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Something is in the air in Eastern Kentucky

EKU Aviation Fleet

Think of Kentucky’s economy and what comes to mind: bourbon, tobacco, coal, thoroughbreds, auto manufacturing? All of those industries are important to the Commonwealth, but they’re only a part of the story.

Another industry is increasingly gaining recognition in Kentucky: aerospace. Aerospace has quietly soared to the top spot in terms of state exports. Last year Kentucky exported $25.3 billion worth of products, and aerospace parts accounted for 20 percent, or $5.6 billion. That’s more than automobiles and auto parts combined ($5.5 billion last year). As impressive as aerospace exports are, they’re only a part of the overall aerospace profile here in the Bluegrass. Lately, it seems every community in Kentucky can lay a stake to their share of the aerospace economy.

This is certainly true for eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian communities east of I-75 and south of I-64 might seem to be an unusual home for high-tech aviation, but they contain two of the nation’s most impressive aerospace academic programs. Eastern Kentucky University has the only FAA-approved university flight program in the Commonwealth. The program’s current expertise is in fixed-wing aircraft, but it’s planning to expand its offerings in the coming years to rotary-wing craft (helicopters) and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones). The aviation program recently announced a partnership with Hazard Community & Technical College to help train students who want to become pilots, but also want to remain in Appalachia.

On the other end of the region, in Rowan County, Morehead State University is hard at work building its Space Science Center program. There, students can get one of the only degrees in space science in the country. MSU has first year students –many from eastern Kentucky –building and testing satellites, prepping satellites for launch and then tracking them in orbit. Like EKU, MSU’s aerospace program recently announced a partnership with the Kentucky Community College System. Soon, Ashland Community & Technical College students will be able to begin their space science degree at ACTC and then finish it at MSU.

Eastern Kentucky’s aerospace story is expanding in other ways:

  • Pikeville recently announced Appalachian Air, a project between multiple local governments and the Southeast Chamber of Commerce that will bring air travel to passengers flying from Pikeville to Nashville.
  • Phoneix Products, a company making parts for military and VIP aircraft, is expanding its operations in McKee in Jackson County.
  • The Kentucky-based education non-profit Institute for Aviation Education (IAE) recently began offering programming to Martin County. The Kentucky Innovation Network office in Morehead facilitated that program coming into the local school system and the passionate reception for this type of education has been amazing. The office also helped IAE launch in Montgomery County and is working to help them go deeper into the mountains.
  • SpacePREP, another educational nonprofit that received support from the Innovation Network, recently began offering day-long programs to high school girls in eastern Kentucky, in an effort to get them interested in engineering. Students travel to MSU and receive an overview of space systems.

What does all this mean for eastern Kentucky? A few possibilities:

  1. A steadily growing workforce in fields such as drones (which is predicted to grow into an $11 billion industry in 10 years) and small satellites (which is predicted to be valued at nearly $2 billion in 5 years). Both create potential for industrial recruitment of aerospace manufacturers seeking to cash in on local talent.
  2. Both drones and satellites require extensive ground control operations. Someone has to satisfy this market need. The dark fiber efforts by Congressman Hal Rogers and Governor Steve Beshear could create the means; a high speed internet superhighway will give KY the means to track these machines in the air.
  3. Perhaps most intriguing is the possibility that graduates (and faculty, staff and students) will begin spinning out their own ventures and creating new aerospace businesses. Incubators at EKU and MSU can help those new enterprises grow.

Undoubtedly, there are other potential outcomes that I haven’t considered here today. The challenge for our region is to come together and begin discussing these possibilities with an eye towards making eastern Kentucky the place for the aerospace industry to succeed.

The sky’s the limit.

Gay is the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more, you can reach Johnathan at 606-783-9536.

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Published on December 09, 2014

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