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Ohio's aerospace industry evolves into quiet giant

National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photos Ben French and NASA
National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photos Ben French and NASA

While states like California, Texas and Washington get all the attention, look a little deeper, experts say, and Ohio's aerospace industry shines brightly.

From Orville and Wilbur's breakthroughs in Dayton more than a century ago, to Cleveland's history as a breeding ground for pioneering aviators, to the emergence of southwestern Ohio as an engine-building stronghold, the state's aerospace roots run deep.

At least 1,200 Ohio manufacturing companies serve the defense or aerospace industry in some way.

Ohio leads the nation in aircraft engine manufacturing and the world in propulsion technology, thanks to entities like GE Aviation in Evendale and the Air Force Research Laboratory's Propulsion Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. 

The Buckeye State heads the pack in military aeronautics, acquisition and R&D -- thanks to institutions like Wright-Patt, NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and strong university programs all around Ohio.

Ohio is the number one supplier to Airbus, the number two supplier to Boeing and the number three supplier to Northrop Grumman.

And we employ at least 100,000 Ohioans to support the industry, says Gary Conley, president of TechSolve, the Cincinnati-based Edison Technology Center whose responsibilities include support for the state's aerospace industry.

Many of those Ohioans are employed in the manufacturing of components that go into planes or defense system, Conley says. Others are military or civilian workers in Department of Defense installations like Wright-Patt, which is the state's largest single-site employer with more than 25,000 on the payroll. Ohio aerospace jobs can be found at NASA Glenn, and in air transportation and related services.

"And these numbers wouldn't include R&D jobs at Ohio universities or the non-profit sector (including those at research giant Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus)," Conley says. "Nor would it include anyone who is attached to a company that might have a business aviation division or business aviation employees."

Those are among the findings that surfaced in a study released by the Aerospace and Business Aviation Advisory Council, convened by the Ohio Department of Development in November 2009 to develop a strategy to strengthen and grow the state's aerospace and aviation industry.

What the advisory council found, in a nutshell, is this: Ohio's aerospace economy is strong; but Ohio must preserve its strengths while capitalizing on some key opportunities that appear to lie just up the road.

"The state of aerospace in Ohio, one would have to say, is good," says Dale Carlson, executive for advanced engine systems at GE Aviation, which employs more than 7,000 in Ohio. "We (GE Aviation) have probably the biggest portfolio of advanced research and development demonstration programs going on that we've had in over 40 years. We have more new product introductions coming than at probably any time in our history."

Carlson, whose company is building its new Electrical Power Integrated Systems Research and Development Center near the University of Dayton, cites Ohio's strong manufacturing and knowledge base as key strengths. State initiatives like Ohio's Third Frontier, which contributed a $7-million capital grant for the new Dayton facility also help, he says.

But, Carlson says, competition from other states and countries like Canada -- which provides up to a 48 percent R&D tax credit for new jobs created across the border -- means Ohio can't sit still.

"The jobs are high paying, they're high technology and there are other states that want them."

The advisory council sees opportunities everywhere, but suggests that Ohio focus on five core strengths: unmanned systems, advanced materials research and manufacturing, R&D and testing, aircraft maintenance and repair, and infrastructure and environment.

Unmanned systems -- large or small craft loaded with high-tech intelligence-gathering payloads -- have a growing presence in Ohio, where Wright-Patt, along with university research teams and companies in the advanced materials, information analytics and sensors sectors, are leading some of the breakthroughs.

Ohio is likewise strong in R&D and testing, bolstered by world class operations like NASA, which boasts the largest space environment chamber in the world at its Plum Brook facility. The Plum Brook operation performs testing on both government and commercial aircraft and parts, and Conley believes the potential growth of commercial space puts Ohio in a prime position to increase its role in that sector.

While aircraft maintenance and repair services are rapidly growing, "there are only two (companies) in Ohio that deal with the whole aircraft," Conley says. "We think that the growth of this market, the central location of Ohio and the numbers and types of air base and airport facilities (give us) some opportunities here."

There also will be opportunities for Ohio to help develop a new air traffic control infrastructure, Conley says, as the Federal Aviation Administration moves toward a new in-flight protocol that relies on plane-to-plane communications rather than the existing plane-to-ground approach.

If Ohio's aerospace industry has a weakness, it may be in how it states its case to the business community, government leaders and to the rest of the world, according to the advisory council's findings and to those interviewed for this story.

"You have to put your regionalisms aside," Carlson says. "Ohio's a very highly populated state, a heavily industrialized state. It has enormous resources and we shouldn't be getting beat out by states that don't have what we have."

Carlson declined to say that better cohesiveness might have prevented last month's U.S. House rejection of an engine being developed by GE and Rolls Royce for the military's next generation Joint Strike Fighter Jet.

"It's certainly not over yet," Conley said, noting that the engine -- in competition with one being built by Connecticut-based Pratt and Whitney -- could still prevail in the Senate.

But he said the industry would benefit from more togetherness among community and government leaders at state, local and national levels.

Heil agrees, adding that visibility means more than getting before government leaders.

"In order to win business, we need to go out and aggressively engage with industry in the place where business is done," Heil says.

One place business is done is at the International Air Show, the largest worldwide event of its kind for more than a century. Alternating between Paris and Farnborough, England every other year, the Paris event alone claims to draw some 2,000 exhibitors, 138,000 trade visitors, 3,000 journalists and 200 official delegations annually.

Ohio will be exhibiting in Paris for the first time this summer, thanks to a collaborative effort among Heil's OAI, the Dayton Development Coalition, TechSolve and the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

"Probably close to half the states have a presence at the shows where they're marketing not only their states but companies within their states, and they are recruiting business," Heil says.

Ohio's delegation will include six companies as well as the Wright Brothers' great-grand niece and aerospace champion Amanda Wright Lane. Heil says he's hopeful the state's congressional delegation -- and, perhaps the new Kasich Administration -- will send representatives.

In the meantime, Ohio must continue doing what it does best and stay ahead of the curve as new opportunities develop, like those in commercial space and hypersonics (speeds greater than mach 5), he says.

Heil says he even believes Ohio -- which does about everything related to flight except build planes -- has an opportunity there as well.

"The states that rank ahead of us are those where they are doing final assembly. I think we ought to go aggressively after (those companies) too."

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