Wichita, Kansas, is known as the “Air Capital of the World,” because of the large number of companies tied to aviation manufacturing. How the city came together during World War II to ramp up production and relief efforts is legendary. It is the quintessential American town. As the world battles COVID-19, IAM members in Wichita are once again united in typical fashion to answer the call.

Thousands of Wichita residents have jobs in the aerospace industry. Many are members of IAM District 70. Wichita is home to companies like Textron Aviation, Spirit AeroSystems, Johnson Controls, Sherwin-Williams, and many other manufacturers where IAM District 70 members work to produce some of the finest products in the world.

Without missing a beat, IAM District 70 members are shifting to address the shortage of materials faced by health care workers and first responders. They are producing personal protective equipment (PPE)—face masks, face shields and ventilators—for healthcare workers and first responders. The IAM members’ response reflects a core IAM belief: there is strength in unity.

Members at Spirit AeroSystems are making facemasks and face shields. IAM members at Textron Aviation are making cloth masks. HVAC systems used in field hospitals are made at Johnson Controls’ Wichita facility. IAM members at Sherwin-Williams in Wichita are also contributing by making hand sanitizer.

Despite facing economic disruption caused by the halted production of Boeing’s 737 Max jet, IAM District 70 members were prepared to lend a hand. Members at Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation faced furloughs at the beginning of 2020. Spirit AeroSystems laid off 2,800 workers due to the halted production at Boeing. The Wichita community was suffering. IAM members did what they have always done in times of national crisis—give back.

The members of IAM District 70 are not just workers— they are sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, cousins and neighbors who were unable to stand by idly while the country faces a devastating health challenge.

The call to switch production alerted employers in Wichita that IAM members were ready to put their skills to use again during this global pandemic. Moreover, members were eager to learn any additional skills required to produce urgently needed PPE and medical technology.. The first two companies that answered the call were Textron Aviation and Spirit AeroSystems.

IAM District 70 members at Spirit AeroSystems recently returned from training in California, where they mastered skills required to make personal protective equipment. They are now using their skills to rapidly meet the nation’s needs.

A 44-foot-tall steel sculpture, called the Keeper of the Plains, sits where the Big and Little Arkansas rivers meet. Much like this statue, IAM members in the Wichita community are putting their community service ideals into practice by producing personal protective equipment for those in urgent need. Their valiant efforts reverberate far beyond the plains.

”Around the world, the unity seen in this unprecedented hour of history is breathtaking. As IAM members, our motto of ‘service to the community’ is a core value we live and breathe, in the good times and bad. Machinists answer the call when needed and in these uncertain times, it’s more critical than ever that our actions speak louder than words,” said IAM Southern Territory General Vice President Rickey Wallace. “Without much accolade or fanfare, it’s a testament to the middle class that the members at District 70 are stepping up and willing to help bring PPE to their community and to neighborhoods across the county. This is what we do—we take care of each other.”

Companies like Textron Aviation took IAM members from their interior manufacturing shops and assigned them to face masks. This quick turnaround came on the heels of a major plant explosion in December 2019 that jeopardized their production. The company and its dedicated workers stepped up to help the nation.

IAM members at Johnson Controls, who normally manufacture residential and commercial HVAC systems, also stepped up in a major way. Workers are focusing on producing HVAC units specifically for field and pop-up hospitals used to expand the health care sector’s capacity to respond to COVID-19.

The production of PPE is estimated to have saved 700 to 800 IAM jobs in the Wichita manufacturing community. However, IAM members have continued to safeguard the workers who have responded to the nation’s call, just as IAM has done for more than 130 years.

Members like Yolanda Moore were at the forefront of the community response. She acted while others still tried to figure out the next steps. Moore, an IAM District 70 Safety Focal, is responsible for ensuring the safety of the members producing this equipment. Moore’s 20-year healthcare background enabled her to anticipate needs as the pandemic first appeared in the country.

After hearing many of her family members in other cities and states were facing major challenges as the result of COVID-19, Moore ordered face masks for them. Similarly, she began anticipating the needs of those she serves as Safety Focal for her IAM Wichita family. Before there were any national guidelines from health officials on masks, Moore was already giving them out to her fellow members working on producing this lifesaving equipment. As any IAM member knows, safety and productivity are two sides of the same coin.

“People came to me with concerns about the lack of PPE,” said Moore. “My first instinct is to always be there for the members on the frontline. A young IAM member who had COPD called me in tears one night because she was afraid of working during this pandemic. That call helped me decide to hand out my personal masks to my IAM family. It didn’t matter that I was on furlough, my IAM family needed me and I committed to being there day or night, rain or shine. My first obligation is for the safety of the membership.”

Like World War II, one day this pandemic will end. Once this crisis passes, Wichita will be able to reclaim its title as “Air Capital of the World.” Until then, IAM members in Wichita will continue to be servant-leaders in their communities and beyond. Clearly, the value of unity has been underscored by this latest challenge.