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Columbia Business Monthly

South Carolina May Hold Key to Future of Aerospace Industry

Nov 03, 2022 11:24AM ● By Kevin Dietrich

North Carolina’s reputation as aviation’s birthplace was guaranteed with the Wright Brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk more than a century ago, but the future of the aerospace industry could well be in South Carolina.

Over the past 15 years, the Palmetto State’s aerospace business has grown exponentially, and today more than 136,000 state residents are employed in the sector, which contributes more than $14 billion annually to the state’s gross domestic product.

Not bad considering South Carolina had practically no aerospace presence just two decades ago. But that was before Boeing began down a road that led to it opening an assembly plant for 787 jetliners and employing thousands in the Charleston area. Success isn’t limited to the Lowcountry, as Lockheed-Martin recently constructed a production line for F-16 fighter jets in Greenville.

Today, the state is a significant player in both the commercial and military aviation industries, and it is home to more than 400 aerospace and aviation companies, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.

“Rarely do regions get the type of kick-start to an industry cluster that South Carolina received,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond wrote back in 2014, referring to the arrival of Boeing. “For all practical purposes, the 787 program created an aerospace product and parts-manufacturing cluster in South Carolina where none had existed previously.”

How big is the state’s aerospace cluster? South Carolina ranked No. 3 nationwide in export sales of aircraft, spacecraft, and parts in 2019 with a total of $12.42 billion, reported SC Aerospace, part of the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness. In all, the state accounted for 9.1 percent of the total U.S. market share for the export sales of aircraft, spacecraft and other aeronautical products.

Boeing’s arrival in the Lowcountry a little more than a decade ago help ensure South Carolina’s place on the aerospace map, but it was hardly the first to set up shop in the Palmetto State. 

Lockheed-Martin began operations in South Carolina in 1984 and today its Greenville location is the company’s lone site for building F-16 fighter planes. 

Lockheed-Martin, which began in Greenville with a dozen workers, now has more than 1,000 employees spread over a 275-acre operation. The Greenville site also services C-130s and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

With the arrival and growth of corporations such as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, GE Aerospace and Honeywell Aerospace have come myriad other companies which provide parts and services to the aerospace industry. Education programs have been set up at schools in the state to train workers for industry jobs, as well.

South Carolina has several factors that make it attractive to aeronautics companies, including its location and access to a major port in Charleston, a robust workforce development effort, and extremely low unionization rates.

South Carolina is equipped to supply the highly trained workforce required by the aerospace industry, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. 

Over the past three years, there have been two significant announcements that underscored South Carolina’s expanding presence in the aerospace industry. 

In 2019, Lockheed-Martin announced Greenville would be the lone production site for the company’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. The following year, Boeing said it was consolidating production of 787 Dreamliners in North Charleston. 

These manufacturing giants require significant numbers of suppliers, including many small companies with just a handful of employees. Some suppliers are from the U.S. while others have moved here from abroad, some with the help of the state Department of Commerce’s South Carolina Landing Pad program.

Begun in 2016, the program assists international businesses with entry to the U.S. market, targeting companies that plan to hire fewer than 10 employees and invest less than $1 million in the initial stages.

Commerce’s goal is to connect new companies with people who can help reduce the learning curve involved with developing a business in the U.S.

Among these is Japan-based SkyDrive, which recently established a temporary office in Beaufort. SkyDrive is developing flying cars, or electric vehicle take-off and landing vehicles, as well as cargo-carrying drones.

SkyDrive, described as Japan’s most developed flying car startup, envisions employing flying cars at the 2025 World’s Fair, to be held in Japan.