Kelly Hansen will never forget what he said to his oldest grandchild the first time he heard the screeching sound of jet engines from a fleet of F-16s leaving the runway at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base (HAFB).
“He said to me, ‘Grandpa, what’s that noise?’ and I replied to him, ‘That’s the sound of freedom.’”
For Davis County-resident Hansen and literally thousands of others in Utah, the thundering sound from HAFB also represents the sound of income. HAFB, which is one of the state’s largest employers, has a heavy impact on Utah’s economy. In addition to HAFB, the Beehive State is home to a lively aerospace and aviation industry—an industry that has had a substantial impact on Utah’s economy for more than 70 years.
The Industry Takes Off
Besides HAFB, the list of the state’s aerospace partners is long and distinguished. It includes Alliant Technologies (ATK) of Clearfield, Boeing of Salt Lake City, Hexcel Corporation of Magna and a host of others. Aviation leader’s like Sky West of St. George and FMC Jetway Systems of Ogden employ thousands of Utahns. And then there’s the contributions from Utah State University (USU) professors and students.
But the industry really began with the birth of HAFB, as an air depot in the 1930s. Seven permanent stations were created to populate the Rocky Mountain region with the U.S. Air Force. During World War II, more than 22,000 employees worked at HAFB, with just under 16,000 of them civilians. Since its construction more than 70 years ago, the base has grown to encompass close to 6,700 acres in Davis and Weber counties, with management of an additional 962,000 acres throughout Northern Utah. A total of 23,000 employees, both military and civilian, are employed at Hill Field today.
“The aerospace and aviation industry is hugely important to the state,” says Gary Harter, managing director for the aerospace and aviation sector for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED. “Hill provides engineering and logistics management for the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10 Thunderbolt and the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile programs, as well as maintenance for many Air Force fleets. We see Hill Air Force Base and the groups around it as a tremendous economic engine for our state.”
Launching Jobs and the Economy
Sound is also a very important part of Sharon Johnson’s memories. She has fond recollections of the times she heard the roar of a rocket engine rattling across the West Desert near her home in Brigham City.
“We grew up knowing that they were testing rocket motors regularly at Thiokol [Propulsion],” she recalls. “When I was younger, we’d go out and watch those tests. The sounds of those rocket boosters, the plumes of smoke they generated—they were unforgettable.”
Impressive sounds from rocket motor testing is still being created in Utah. On September 10 of this year, ATK test fired the Ares I five-segment rocket motor at its facility in Promontory, Utah. The DM-1 motor, called the most powerful rocket motor ever created and designed to help propel NASA back into the space travel business (possibly the moon and beyond), was successfully tested. Its two-minute burn produced a thrust equivalent to that of 12 747 aircrafts—about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Depending on the nation’s economy, of course, plans call for using that motor as part of the Ares I program set to be launched by 2020.
ATK was spun off from Honeywell as an independent company in 1990. It acquired Hercules Aerospace in 1995 and Thiokol in 2001, becoming the world’s largest supplier of solid propellant rocket motors and a leader in the advanced components industry.
Coupled with HAFB's employee base, aerospace and aviation companies located in Utah provide jobs for more than 40,000 people. ATK has a workforce of more than 5,000; Boeing’s workforce ranges between 500 and 1,000; FMC employs between 300 to 500 individuals; and Hexcel has a similar size workforce, employing between 300 and 500 workers. Harter says Utah offers unique capabilities that no one else in the country can match. "Our aerospace and aviation industries bring with them good, high-paying jobs.”
It’s also a win-win for those industries. Harter points out that the state’s highly educated workforce, with a nation-leading literacy rate of 94 percent, “makes this the perfect location for those companies dealing in technology and science.”
In Logan, Utah State University owns and operates the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), a non-profit research corporation “charged with applying basic research to technology challenges in the military and science fields,” according to its Website. No college or university in the country has contributed more to the nation’s aerospace program as SDL, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in June. NASA is currently funding several projects being conducted at SDL, which has developed thousands of sensors and subsystems used on more than 400 space and aircraft payloads.
USU is not alone in its efforts in aerospace education. Westminster College and Utah Valley State College also offer undergraduate degrees in the technology, while the University of Utah, Weber State University and Brigham Young University offer aerospace study degrees and training through their Air Force Reserve ROTC programs.
Sometimes overlooked, but not by the industry itself, is Utah’s contribution in advanced composites, the lifeblood of aerospace programs that Harter says “grew up in Utah.” ATK’s contribution in this arena has already been noted. Hexcel Corporation is the largest carbon fiber manufacturer in the nation, with a plethora of awards for its products and annual sales revenues of more than $1 billion. Harter cites Hexcel Corporation, along with other companies such as Parker-Hannifin and Petersen Inc. of Ogden, Klune Industries of Spanish Fork and Metalcraft Technologies of Cedar City, with making Utah the nation’s top source for advanced composites.
“The future of space exploration will largely focus on unmanned aerial systems,” he says. “This is a big growth area in aerospace, and the advanced components being developed in Utah are a key to those programs.”
Though they don’t involve travel out of the atmosphere, two Utah companies have a large impact on those who travel within it. St. George-based SkyWest Airlines was created by owner Ralph Atkin in 1972, initially as a way for businessmen to travel from southern Utah to Salt Lake City. That first year, a total of 256 passengers flew on SkyWest.
Today, the airline, the nation’s largest regional carrier, employs more than 10,000 people in 150 cities and 38 states, five Canadian provinces and one Mexican city. With more than 1,500 flights per day, SkyWest has operating agreements with United and Delta Air Lines. It has also worked with Continental Air Lines in the past.
FMC Jetway Systems of Ogden is probably best known for the airport equipment it manufactures—ramps that allow passengers to board airplanes from the terminals, rather than by walking out on to the tarmacs and climbing staircases that for decades were rolled up to the aircraft doors. Few airports in the nation, if any, have failed to add these “jetways” to their operations.
“I think it’s safe to say that these are the types of businesses our state should be involved with,” Harter says. “Aerospace and aviation provide jobs and opportunities for so many people.”