 aviation suppliers and service providers. “Our key differentiation of having that workforce is having multigenerational families who have that experience, as well as having the companies’ supply chain here. That’s the thing we kept focusing on and growing,” says Alderson.
That commitment to the next generation of aviation manufacturing specialists is represented by the state’s development of the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, as well as the National Center for Aviation Training at Jabara Airport.
Focus on Education
Outside of Wichita, educational institutions are also catering to aerospace needs. Kansas State University offers both associate and bachelor’s degrees in aviation maintenance, an associate degree in avionics and (through Kansas State Polytechnic) a professional pilot program. Down the I-70 corridor, the University of Kansas offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering.
“We’re invested in engineering education to try and increase students at our key universities,” says Tveitaraas Jack. “We’ve had an increase at Wichita, K-State, and KU. We started a program a number of years ago where tuition is covered for students who want technical training while they’re still in high school.”
With an increase in production every year, it doesn’t look like manufacturing will be slowing down. “The current production rates for the 737, which Spirit builds, is 42 a month,” says Tveitaraas Jack. “They’re going to 47 this year, then next year 52 a month, and that really drives a lot of profit and revenue and drives the state’s economy as well.”
In addition to the economic boost, employees are also drawn to the range of opportunity. Alderson says the ability to roam from one company to another is attractive to prospective employees. “You would have some flexibility to shift from one sector of the industry to the other,” he notes. “When there’s a downturn, you might be working for Bombardier or Textron Aviation.”
Of course, states are eager to attract and retain new jobs, and Kansas recognizes the importance of its aerospace careers. “A lot of those jobs are high wage, high-yield jobs, and those are the jobs we want to continue to support and grow,” says Tveitaraas Jack. “It’s a key sector for us and we want to support it, and it’s a huge contribution to our economy.”
And for Kansas, aerospace will continue to be a priority.
“It’s one of those star industries that drive exports, and it’s one that a lot of nations and states have their eye on as well,” says Alderson. “You have to keep your eye on the ball and support the industry and create the right environment for it to grow and prosper.”
“Because the Wichita area is one of the five great aerospace clusters in the world, it’s certainly a priority for the state to support the industry.”
“It’s one of those star industries that drive exports, and it’s one that a lot of nations and states have their eye on as well. You have to keep your eye on the ball and support the industry and create the right environment for it to grow and prosper.”
Major Aviation Companies in Kansas
- Spirit AeroSystems
- Cessna Aircraft Company
- Bombardier Learjet
- Boeing Defense, Space & Security
- Airbus Americas
A Selected Timeline of the First 100 Years of Kansas Aviation/Aerospace Production
1899 The Gabbey Airship Company is founded in Rossville
1900 Carl Dryden Browne opens an airplane factory in Freedom, Kansas. A model was built and he applied for patents but never produced a working plane.
1908 Ray Knabensueís airship flies a few hundred feet at Wichitaís Peerless Prophets street fair.
1908 H.C. Callís Aerial Navigation Company of Girard produces 14 experimental aircraft.
1909 William Purvis and Charles Wilson in Goodland form the Goodland Aviation Company to design and build a rotary-craft. They are believed to have achieved a ìtethered bounceî with what is thought to be the first rotary-winged aircraft ever patented, a predecessor to the helicopter.
1910 Multiplane company is formed in Atchison. It produces models, but never a working aircraft.
1910 JC Mars flies from Topeka to Kansas City in a Curtiss aircraft.
1911 On September 2, A.K. Longrenís pusher biplane ìThe Topekaî flies six miles. It is the first successful flight in Kansas by a Kansas-made plane.
1911 Clyde Cessna flies a modified kit plane in Oklahoma.
1912 On November 17, Philip Billard (ìBirdmanî) flies over the city of Topeka in a Longren-built and designed plane at 75 mph and at a height of 625 ft.
1919 E. M. Laird Company of Wichita produces 43 airplanes, including ìThe Laird Limousineî and ìThe Swallowî
1919 Longren Aircraft produces six aircraft, ëíThe Topekaî among them.
1924 Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech form Travel Air Manufacturing.
1927 Cessna leaves Travel Air to form Cessna Aircraft Co. It will produce its first monoplane, the ìPhantom,î which flew on August 13.
1930 Stearman Aircraft, now a division of Boeing, opens a plant in Wichita.
1932 Beech Aircraft Company is founded by Walter and Olive Beech. They soon produce Model 17, the ìStaggerwing.î
1934 Stearman Aircraft (Boeing) delivers its first Kaydet to the U.S. Army. The biplane becomes one of the militaryís primary aviation training craft.
1937 Beech Aircraft introduces the Model 18 ìTwin Beechî which is produced for 33 years.
1941-46 Beechcraft produces 7,400 airplanes for the U. S. armed forces.
1947 Beechcraft introduces Model 35, the ìBeech Bonzana,î a high-performance, single-engine business airplane. It goes on to hold the record for continuous production.
1954 Helio Aircraft Companyís plant in Pittsburg begins producing the Helio Courier, a popular utility craft that was manufactured for twenty years.
1955 Flight of the first Cessna 170, a four-place tailwheel plane with a 45-horsepower Continental engine, which becomes known as the Skyhawk.î This craft becomes the most widely produced light aircraft in history.
1956 A Wichita-plant built B-52D becomes the first of its kind to fly. The craft was a modified bomber known as the ìStratofortress.î
1962 Learjet moves production from Switzerland to Wichita. Two years later, the Wichita plant releases the first Learjet 23, a groundbreaking jet that set a new standard for business aviation.
1969 First flight of a Cessna prototype that becomes the highly successful ìCitation.î
1975 Wichita Boeing plant delivers its first modified B-52D for use by the Strategic Air Command.
1996 Cessna produces the ìSkyhawkî from its plant in Independence.