April 15, 1953, is a date in history without much fanfare but significant nonetheless. It was the last time the United States lost a ground soldier due to an enemy air attack. This is truly remarkable, especially considering all of the wars and battles this country has fought in since then. The reason for the extraordinary achievement is our air superiority — we have owned the skies for almost six decades.
This momentous accomplishment didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of the outstanding pilots in our armed services and also the vastly superior aircraft produced by the U.S. aerospace and defense industry. American pilots, aircraft and the workforce that produce these aircraft are the best in the world because of an industry that prides itself on innovation, knowledge and skills.
This is National Aerospace Week. Across the nation, more than 1 million people are employed in the aerospace and defense industry. In Oklahoma, aerospace and defense is responsible for 144,000 direct and indirect jobs. This is one of the state’s leading economic engines, generating an annual economic output of $12.4 billion (10 percent of the state’s total) and a payroll of $5 billion with salaries averaging about $56,000, almost twice the average salary in Oklahoma. Aerospace is Oklahoma’s top export, with sales of more than $500 million annually.
Oklahoma is one of the seven centers in the world for the maintenance and repair of aircraft. Tinker Air Force Base and the American Airlines Maintenance and Engineering Base in Tulsa are the world’s largest military and commercial aircraft repair facilities, respectively. With nearly 28,000 employees, Tinker is the state’s largest single-site employer. Oklahoma City also is home to the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, the nerve center of the nation’s aviation system.
I often have the privilege to represent Oklahoma at aerospace events around the country. Last month, I was part of an Oklahoma team that traveled to Washington, D.C., for an international trade show on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Oklahoma is at the forefront of this burgeoning industry by having the only Homeland Security test site for public safety UAVs. Oklahoma also is a leading contender to become one of six FAA UAV test sites.
National Aerospace Week provides an opportunity to reflect on what aviation and aerospace have allowed us to achieve as a nation since that first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. It also focuses us on the success of Oklahoma’s aerospace industry and the thousands of skilled and dedicated workers who made that happen and continue that legacy.
Bird is director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission and past chairman of the National Association of State Aviation Officials.