How the aerospace industry built a market and a legacy in Fort Wayne

Beneath the spectacle of the recent solar eclipse, a lesser-known yet remarkable event was and is always underway in the sky– all the satellites silently orbiting overhead bear significant ties to Fort Wayne.

“I bet you didn’t know that your weather forecast came from Fort Wayne,” says Eric Webster, founder and president of VerdiOrbis Strategies, a government contractor and business development consulting company based in Fort Wayne. Webster says the majority of the instruments used in satellites come from Fort Wayne. 

Satellite components are one of many aerospace products manufactured in Fort Wayne. The city has played a significant role in aerospace innovation and manufacturing throughout the twentieth century and into the present day. According to data from the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, every second, somewhere in the world, an aircraft lands or takes off with control systems made or maintained in Northeast Indiana.

L3Harris TechnologiesSo how did Fort Wayne become such a hub for aerospace innovation, and where is the future headed? 

The history can largely be traced back to a name many residents are familiar with– Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the first fully functional all-electronic television system.

In the 1930s, Farnsworth relocated to Fort Wayne due to its well-known manufacturing capabilities, as well as its proximity to Amish cabinetry that could be used for TV stands and consoles.

Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation established a manufacturing facility in Fort Wayne in the 1930s, making radio and television receivers and transmitters, television tubes, and radio-phonographs.

During World War II, Farnsworth worked on several projects related to radar and electronic devices, which were crucial for military operations.

The company was eventually purchased by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1951. ITT began utilizing Farnsworth’s advancements for weather satellites, as well as radar and military technology.

The company would go through a few more iterations over the years and ITT eventually spun its military operations into a company called Excelis in 2011. The company was sold to competitor Harris Corporation in 2015. It was ultimately merged with L3 Technologies in 2019 and renamed L3Harris Technologies. The company continues to be at the forefront of advancing weather satellite capabilities, improving the accuracy of weather forecasts and increasing life-saving warning times. 

L3Harris TechnologiesL3Harris Technologies in Fort Wayne.All this history can be found in the Philo T. Farnsworth Museum, which is housed in the present-day L3Harris facility. Webster, who used to work at L3Harris and now serves as a senior consultant, says it was important for the company to pay homage to the inventor.

“You’ve got this collection of companies and folks who are building radios, TVs, satellites and other things… from a business standpoint once you get one or two companies, you get the ability to draw more engineers right and more people and more synergy,” Webster says.

Synergy is right. Farnsworth’s innovations helped lay the groundwork for building up this industry into what it is today, but it’s taken more than just a historical legacy for the city to maintain its presence.

L3Harris is far from being the only aerospace & defense company in Fort Wayne. According to Development Counsellors International, Fort Wayne is home to seven major employers who are involved in aerospace-related activities. In addition to L3Harris, these employers include BAE Systems, C&A Tool Engineering Inc., Raytheon Technologies, Ultra Electronics, Trelleborg AB, and Total Control Systems. Some of the products manufactured by these companies include instruments for satellites, control systems for aircrafts, radar and military technology components.

L3Harris TechnologiesCollectively, these companies employ more than 2,000 people in Fort Wayne, and that number is expected to grow.
Other favorable qualities include the area’s composition of engineers (46 percent higher than the national average), and its close proximity to six of the top 15 engineering schools in the nation.
Geoff Adams, Senior Mission Architect at L3Harris, says nearly five dozen employees have relocated to Fort Wayne to work at the company over the last few years. Adams himself is also a transplant, having moved here from Colorado Springs.

Webster, who like Adams also relocated to Fort Wayne for a position at L3Harris, says the industry looks different today compared to when he first moved here in 2005.

When it comes to aerospace in general, he says innovations like SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation have made space more accessible, contrasting with previous years when only major aerospace companies like Lockheed and Boeing were involved due to cost constraints. This has led to more government contracts being awarded to a broader range of companies, both large and small, reflecting the industry’s increased accessibility. 

He also says it’s been interesting to see generational and demographic shifts in the workforce.

As in most industries, baby boomers are beginning to retire from the workforce, meaning it’s important to keep people excited about aerospace and hopefully attract people to the field.

For example, Adams says that L3Harris sponsors the Study Connection Program on its Fort Wayne campus, providing math tutoring for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. Students also get to interact with engineers of various disciplines and see satellite models, actual satellite components and global video feeds from the Advanced Baseline Imager, the primary payload onboard NOAA’s GOES-R satellite series.

L3Harris TechnologiesAdvanced Baseline ImagerIn addition to partnering and engaging with local schools, other aerospace companies also support various initiatives such as sponsoring organizations like Science Central, which is poised to open a new planetarium by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Science Central Executive Director Martin Fisher says he can see the excitement that the community has for space sciences and astronomy and that visitors often ask if they have a planetarium.

Looking ahead to the future, Webster says there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the local aerospace industry. L3Harris is expanding its portfolio from weather and climate satellites into missile warning and defense satellites, solidifying another phase of growth and continuation. 

“It’s exciting from an engineering standpoint to bring in these earlier career engineers or big career engineers and have them get to work on some of the most sophisticated and important technologies for national defense,” Webster says, “Hopefully that will continue the push to continue to get more and more engineers and to bring people into the community to grow and expand.”

Looking ahead, Fort Wayne's aerospace future appears promising, with opportunities for continued innovation and collaboration on the horizon. As the city navigates the complexities of tomorrow's aerospace landscape, its resilience and adaptability position it well for sustained growth and success. 
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