Oklahoma | Trade and Industry Development


Dec 31, 2002 | By: Tracy Alford
Oklahoma's Leadership and Innovation

Oklahoma’s history is rooted deeply in a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit. From the opening of a Ford Assemblyplant in downtown Oklahoma City in 1916 to Wiley Post’s first solo around-the-world flight in 1933, the automotive and aviation industries have remained a mainstay of the Oklahoma economy. In fact today, the two industries combined employ over 150,000, or 9.5 percent of the state’s workforce.

Back in the 1920s, 52 of Oklahoma City’s 76 auto dealerships were located along Broadway, nowknown as Automobile Alley. The dominance of the automotive industry in downtown Oklahoma City continued until the 1960s – that’s when growth moved out to the suburbs and away from the downtown area.

Even so, Oklahoma’s dominance in the automotive industry was clear – from 1969-1979, three major tire manufacturers opened plants in Oklahoma City, Ardmore and Lawton respectively. Today, Dayton Tire, Michelin North America and Goodyear have helped make Oklahoma the number one tire producing state in the country.

In fact, in 2002 Goodyear announced a $250 million expansion ofits flagship Lawton tire plant. The expansion will result in 100 new jobs and increase the plant’s ability to produce higher value-added tires and to utilize the company’s new IMPACT tire manufacturing technology. The facility in Lawton has consistently ranked as one of the company’s best and most productive due in part to the excellent training opportunities provided by CareerTech, the state’s premier technical training system.

Michelin North America also recently announced plans to infuse its Ardmore plant with more capital. The $144 million investment plan will be aimed at increasing the plant’s capacity for producing larger tire sizes. This announcement is in addition to a previously announced decision to invest $56 million, bringing the total new investment in the facilityto $200 million.

“With the completion of this major investment, we are confident that the Ardmore plant will become the most important plant in the world-wide Michelin family,” said Governor Brad Henry. “Ardmore and Oklahoma competed for this investment with a number of Michelin plants world-wide. Ardmore is, once again, the winner in the competition for capital investment.”

The other mainstay in Oklahoma’s market share in the automotive industry is General Motors (GM), which opened a vehicle assembly plant in Oklahoma City in 1979. GM is the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer.

Since then, Oklahoma City’s GM plant has produced more than 5 million passenger cars. The last car rolled off the line in May 2001 – then within just nine months, the plant was modernized to the tune of $750 million to start building GM’s sport utility vehicles. In January 2002, the first Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL rolled down the new assembly line.

The retooling of the plant was a major undertaking. The plant was redesigned with the flexibility to build a variety of midsize trucks to accommodate for the changing demands of the consumer. Among themajor changes on the new manufacturing line – an increase in robots from 150 to 450. These computer-controlled machines perform diverse, complex materials processing and assembly tasks with speed, precision and cost-effectiveness. To ensure that everything went smoothly, 50 Oklahoma City workers tested and fine-tuned every manufacturing step to ensure maximum efficiency when production began. Another major addition to the modernization of the plant is a 250,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art paint facility.

The presence of GM and the importance it plays in the economy can’t be overstated – numerous automotive parts suppliers, including Oklahoma City’s Johnson Controls, Logistics Insights Corp. and Collins and Aikman all supply parts to the plant. In addition, Flex-N-Gate Corp.in Ada and Borg Warner in Sallisaw are also suppliers to GM.

Today, the thriving GM plant in Oklahoma City employs more than 3,200 people who help make about 3,000 sport utility vehicles each week. Even more important is the dollar impact GM has on the Oklahoma City economy – with an average annual payroll of $175 million, the company estimates it has contributed more than $28 billion to the local economy since opening in 1979.

As important as the automotive industry is to Oklahoma – so is aviation. Oklahoma has a rich aviation history, dating back to the early 1900s. In1910, Charles Willard flew the first airplane in Oklahoma, climbing to an altitude of 75 feet above Oklahoma City. In 1911, Clyde Cessna test-flew his first airplane in northwest Oklahoma. By 1928, oilman Erle Halliburton established Southwest Air Fast Express, later known as American Airlines, and Tom Braniff created the state’s first commercial passenger flight between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Perhaps no Oklahoma aviator is more famous however than Wiley Post. He called his first solo flight one of the biggest thrills of his life – he would go on to set several records, includingthe fastest around the world flight and the first solo around the world flight. He also was an inventor at heart – his prototype led to the modern-day space suit that astronauts now wear, and he is also credited as the pioneer of autopilot. Those feats took place in the early 1930s, and by the 1940s, Oklahoma’s dominance in the aviation industry was starting to take shape.

Several hundred aviation companies today call Oklahoma home – in fact, the aviation and aerospace industry has a significant impact on the Oklahoma economy. The industry accounts for more than 143,000 jobs, $4.7 billion in payroll and $11.7 billion in industrial output. Since 1941, one of the anchors of the industry has been Tinker Air Force Base, located nine miles southeast of downtown Oklahoma City. Tinkeris the state’s third largest employer, providing more than 24,000 jobs and contributing more than $2 billion to the economy annually.

In 1999, Tinker was awarded the largest engine repair contract in the history of the Air Force valued at over $10 billion over 15 years. Tinker has also provided crucial logistics support during conflicts including the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Shieldand Desert Storm, and Operation Allied Force and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Besides logistics support, Tinker provides parts and maintenance for the most advanced weapons and aircraft inthe military. In fact, the first cruise missile fired in Desert Storm was a Tinker product.

Tinker’s largest organization is the Air Logistics Center, one of three depot repair centers in the Air Force Material Command. The center manages an inventory, which includes over 1,341 aircraft, 21,287 jet engines, and nearly 25,000 airborne accessories including avionics components.

Three associate flying wings are also located at Tinker, along with Department of Defense activities with critical national defense missions.

Two other U.S. Air Force bases also call Oklahoma home. Vance Air Force Base in Enid trains pilots from the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Altus Air Force Base in Altus also has a significant impact in the state, employing more than 4,600 with an annual payroll of $130 million.

Besides the state’s military bases, the city of Tulsa has taken the lead in attracting aviation and aerospace companies to Oklahoma, as more than 300 are located in Tulsa. In fact, a Harvard study recently ranked the city of Tulsa eighth in the country in terms of employment related to the manufacturing of aerospace engines – solid evidence of Tulsa’s market presence.

One of Tulsa’s largest aviation employers is American Airlines’ Tulsa maintenance base, which opened in 1946. It is the world’s largest aircraft maintenance facility, with 21 hangars and more than 3.5 million square feet. American’s Boeing Super 80s, 757s and 737s are maintained in Tulsa, along with the Fokker F-100s and Airbus A300s. More than 8,000 mechanics perform heavymaintenance tasks on American’s fleet. Total employment is more than 9,000.

Boeing Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of military aircraft and commercial jetliners, has two plants in Oklahoma. Total employment is about 2,000, with the majority of those in Tulsa. The Boeing facility in Tulsa has long been a leader in the industry – in fact, the facility manufactured the Lunar Landerladder that Neal Armstrong used in his historic first walk on the moon, as well as the bay doors used on the Space Shuttle.

Tulsa-based NORDAM employs nearly 2,000 people in the manufactureand repair of aircraft components. The company produces a wide variety of airplane parts, ranging from engine exhaust components to interior structures. NORDAM also has operations in Texas, Singaporeand Europe.

Other major employers in the industry include Honeywell-Lori, Bizjet (a unit of Lufthansa) and Safety Training Systems.

In addition, the Aerospace Alliance of Tulsa– which consists of nearly 300 companies – is a network of aviation firms that are working to bring new technologies and job opportunities to the Tulsa area.

All in all, these two industries have played a vital role in Oklahoma’s rich economic history. From the Ford Model T of the 1910s to the GMC Envoy XL to Wiley Post’s historic flights in the 1930s to Tulsa’s aviation cluster of 2003. For those 150,000-plus employees of both industries today, there’s no doubt that the state’s reputation as being a leader and innovator in both will continue well into the 21st century.

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