Tinker's Kirkland sees local support continuing to fuel base's mission

Published: Tuesday, August 10, 2021 By: Chamber Staff Source: The POINT!

Retirement is just weeks away for Tinker’s current commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, Lt. Gen. Gene Kirkland, but that does not necessarily mean he is taking it easy or resting on his laurels. Despite the soon-to-be exit from a 34-year career in the military, Kirkland is still actively engaged in leading the sustainment center, something he has enjoyed doing since he first became its commander in August 2018.

“We enjoy outstanding support from all of our communities, and I always say the best communities make the best bases. And that is true here [in Oklahoma City]. You are all in and consistently voted with bond issues, your check book and with major land acquisitions,” Kirkland said.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber helped facilitate a deal in 2008 between Oklahoma County and the Air Force to lease the old General Motors plant to Tinker, saving American taxpayers $400 million in planned construction costs. The Air Force later transformed that facility into an aerospace complex, now called Building 9001, where workers repair and overhaul various aircraft engines and parts.

The Chamber also helped Tinker acquire 158 acres of the BNSF rail yard, paving the way for a planned maintenance operation for the Boeing KC-46, the Air Force’s new refueling tanker. In addition, the Chamber recently announced that 220 acres owned by the Oklahoma Industries Authority and located just to the east of Tinker will be made available to Tinker to expand the base’s footprint in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County.

Leading approximately 40,000 airmen across three air logistics complexes, three air base wings and two supply chain wings, Kirkland expects the sustainment center to play even a more integral role in our national security, especially as the Air Force welcomes the Boeing KC-46 to its aircraft arsenal, as well as Air Force’s newest bomber, the Northrop Grumman B21 Raider. Both aircraft will be maintained at Tinker Air Force Base.

Kirkland said two buildings on the KC-46 campus have already been completed. By the time the entire campus is built out – which should happen by the end of this decade – there will be 14 docked spaces available for repair and maintenance work on the new refueling tanker.

“The KC-46 campus enables the KC-46 mission, which is absolutely critical to our nation’s ability to project forces forward rapidly and as part of what underpins our national defense strategy,” Kirkland said.
Building 9001 continues to be a critical asset for the Air Force for repair and overhaul of aging aircraft. More than 2,500 people are currently employed there, which is about a third more than worked there when it was still the GM plant, Kirkland said.

Out of the 2,500 employees working in Building 9001 are 1,600 engineers who are part of Tinker’s software engineering group.

“We have more software engineers and computer sciences in that building than we do in any other functional area.,” Kirkland said.

In 2020, the software engineering groups at Warner Robbins Air Force Base and Hill Air Force Base as well as Tinker combined to generate more than $800 million in revenue. Of that total, Tinker alone generated $240 million. Business continues to grow at a 6% clip annually, according to Kirkland.

“We work closely with commercial industry, delivering the same product at the same level of quality and value at about 65 cents on the dollar,” Kirkland said. “This is important for us and makes our STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) challenge here in Oklahoma and across the nation even more of an imperative to make sure we have software engineers and other STEM graduates going forward.”

One factor that has greatly enhanced Tinker’s ability to attract and retain engineers to the base is the Aerospace Industry Engineer Workforce Tax Credit program that was passed by the state Legislature in 2008. Under this program, qualified engineer graduates can get up to a $5,000 credit on their state income taxes. Over the last decade, however, various eligibility issues have sprung up causing some engineers to be denied the tax credit.

During the 2021 session, state lawmakers made a change to the tax credit program under Senate Bill 893. The measure, signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, allows undergraduate and graduate programs of the same discipline of engineering at an educational institution to qualify for the tax credit if either program is accredited by ABET, a non-governmental organization that accredits post-secondary education programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.

“While we often have difficulty competing with private industry recruiting engineers, this tax credit and expansion will encourage those in key career fields to take a second look at the Oklahoma aerospace sector, including the military. And candidly, it is a tool we use to recruit out of state to bring new talent to Oklahoma,” Kirkland said.

Another issue that impacted Tinker’s ability to attract and retain personnel was recently solved by legislators. Kirkland said many of Tinker’s military spouses faced significant hurdles becoming licensed in their own respective occupations after moving to Oklahoma City. A new law enacted by the state Legislature alleviated that burden by recognizing those spouses as residents of Oklahoma.

“Talking to folks about this for more than a decade, this is a huge retention tool for us for active duty. If your spouse cannot get employed, they are less likely to stay in our Air Force or Navy. It’s a win-win,” Kirkland said.

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 edition of the VeloCity newsletter.

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