The Rise of the Aerospace and Aviation Industries in Oklahoma

Many people outside the state of Oklahoma do not realize the role the Sooner State has played in the history of the aerospace and aviation industries in the United States. Since World War II, Oklahoma has been one of the world’s major aerospace-industry centers, including an impressive array of aerospace employers and some of the largest maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) facilities in the U.S.

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Oklahoma’s aviation history is quite distinguished. Clyde Cessna began testing aircraft in the state during the early decades of the 20th century. Following the First World War, the state experienced the founding of two airlines, Tulsa-Oklahoma City Airways in 1927 (founded by Tom and Paul Braniff, who went on to establish Braniff Airways) and Southwest Air Fast Express (S.A.F.E.) in 1928, established by future oil-industry tycoon and founder of the eponymous oil company, Erle P. Halliburton. Both Tulsa-Oklahoma City Airways and S.A.F.E. were bought by the then American Airways, beginning what became American Airlines’ long-standing relationship with Oklahoma.

In the 1930s, Oklahoma was also home to two U.S. aviation pioneers: cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator, motion picture actor and “Oklahoma’s favorite son” Will Rogers, and famed American aviator Wiley Post. Post’s record-breaking round-the-world flight in 1933 in a Lockheed Vega named ‘Winnie Mae’ is still regarded as a landmark in U.S. aviation history. He then went on to develop one of the first pressure suits, which allowed him to fly to an altitude of 50,000ft in 1934 and discover the existence of the jet stream. Post and Rogers died together in 1935 when the Lockheed Explorer floatplane they were flying crashed on take-off near Barrow, Alaska.  Both men’s passion for aviation has been immortalized by Oklahoma City in naming its main airport Will Rogers International Airport and its large business-aviation airport Wiley Post Airport.

Oklahoma’s aviation heritage came of age in the Second World War, when two large industrial facilities were built by the Douglas Aircraft Company near Oklahoma City and Tulsa. These facilities would build bombers for the U.S. Army Air Force and employ more than 40,000 workers, half of them women who would become the fabled ‘Rosie the Riveters’. These cultural icons representing the American women who worked in factories during World War II became the center of a publicity campaign which also began in Oklahoma.

After the war, the paths of the Douglas Aircraft Company facilities gradually diverged: the Oklahoma City plant became Tinker Air Force Base, today the largest aircraft-maintenance complex and military-aviation logistics center in the world, while the Tulsa factory declined over a period of many years. However, the scene was set for Oklahoma to develop its aerospace industry.

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives is proud to provide a glimpse into Oklahoma’s aviation history. As part of the Robert M. McCormack Photographic Archive, the collection holds hundreds of aviation-related photographs from the era of the burgeoning aerospace industry in Oklahoma. We invite our patrons and the general public to take a look at some of these photographs in our Digital Collection or to visit us at the 5th floor of McFarlin Library

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