Wichita’s aviation history is rich, but the industry faces unprecedented challenges

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As the Air Capital of the World, Wichita has a long and storied history with aviation.

Because aviation is a cyclical industry prone to highs and lows over time, Wichita has had to navigate its economic peaks and valleys.

A significant low arrived in 2020, with COVID-19 shutting down large portions of the world, which came on top of layoffs due to the halt in production of the Boeing 737.

Since the outbreak, Textron Aviation has furloughed roughly 7,000 employees and instituted shortened work weeks for some employees. According to The Wichita Eagle, Spirit AeroSystems has also endured massive furloughs, putting thousands of aircraft employees out of work.

The International Air Transport Association revealed on April 14 that it anticipates a $314 billion revenue hit in 2020, mostly from passenger revenue losses.

Jay Price, chair of the Wichita State History Department, said he fully anticipates COVID-19 having a lasting impact on the aviation industry.

“This is going to change everything in terms of how people are traveling,” Price said weeks before Textron furloughed their employees.

He said commercial aviation will be hit the hardest.

“That’s going to be taking the humongous hit,” Price said.

Throughout the history of aviation in Wichita, there is really no comparison to COVID-19.

Wichita’s rich aviation history dates back to the 1910s. According to Richard Harris, an aviation industry analyst and historian, the early stages of Wichita’s aviation history can be tied to ballooning. The Wichita Aero Club was founded in 1915 and took the initiative to sponsor a balloon race in the fall of that year.

One significant figure in Wichita aviation was Clyde Cessna, a farmer from Rago, Kansas, who built his first plane in 1911. He eventually moved his airplane manufacturing business from Kingman County to the Jones Auto Factory in North Wichita.

In 1917, Cessna built The Comet, the first plane known to have been constructed in Wichita. In 1920, the E. M. Laird Airplane company was formed in Wichita by Maddie Laird, Jake Moellendick, and Billy Burke.

In 1921, according to the Kansas Aviation Museum, it is believed that William Lassen remarked, “She flies like a swallow, boys,” while observing the Laird Airplane Company’s first test flight of the Wichita Tractor, the group’s first airplane. The plane became known as the Laird Swallow from that point on.

In the late 1920s, Wichita had four aircraft companies — Swallow, Travel Air, Cessna, and Stearman. By 1928, the combined output of all four companies exceeded the aircraft production of any other city in the United States.

Every year, the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce awarded the title “air capital city” to the city producing the most airplanes. In 1928, Wichita earned the honor. From then on, Wichita began promoting itself as “the Air Capital of the World.” Wichita would dominate the award in the following years.

Aircraft companies enjoyed a boom during World War II as thousands of aircraft workers found jobs in Kansas, mostly in Wichita.

During the war, Boeing built B-29 bombers. Beech and Cessna also built military aircraft, and many companies worked together to build gliders.

Wichita’s contributions to the war effort were significant. According to Harris, Wichita produced one out of every 11 U.S. military planes, absorbing workers from throughout Kansas and surrounding states, and nearly doubling the city’s population.

This created one of the highest concentrations of skilled aircraft workers in the world.

Wichita was awash in machine shops, aviation schools, aircraft instrument manufacturing, and other enterprises crucial to the success of aircraft manufacturers, all of which was enthusiastically backed by the business community, the local government, and academic communities.

Wichita’s success was secured. It became Boeing’s main bomber factory throughout the Cold War, then produced the bodies or fuselages of the world’s most popular jetliners, while Beech came to dominate business aircraft, and Cessna became the unrivaled world leader in light aircraft. Wichita’s pool of skill would later draw Learjet (1963) and Airbus Engineering (2002) to the city.

But then, after 80-plus years, Boeing announced its departure from the city in 2012. The move affected 2,100 workers in Wichita and left the city devastated.

Price said the symbolism of the move weighed heavily on the community.

“You had these big companies that were a presence, and they invested in the economy, and then they’re not there anymore. That played a difference,” Price said.

Harris said he suspects COVID-19 is leading business executives and other wealthy individuals to consider turning to private planes for travel.

The first five months of 2020 have provided a number of challenges for Wichita’s aviation industry. In January, Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita’s biggest employer, laid off approximately 2,800 workers due to the suspension of Boeing 737 Max production following several high-profile crashes.

David Moreno, the archivist at the Kansas Aviation Museum, said it’s hard to compare the current situation to others because of the circumstances. Moreno said he believes the difference between the Spirit layoffs and previous employment contractions is that the layoffs are due to a regulatory issue as opposed to an economic issue.

He said the future of the situation with the 737 Max and Spirit AeroSystems is dependent on a number of factors that are currently unknown.

“It’s a question of how soon does the plane get ungrounded, and how well accepted that plane will be afterwards,” Moreno said. “In other words, will the passengers be willing to get back on that airplane? And, therefore, will the airliners be willing to continue to buy that airplane?”

Price said layoffs are normal, but this situation is uniquely disconcerting.

“We were really used to that sense of a cycle, and when the recent layoffs happened, it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This isn’t the cycle,’” Price said.

Jeremy Hill, director of WSU’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, said Wichita will have to fight to maintain its talent. He said other companies in the region will want to hire the laid-off workers, who may or may not be tempted if the pay is lower than what they previously earned.