Aircraft from Wichita used to be made of wood and fabric. Today, manufacturers using high-tech advanced manufacturing processes turn out aircraft and components made from composites and titanium.
Two of the oldest names in Wichita's aviation sector joined as one company when Textron Inc., owner of Cessna Aircraft Co., acquired Beechcraft Corp. in 2014 and formed Textron Aviation.Bringing Cessna and Beechcraft under the same corporate umbrella is a reflection of the aviation pioneers' early days when Clyde Cessna and Walter Beech worked for the same company before founding the companies that still bear their names.
"Combining under one company with separate brands will enhance both Beechcraft and Cessna going forward in terms of our ability to invest and be a strong competitor," says Dave Rosenberg, Textron Aviation's senior vice president of Strategy & Integration. "The combined companies will continue to manufacture and support aircraft for the business, military and general aviation markets."
Cessna and Beechcraft are just some of the companies turning out new aircraft and components in Wichita. Bombardier's Learjet 85 midsize business jet, the latest entry to the Learjet heritage, had its first flight over the skies of Kansas in spring 2014, the first private jet to make use of composite materials. The company employs more than 2,000 people in a 1.2 million-square-foot site next to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
Spirit AeroSystems, which spun off from Boeing in 2005, marked delivery of 5,000 737 fuselages and major assemblies in 2014, and continues to service the 787 program from its Wichita location as well.
Overall, Spirit AeroSystems has about 10,900 employees in Wichita, and finds being at the center of one of the top five global aerospace clusters beneficial. The company spends more than $600 million with suppliers in Kansas, and relies on partnerships with local academic and research institutions for a trained workforce and to develop new products.
"If companies want to be in aerospace, they gravitate toward these aviation clusters," says David Coleal, Spirit executive vice president and general manager, Boeing, Business & Regional Jet Programs. "We have this capability already installed and geographically co-located that affords real-time access to knowledge, scale and efficiency. It gives us a competitive advantage. If you're going to try to do similar things in other regions, it becomes more difficult to replicate, given this installed base we have in Wichita."
Other suppliers, such as HM Dunn Aerosystems and J.R. Custom Metals, are taking on work that was previously handled in-house by the manufacturers.
Suppliers like Leading Edge Aerospace are delving into advanced materials like composite tooling, and Nautilus Engineering in Park City is working on a prototype of an internal combustion engine for use in the unmanned aerial systems market.
High-tech work requires a well-trained workforce, and aerospace companies in the region partner with institutions such as Kansas State University, University of Kansas and Wichita State University. WSU's National Institute for Aviation Research partnered with Airbus for specialized training in composites and metals for a group of engineers who would be designing components using those materials.
Strength in Numbers
To take advantage of the expertise available from the region's aerospace cluster, Airbus in 2002 opened a Wichita design office, which now houses approximately 200 engineers working on the A380 and other long-range Airbus jetliners. Other Wichita companies produce components for Airbus aircraft made in U.S. and European factories.
Figeac Aéro, a French company, acquired the Sonaca NMF facility in Wichita to be closer to Spirit AeroSystems. The company has purchased machinery locally and is using local contractors to upgrade facilities to bring work from overseas to be closer to its growing base of U.S. customers. says that proximity has helped the company experience a 48 percent revenue growth from such customers such as Spirit, Triumph and GKN.
One of the company's strength is the 50-foot-long tanks used for processing components, such as wing assemblies for Gulfstream that is part of the company's unique end-to-end manufacturing process.