Aerospace plants gear up for new military contracts

With the oil industry eclipsed for the time being, the stars of Tulsa's aviation and aerospace community are twinkling a little brighter.

And the people out at McDonnell Douglas have been seeing more of their congressmen lately.

At its aircraft modification plant here, McDonnell Douglas has a six-year contract for overhauling the F-4C ''Phantom'' fighter of the United States Air Force. Spokesmen say that with the depressed state of the aircraft industry, they can't expect automatic renewal of the contract. With civilian activity down , military contracts are sometimes the only game in town now, and competition is keen.

Hence the recent visit of Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Budget Committee. Officials at McDonnell Douglas made their case for their company's importance in Tulsa's economy and pushed for his support in getting the Phantom contract renewed.

McDonnell Douglas would like to bid on another military contract, to put new GE-Simca engines in the Air Force's KC-135 planes, made by Boeing. These planes are the military equivalent of the DC-8s, which McDonnell Douglas is now refitting with engines for various civilian carriers.

Some 3,000 employees strong, McDonnell Douglas-Tulsa, the biggest military aerospace contractor in Oklahoma, is holding its own in a recession. Its modification facilities here are housed in Air Force Plant No. 3, a government-owned plant built to produce bombers during World War II.

Just across the hall in this huge plant, nearly a mile long, is Rockwell International-Tulsa, with over 2,000 workers. This operation, ''the Fisher Body Works of Rockwell,'' as a spokesman describes it, is gearing up for its part in the B-1B bomber, which will mean another 1,500 new jobs by 1986. A total of 3, 000 workers are expected to be involved when the program goes full steam. Rockwell's Tulsa plant also helped build the space shuttle.

Not far away is the biggest aviation presence here in Tulsa: American Airlines, 5,600 strong. Its central maintenance facility is here, as well as its data processing and revenue and general accounting divisions. Planes such as the Boeing 727 come in here for a major two- or three-week overhaul after every 14, 000 hours of service - about every four or five years. Everything from overhead luggage compartments to landing flaps gets taken apart and checked out, and if necessary reworked. A less extensive check lasting two days is made after every 2,200 hours of service.

American moved here in 1946, taking over a plant that had been used to modify military aircraft during the war. In the days before nonstop transcontinental air service, Tulsa was a logical stopping place in the middle of America.

Nonstop jets soon came onto the scene, and Chicago and Dallas overtook Tulsa as major hubs in American's route system. But an American spokesman says that whenever officials have weighed pros and cons of moving the repair facility, they have come down on the side of staying put.

Aerospace people speak of a ''favorable tax structure'' and excellent labor relations - which does not mean workers are not unionized. American's crews are represented by the New York-based Transport Workers' Union, and McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell are represented by the Detroit-based United Automobile Workers. ''But there are no built-in restrictive practices here,'' says Kenneth G. Willis at American. ''People are willing to do different things. They aren't so quick to say, 'That isn't my job.' ''

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