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Defense contractor expands Tulsa production work to chase major project

State and local officials got a look Friday at the specialized aircraft coming out of a new Tulsa facility in hopes of winning a big defense contract.

L3 Harris Technologies’ Sky Warden is a two-seat plane designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. It is being assembled on a new production line at the company's Tulsa International Airport facility. L3 Aviation Services President Luke Savoie said the goal is an aircraft that can do what has previously taken several specialized planes.

"We're doing that now all on one single airplane at a much, much lower cost point with a lot of tools software-wise and technology-wise that reduce the workload of the operator to still provide the same effect, the same situational awareness, keep the ground teams informed for places like Africa and the Middle East where we will continue to operate but not with the entire Department of Defense behind us," Savoie said.

L3 is adding sensors, weapons systems and other modifications to the Air Tractor AT-802, a single engine turboprop originally designed for agricultural use that can take off and land on grass fields and unimproved air strips. Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch said the Sky Warden is the companies’ latest partnership in the past several years.

"Collectively, it makes a fabulous platform to help us both do our little part to protect the world," Hirsch said.

The Department of Defense is looking at a handful of firms to supply 75 planes for its Armed Overwatch program. The contract is expected to be more than $1 billion. Mayor G.T. Bynum said while that’s a big deal, so is the potential for L3 to bring some of its other production work to Tulsa.

"One of our greatest areas of opportunity for growth as it relates to Tulsa's economy is the industrial cluster that we have right here at the airport. These companies, the CEOs of them, tell me every time I see them they cannot hire people fast enough for all the work that there is to do out there," Bynum said.

The Sky Warden went from concept to first flight in six months. Officials expect an Armed Overwatch contract to be awarded sometime next year. Savoie said the Oklahoma Air National Guard will get some of the new planes.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.