In 2015, the value of all aerospace manufacturing exports reached $8.7 billion, making it the largest industry sector in the state by that measure. The following year, the value of exports hit $10.8 billion and in 2017 it was nearly $11.7 billion, almost three times the size of the next-largest sector (motor vehicles), according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. As of August 2018, exports for the aerospace sector were running 5.9 percent ahead of the same period last year, meaning that the commonwealth’s aerospace exports are on pace to top $12.3 billion this year.
Noting the category’s spot atop the state’s export list the previous few years, The Lane Report did a cover story on Kentucky’s aerospace industry in May 2015.
Even those in the industry describe this growth as almost a happy accident, the result of Kentucky’s proximity to major manufacturers like GE and Rolls-Royce and to military installations like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio; its prominence as a logistics hub; and the availability of cheaper energy more so than any concerted strategy or effort on the part of state or local officials.
“There was this organic growth of little companies and research and development centers and universities all doing their own thing, and collectively it becomes a $13 billion industry,” said Benjamin K. Malphrus, professor of space science at Morehead State University and executive director of the school’s Space Science Center. “What would happen if we actually had a plan, a strategic plan for the growth of the industry?”
Kentucky is learning the answer to that right now.
The Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium (KAIC) formed in 2016 as a not-for-profit initiative of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. Its mission is to facilitate the growth and maintenance of the aerospace and aviation industry in Kentucky. Through September of this year, its three-person team has amassed some 50 members and partners. They have spoken to companies, civic leaders, colleges and universities, and at conferences. They have been to air shows in Montreal and the United Kingdom, promoting the state and its aerospace industry. In November, KAIC joined other industry sponsors from Kentucky in Tokyo for the Japan International Aerospace Exhibition, and next year it’s planning a strong presence at the Paris Air Show, the largest in the world.
D. Stewart Ditto III, a retired U.S. Marine Corps first lieutenant who flew MV-22 Ospreys, joined KAIC in 2016 as its executive director. William Fortune, a commander in the U.S. Navy whose military resume includes stints as an SH-60 helicopter pilot and commanding special air operations for north and west Africa from Germany, joined KAIC in August this year and is KAIC’s business development director. Griffin Melzer, a 2017 graduate of Salisbury University, heads up network and brand development.
Together they’re using KAIC to build industry connections in the state and promote Kentucky to the country and the world as an aerospace manufacturing destination.
“The idea behind KAIC is to facilitate the evolution of the industry, to bring industry and government and academia together to develop a strategic plan for the maintenance and growth of the industry,” said Malphrus, who also serves on KAIC’s board.