By Mitch Chandler, Director of Executive Communications, Arkansas EDC
Would you believe the #1 exports from Arkansas to the world are aircraft, spacecraft and related parts? It’s true. In fact, there’s an incredible story to tell.
Arkansas has a rich history in aviation, but now enjoys an even more impressive business landscape with manufacturing and production. From outfitting nearly all Dassault Falcon Jets with interiors having arrived from France “green,” the term used to describe the unpainted and unfinished luxury planes, to top-of-the line missile systems used around the world to protect nations, to the home of the largest C-130 base in the world, Arkansas knows how to fly.
Dassault Falcon Jet LLC is the largest aerospace company in Arkansas, employing about 1,500 highly-skilled workers. The French company’s hangers at Little Rock’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport represents their largest facility in the world. Decades of workforce training has allowed the company to stay in Arkansas and prosper, as the craft-workers take the raw jets and transform them into works of art, and both inside and out. The company continues to expand as do other related businesses who operate teir-two manufacturing facilities in support.
The pandemic may have slowed many states drastically, but Arkansas is not among them. Governor Asa Hutchinson took quick, pragmatic steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, while keeping most of the state open for business. Combined with Arkansas’s diverse economy, the state has weathered the downturn far better than other states. It was the same in the Great Recession of 2008. Arkansas was insulated by many factors, including the diversity of so many different kinds of core industries, aviation and related supplies among them.
Missiles of all kinds are also at the top of the export list. More on those a little later. But the important question is, “What makes Arkansas, of all places, a great place to manufacture and deliver all of these complex aerospace and missile defense systems?” There are several big reasons that might surprise you.
Of three million citizens in the state, 1.3 million are trained and skilled, prepped and prepared to accomplish even the toughest assignments. Arkansas ranks 2nd in the South in percentage of manufacturing employment. In Arkansas, people still make things. Education has been the key. Forty-six colleges, universities and two-year colleges cover the state. The two-year institutions cater directly to industry by creating turn-key curriculums to enhance the training capabilities to fit the exact specifications of the clustered categories. Aided by the Arkansas Department of Commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), innovative, dynamic and current training programs can be designed for not only aviation companies, but for all of the other targeted industries in the state. There are six accredited ABET, post-secondary engineering programs to choose from. Six educational institutions offer certification in aviation maintenance technology, and they include both power plant and airframe mechanic career education programs. Those companies or start-ups looking for support in the aviation industry certainly should consider Arkansas as a place to find opportunities with a workforce prepared for fast deployment for any size project.
The state’s workforce is large and experienced. In 2018, about a billion dollars of goods were exported, and it took more than 10,000 skilled workers at 240 aviation and defense companies located in the state to fill the orders around the world.
A significant driver of all things aviation in the state is the Little Rock Air Force Base, one of five military installations in the state and home to the largest C-130 training base in the world. The base regularly hosts aircrews from 47 allied nations, and it’s the largest U.S. Department of Defense International Flying Training Program in the country. The base anchors the industry as the influx of talent from the military, contractors and talented pilots and support crew, create an incredible atmosphere for professionalism and mission success, and is the 5th largest employer in the state. Almost 11,000 personnel are assigned to the base and it’s an extremely important economic engine in the state. An economic impact of over $1.2B make the Central Arkansas, headquarters of the 19th Airlift Wing, the 189th Airlift Wing, the 314th Airlift Wing and the 913th Airlift Group, the top aviation economic driver in Arkansas. The host unit flies C130J’s and is a community of ready warriors supplying and airdropping supplies and troops into the heart of contingency operations in hostile areas around the globe. Humanitarian relief missions add to the complexity and importance of the facility. And with 50 flight simulators, it’s understandable why the C-130 military pilots of the world beat a path to the professional, combat-minded cockpits and classrooms of the Little Rock Air Force Base.
The Arkansas Aeroplex in Northeast Arkansas is a great example of the state’s commitment to create new aviation opportunities while utilizing an existing, unique location. The former home of the Blytheville Air Force Base (later name changed to Eaker AFB) has 11,000-foot runways and a legacy of immense national security as a B-52 command center. Pilot and crew training for World War II and the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis have long passed, but the infrastructure of the base remains, allowing an incredible mix of aircraft operations, business headquarters, federal agencies, non-profits and even neighborhood homes. The Aeroplex continues to design development ideas for companies like Aviation Repair and Technology (ART), the Miami-based supplier that supports aircraft operators worldwide with state-of-the-art component MRO, that was recently named “Small Business of the Year” by Delta Airlines, an impressive distinction. ART and all of the businesses take advantage of their proximity to the Memphis International Airport and the home to Fed-Ex just an hour by Interstate to the south. More than 1.5 million square feet of space is available at the aerospace cluster. Another amazing detail about the area, it’s one of the top steel-producing counties in the country. Nearby Arkansas Community College (two-year) helps train workers for all of the heavy industry in the area and works side-by-side with the training division at AEDC. And also, just an hour away is Arkansas State University (four-year.)
And then there are the rocket men and women of Arkansas. Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Pratt & Whitney and Raytheon are just few of the big names who represent the missile and defense manufacturing cluster in the state. Aerojet Rocketdyne has had a presence in Arkansas since 1979 and its current 800-person workforce manufactures 75,000, solid rocket motors annually for programs, including tactical missiles and missile defense. In August of last year, Areojet Rocketdyne announced plans to increase the workforce to 900 over the next three years as they build out the newest and most modern rocket development facility in the nation at their Camden, Arkansas solid rocket motor center of excellence. The workforce in South Arkansas has been continually lauded by the company and was crucial as they shifted a program in Sacramento, California to their facility in Camden. Their longstanding relationships with AEDC, Calhoun County and the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development, along with the incredible workforce, were cited as reasons Camden continues to be chosen by the recognized aerospace defense leader providing propulsion systems and energetics to the space, missile defense and strategic systems, and tactical systems areas supporting domestic and international customers.
Not only does the state boast manufacturing success, but the infrastructure to transport the products continues to build. There are 90 public airports in the state, over a thousand miles of navigable waterways, 1600+ miles of railroad and 16,000+ well-maintained Interstates and U.S. Highways. Arkansas has a central location among the busiest fight paths in the world. The state is famous for close-knit local and state government partnerships, extending to the private-sector, transportation and utility groups. We find Arkansas to be a well-positioned state to grow and prosper, primarily because of the workforce, work ethic and an incredible history of growing start-ups and Fortune 500 companies alike. The ‘Natural State’ is certainly worth a look for those seeking a perfect location to drop their flaps to 40 degrees and glide on in!