The aerospace industry is Oklahoma’s second largest employer, providing more than 140,000 direct and indirect jobs. Aerospace produces 10 percent of Oklahoma’s industrial output. In the Tulsa metropolitan area, the aerospace industry is comprised of maintenance, repair and overhaul, manufacturing, design, simulation and more.
As we work to sustain and grow the aerospace industry for Tulsa’s future, we should learn from the visionaries who advanced this industry from its inception. Noting how drastically the education and training requirements have changed in the past 80 years, we recognize how Tulsa’s institutions respond. Aviation requires greater education and training responsiveness today than ever before.
Tulsa’s industrial aviation history begins with early oilmen who had a vision to normalize aviation in an effort to sell more oil. In 1928, Tulsa oilman W.G. Skelly created Spartan Aircraft Co. and the Spartan School of Aeronautics to build aircraft and train pilots. The company designed and manufactured one of the world’s first all-aluminum aircraft called the Spartan 7W Executive. Now, Spartan College and Tulsa Technology Center train students at the forefront of aviation technology.
In 1929, oilman Erle Halliburton started S.A.F.E.way Airlines at Tulsa Municipal Airport with a fleet of Ford Tri-Motors. Eventually, S.A.F.E.way Airlines was purchased in a consolidation of several small airlines that eventually became American Airlines. Today in Tulsa, American Airlines operates the world’s largest civilian maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in the world. From Ford Tri-Motors to Boeing 737s, American Airlines has led the way in training its workforce in new technologies.
Tulsa’s visionary oilmen can also be credited with inspiring citizens to pursue aviation careers. They often invited and provided accommodations for famous aviators, such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post and others.
The U.S. entered the Space Age in 1958 when Douglas Aircraft created the Delta Rocket Program that launched the country’s first satellites into space. In 1962, North American Aviation in Tulsa built the exterior of the Saturn rockets that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. In the 1970s, Tulsa’s Rockwell International built graphite composite bay doors for the Space Shuttle Program and modified the first Boeing 747 that carried the space shuttle piggyback. In the 1990s, Boeing Tulsa began building major truss structures made of solid titanium for the International Space Station. Boeing Tulsa also built all of the integrated electrical assemblies that maneuver the giant solar arrays, which power the International Space Station.
Today, Spirit Aerosystems sustains Tulsa’s capabilities to build space components and also builds wings, fuselages and other aerostructures for the largest Boeing and Airbus aircrafts.
Tulsa is at the forefront of advanced aviation materials. Tulsa’s Nordam is the largest private, FAA-approved composite repair facility. Nordam is also a world leader in fan and thrust reversers, nacelle engine components, aircraft-bonded honeycomb, aircraft interiors and aircraft transparencies.
FlightSafety International is an example of an aviation modeling and simulation center of excellence. FlightSafety International, which designs, programs and manufactures high fidelity flight simulators for the Department of Defense, is a leader in this area and operates its own civilian training centers around the world.
Following in the tradition of Tulsa’s early oilmen, the Tulsa Air and Space Museum is inspiring a new generation of aerospace workers. In 2010, TASM will seek to acquire a retired Space Shuttle orbiter for permanent display. The museum will create an air show March 13 that will include the world’s first rocket race. Inspiration, education and training are critical for the aviation industry, and TASM will be a part of the effort.
Current aviation technology is advancing faster than ever. As we learn from the visionaries who have prospered in Tulsa’s aviation industry, we should recognize the responsiveness required in aviation education and training.
Jim Bridenstine is executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.