Wichita’s business community has never been more diverse. But of all of its industries, none has as much impact as the longtime leader: aviation. And in the aviation business, no single entity shapes the economy and quality of life more than McConnell Air Force Base.
Even in today's tough economy, McConnell continues to drive (or fly) Wichita toward success, says Pat Gallagher, the military liaison for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce for the past 20 years.
“Go back and look at McConnell in 2007 and 2008 – the economic impact of the base was around $410 million," Gallagher says. "In 2012, it was $610 million. So you see a constant increase of that economic impact. Even in a down economy, McConnell has been good for Wichita.”
The story of the defense industry’s relationship with Wichita is about more than just dollars and cents; it's a connection that has had a defining effect on the community. Locals welcome servicemen and women with open arms, says Air Force Master Sgt. Brannen Parish, who has served at McConnell for the past three years.
“One day, I was sitting at a drive-thru at a local fast-food restaurant (in uniform), and when I got to the window, the woman in front of me had paid my bill," he recalls.
In Wichita, soldiers are treated to gestures like that all the time, Parish says.
“I’ve served about 18 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had so many events like that occur," he says.
A Healthy Respect
The relationship between the base and Wichita is not a marriage of convenience; it's one of mutual respect, Parish adds.
“I really don't believe you can think of McConnell Air Force Base and the Wichita area as two separate entities," he says. "The civilian employees, Air Force reservists, Air National guardsmen and many of the active duty airmen are really part of the community's fabric.”
Gallagher knows firsthand how deep the relationship between military and civilian life runs in Wichita.
“It’s a real emotional connection – it truly is," she says. "Wichita is just a great place to live. We have enormous community support through the Friends of McConnell organization and so many others. We hear again and again from our military families that McConnell is the best assignment in the Air Force.”
That history, along with McConnell’s record of operational excellence, makes the area ideal for continued growth of the base. In April 2013, the Air Force selected McConnell as the preferred main operating base for a new fleet of in-air KC-46A refueling tankers, further solidifying McConnell's presence in the area.
McConnell's New Mission
The KC-46As will fly out of Wichita, supporting Air Force missions around the country and taking advantage of one reason the city first became known as the Air Capital of the World in the late 1920s – its central location.
Gallagher says the award of the tanker fleet should ensure McConnell’s continued contribution to south central Kansas for years to come, creating new jobs, increasing demand for infrastructure and building upon Wichita’s reputation as a defense and aviation leader.
“These new programs lend a degree of economic certainty to the area," she says. "We are very, very fortunate.”
Parish adds yet another reason for Wichita's enduring influence in the defense business.
“(While they serve), airmen gain sought-after technical skills that can benefit the aviation industry," he says. "After six or more years, you have a man or woman who has been trained by the Air Force, and that airman has put that training to use outside the classroom in an operational environment – that's a desirable employee.”
Building a homegrown workforce with such a high level of training and expertise is guaranteed to keep Wichita's reputation as a force in the defense business secure. And as more contracts are awarded and the bond between Wichita's military and civilian populations strengthens, both the base and city are poised to soar to even greater heights.