Mesa can ill afford to lose aerospace industries - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa can ill afford to lose aerospace industries

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 8:00 am | Updated: 8:31 am, Wed Dec 14, 2011.

What can central Arizona, particularly the East Valley, learn from central Florida?

Plenty — if you ask retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Thomas Browning.

Until October, Browning was the co-director of something called Arizona’s Aerospace & Defense Initiative.

Funding for the program ended, but it did not end the expertise that Browning gained by taking a long hard look at where the Arizona aerospace and defense industry was, is and could be if properly nurtured.

Last Friday at a Mesa Chamber of Commerce breakfast, he outlined what is at stake for Arizona: The military, aerospace and defense companies and related academia contribute 190,000 jobs and $18 billion to our economy.

More importantly, he talked about what needs to be done to steward Arizona’s treasure and grow it amid increasingly sophisticated competition from other states and federal cuts in military spending.

The findings are summarized in a strategic plan that calls for creation of the Arizona Aerospace, Defense and Security Enterprise.

The “enterprise” would sustain and build upon what we’ve got and be charged with transforming the state “into the location of choice for research, testing and high-technology manufacturing across America’s aerospace, defense and security sectors.”

The report was completed on July 31, turned into the governor’s office and the Arizona Commerce Authority. 

Since then, Browning has heard nothing but discouraging silence.

“I wish someone would make a decision on how we are going to get on with it,” he lamented at the chamber breakfast.

Lack of political action here at home won’t get things done, but it does serve as a jumping off point to Orlando, Florida, which the Orlando Economic Development Commission boasts on its website has become the “epicenter for modeling, simulation and training technology.”

I asked Browning to help me explain to readers what modeling and simulation meant. He said cockpit simulators may be the easiest way to understand it. Pilots are routinely trained in simulators that, well, simulate reality and the unexpected.

Just a few days before Browning’s talk, I had toured aviation simulation facilities at Arizona State University’s College of Technology and Innovation adjacent to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in east Mesa.

I stood in a replica of the control tower at Sky Harbor and watched scenarios play out — some disastrous — as students and instructor simulated landings and take-offs and all kinds of mishaps. 

The modeling and simulation industry in central Florida is rooted in military training, but its applications have spread to medicine, homeland security, transportation and more.

Think about robotic surgery, Browning said; or think about sitting in front of a computer and flying a drone or what the experts prefer to call Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

There’s not much of a line between using computers to simulate and using computers to do the real thing.

The metro Orlando economic development website puts the modeling, simulation and training (MS&T, for short) industry’s contribution to the region’s economy at more than $3 billion, involving more than 150 companies and direct employment at more than 12,500.

Academically, the industry is supported by the University of Central Florida and by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

“We could do the same thing in Arizona with Mesa at the geographical center of activity,” Browning told the chamber group.

There are parallels.

Florida’s robust MS&T industry got its start when a U.S. Navy training facility moved from Virginia to Florida in 1969. 

The Air Force left Mesa but it turned over to the city Williams Air Force Base and the Air Force Research Lab.

With the lab’s classified security status, “there’s no other (facility) like it west of the Mississippi,” Browning said.

The facility has been renamed the Arizona Laboratories for Security and Defense Research.  AZLabs, for short.

The military laid a critical foundation in both central Florida and the East Valley.

The other parallel is academia.

Highly respected Embry Riddle Aeronautical University has two main campuses — one in Florida, the other in Prescott. (The university has a branch in Chandler.)

In Florida, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training also supports the local MS&T industry.

Never heard of the University of Central Florida? That’s because it didn’t exist until 1968. And it didn’t get its current name until 10 years later.

Forty-three years later, it numbers 58,500 students.

ASU Polytechnic is even newer, starting as ASU East in 1996. Fifteen years later, its College of Technology and Innovation has become a key partner in the development of AZLabs and aerospace and defense throughout Arizona.

But doesn’t Florida already have a lock on modeling and simulation? I asked Browning.

“You have to think of it as a growth industry,” he replied. “You can’t clone the Orlando center in Mesa, but you certainly can learn a lot from them and put it into the context of what works for Arizona,”

The trouble is not everything works as it should in Arizona.

“The whole notion of Enterprise Florida is the equivalent of what the Commerce Authority is supposed to be,” Browning said. “It promotes aggressive economic development activity in central Florida.”

To see what the Commerce Authority is “supposed to be” check out www.eflorida.com.

The parallel also breaks down inside the Beltway.

Florida’s congressional delegation is engaged with promoting the state’s economic development. Two of its members are members of the Congressional Modeling and Simulation Caucus.

Yes, there is such a caucus. Google it.

“If you look at success stories in aviation and defense, states that are successful have all the Congressional delegation on board,” Browning told me.

How many Arizona congressmen are members of the Modeling and Simulation Caucus?  None.

The Congressional delegation’s lack of engagement in Arizona’s economic development is not an isolated complaint.

On Dec. 6, Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, issued a plea for Arizona to more aggressively pursue designation for the state as a national test range location for unmanned aerial systems.

“In order to grow and attract these desirable jobs, we need our representatives and senators … to work together for Arizona and promote our state as the ideal UAS test range location,” he pleaded.

Again, last March in a report issued by ASU’s L. William Seidman Research Institute:

“Arizona’s congressional delegation needs to … more aggressively champion investment by the Department of Defense within the state.”

It seems that, when it comes to aerospace and defense, there is no lack of direction; just a lack of leadership.

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