In the midwest and south-west of the USA, aerospace is the new IT. Cities and states are falling over themselves to attract aviation companies. Visit Albuquerque, home to Eclipse Aviation, and Independence, the tiny town in southern Kansas where Cessna is building its Mustang, and you understand why.
In my last blog, I wrote about how a drive from Wichita - Cessna's home city - to Albuquerque takes you through a forgotten America, a dull, flat landscape devoid of tourists and business investment, where the odd agri-giant isn't enough to shake the abandoned homesteads and depressing trailer parks from their stupor. I talked about the vision of Eclipse's Vern Raburn of reviving these beleagured communities through cheap, accessible business aviation.
But from a manufacturing point of view, aviation is also manna from heaven for overlooked urban centres. While Ford and General Motors bow to the inevitable and shut plants in much of the old rust belt, south-western states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah have recognised the huge economic shot in the arm that an emerging aerospace player can provide by setting up shop in their area, and are going all out to provide incentives to make life as easy as possible for these entrepreneurial start-ups.
Albuquerque is by no means a dog-eared city. It has a smart, high-rise downtown and is on the junction of two interstates, and with some beautiful mountains and the stunning Spanish colonial town of Santa Fe on its doorstep, it is a pleasant place to live. But New Mexico is one of the USA's poorest states. There is little arable land and, outside Albuquerque, not much in the way of big business. When Eclipse Aviation moved in a few years ago, it brought with it high-tech, well-paid jobs for designers, engineers, marketeers and skilled assemblers. Today, the company employs 500. Soon it plans to have double that workforce. The benefit to the local economy is not just these salaries being pumped back into local businesses. A sexy, going-places venture like Eclipse raises the whole profile of the city, attracting other high-tech firms, college students and visitors.
In Independence, Kansas, it's a similar story. So small it's hardly marked on maps, the town was chosen by Cessna for its new piston single factory in the mid-90s. Now, with the decision to locate the Mustang entry level jet there too, the remote outpost has suddenly become an aviation centre. When I visited, I asked if it was difficult finding skilled staff in such a small town, even allowing for the fact that Cessna is prepared to train assembly line workers from scratch. Not a bit of it. Each job vacancy has several applicants. It makes for a willing workforce.
Walk into any state capital with a back of the envelope plan for a new business jet that's going to change the world and it's likely you'll be treated like a hero and offered every spare hangar going at the local airport, so desperate are the local politicos to embrace the next Eclipse. Trouble is, many of today's great ideas in business aviation are likely to remain just that: ideas. As Eclipse has proved, even with a great marketing plan and an mould-breaking manufacturing concept, the long road to certification and volume production can be bumpy and even ruinous. But providing these would-be pioneers with a start is a risk jobs-hungry cities and states in the great American interior are prepared to take.