Oklahoma has been the home of aerospace manufacturing for more than a century. Although the achievements of the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and other pioneers have received more attention, Oklahomans have contributed significantly to the aerospace industry. Prior to the successful flight of the Wrights in 1903, a plumber named Ben Bellis attempted to build a flying machine in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The machine was not a success, but the effort demonstrated the foresight and passion of Oklahomans concerning aeronautics.
When the Wrights demonstrated the feasibility of heavier-than-air flight, hundreds of inventors attempted to improve on the success. Few possessed knowledge of aerodynamics, and their creations failed. In Waynoka an inventor named W. D. Lindsley constructed the "Oklahoma Bi-Monoplane" and sold stock in a company to manufacture it. The plane was reported to have made a brief hop, but for the most part it was a dismal failure. However, the craft utilized an aluminum airframe, one of the earliest examples of what would become a standard material in aircraft construction.
Unsuccessful, or at best marginal, aircraft were constructed across the state. In 1911 in Chickasha the "Blackburn Albatross" was built and flown, and the Tulsa city engineer attempted to build and fly an airplane on the sand bars of the Arkansas River. That man was Herman DeVry, later the successful inventor of innovative motion-picture cameras and founder of the DeVry Institute of Technology. In 1911 an automobile dealer in Enid built an airplane from plans and in doing so began to form his own ideas as to how airplanes should be designed. After failing to interest Enid investors in aircraft manufacturing, Clyde Cessna returned to his native Kansas to found the company that would produce the majority of aircraft flown in the western world.
Embarrassingly unprepared for World War I, the United States embarked on a crash program of aircraft production when it entered the conflict. Joe Bartles of Bartlesville formed the Dewey Aeroplane Company of Dewey, Oklahoma, and secured a contract to manufacture Curtiss JN-4D "Jennies" for the government. Only about a dozen machines were constructed before the war ended, but the venture marked the first quantity production of aircraft in Oklahoma.
The epic trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh triggered the "Lindbergh boom," a ground swell of public support for all things aeronautical. In Oklahoma City Sam Coffman began to produce the Coffman Monoplane, an innovative design utilizing an overhead control stick. In Bartlesville a company began building the Star Cavalier under the accomplished eye of Billy Parker, director of aviation for Phillips Petroleum.
In 1928 a young aeronautical engineer set up a plant in Okay, Oklahoma, near Muskogee to build the "Okay Monoplane," an innovative, low-wing aircraft. The designer was John "Lee" Atwood, later president of North American Aviation and codesigner of the legendary P-51 Mustang. The Okay airplane was the aeronautical ancestor of the famed AT-6 "Texan" used to train thousands of Allied pilots during World War II. Under Atwood's leadership North American went on to build spacecraft, and the company would evolve to become Rockwell International, the prime contractor for the space shuttle.
In 1928 oilman William G. "Bill" Skelly purchased the Tulsa-based Mid-Continent Aircraft Company. Renamed Spartan Aircraft, the enterprise manufactured sturdy biplanes and later the Spartan Executive, a luxuriously appointed corporate aircraft with a speed comparable to that of military pursuit airplanes then in use. The company also branched into flight training and during World War II trained thousands of Allied pilots and mechanics for the war effort. With the exception of Spartan, the Great Depression temporarily brought an end to aircraft manufacturing in Oklahoma.
With the coming of World War II the state entered its greatest period of production. During the conflict Douglas Aircraft built a plant on part of present Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, adjacent to Oklahoma City. The facility turned out 5,354 C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft, almost half the total number of this military version of the famed DC-3. During the war the Douglas plant in Tulsa produced three thousand A-24 Dauntless dive bombers, B-24 Liberator bombers, and A-26 Invader attack aircraft.
During the aviation boom that followed World War II, Oklahoma companies ventured into aerospace manufacturing. One of the earliest and most successful was Aero Design and Engineering Company of Bethany, Oklahoma. In 1950 the company began building the Aero Commander, a twin-engine corporate aircraft. In 1954 Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, himself a pilot, personally selected the Aero Commander as his intermediate-range presidential transportation. Successively under the umbrella of Gulfstream and later Rockwell International, the company has manufactured a long and distinguished line bearing the Commander name. During the Cold War the Douglas plant in Tulsa was reactivated to produce 274 B-47 Stratojet strategic bombers and 72 B-66 Destroyer medium bombers. It also modified a number of aircraft for electronic countermeasure and missile detection during the conflict in Viet Nam.
Economically more significant than building complete aircraft has been the manufacture and/or modification of aircraft, spacecraft, subassemblies, and aerospace systems. At the Tulsa Douglas Plant, under McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International, subassembly manufacture and modification have been conducted on F-4 and F-15 fighters, the B-1 bomber, and Harpoon and Hound Dog missiles, as well as on DC-9, DC-10, and MD-8 civilian aircraft. The facility also conducted research into the "stealth" technology that is integral to the latest generation of military aircraft. Many components used in space vehicles were also developed there, including assemblies for the Saturn C-5 rocket booster used to send astronauts to the Moon, as well as the cargo bay doors and other components of the Space Shuttle.
Another major center of Oklahoma aerospace activity is the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker in Midwest City. Since World War II the facility has been responsible for the rebuilding, maintenance, and modification of hundreds of thousands of aircraft, missiles, subassemblies, avionics packages, and other components. It has also been the logistics manager for such programs as the Cruise missile and B-1 Lancer bomber.
At the close of the twentieth century aerospace manufacturing and related activities ranked as one of the top three Oklahoma industries. The aerospace industry directly and indirectly employs 143,000 Oklahomans, with manufacturing alone providing 15,800 jobs. The $1.7 billion Oklahoma aerospace manufacturing sector also produces $552 million in personal income, $9.1 million in state revenue, and $7.2 million in state sales tax revenue.
James L. Crowder Jr., "'More Valuable Than Oil': The Establishment and Development of Tinker Air Force Base, 1940–1949," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Fall 1992).
Vern Fotz, A Brief History of Spartan School of Aeronautics (Tulsa, Okla.: Vern Folz, 1985).
Office of History, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, Tinker Air Force Base: A Pictorial History (Oklahoma City: Air Force Logistics Command, 1983).
John B. Rae, Climb to Greatness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920–1960 (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1968).
Keith Tolman, "Business on the Wing: Corporate Sponsorship of Oklahoma Aviation, 1927–1935," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 66 (Fall 1988).
Keith Tolman et al., The Oklahoma Aviation Story (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2004).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Keith Tolman, “Aviation Manufacturing,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AV004.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.