The revolution that Orville and Wilbur Wright set in motion 100 year ago has had a profound economic impact on Arizona and the East Valley.
Today aviation is one of the largest industries in the state, responsible directly and indirectly for one of every five jobs in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.
A 1998 study by Arizona State University found that all of the various aspects of Arizona aviation — commercial, general, military, airtravel-related tourism and aerospace manufacturing accounted for 420,000 jobs with a payroll of $9.1 billion and a total economic impact, including multiplier effects, of $28.1 billion. That study projected that the economic impact would reach $35 billion by 2005.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, sent a chill through the industry, and some general aviation activities still are hindered by related restrictions. But ADOT aviation analyst Ray Boucher said activity appears to be picking up, and the state may reach the expected 2005 goal anticipated in the ASU study.
"We slipped after 2001 in the parts of the aviation industry that were nonmili- tary, but aviation associated with the military picked up," he said.
"I used to get a phone call a month from people wanting to bring a maintenance operation to one of our airports, but I didn’t hear a thing after 2001. Now airports are reporting more contacts. The feelers are beginning to come out again."
The reason for the aviation industry’s interest in Arizona isn’t hard to discern. It’s always been about good flying weather. Arizona was a center for pilot training in World War II, and three of the major East Valley airports — Scottsdale, Mesa Falcon Field and Williams Gateway — all started as World War II pilot training bases.
Also, what is now Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was a major refueling stop for airplanes transporting troops across the country during World War II.
Another factor has been the dryness of the southern Arizona air, which has made the state a prime location for aircraft storage and maintenance. Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson is one of the biggest storage areas for military aircraft in the world, while unused commercial aircraft are stored in Marana and Kingman.
"It’s not just a dry heat, it’s a preserving heat," Boucher said.
Another factor has been the state’s relatively low costs and favorable business climate, which has attracted aerospace manufacturing operations. Among them are Boeing’s Apache helicopter operations, which moved to Mesa from Southern California because of the availability of open skies here. In California, flight tests were limited by encroaching urban developments.
Spectrum Astro, a growing Gilbert-based producer of small space satellites, came to Arizona to escape the higher cost of business in California. Today the company is building a $38 million "factory of the future" in Gilbert that will be the first satellite plant built from scratch in the United States since the Sputnik era.
Airports are a huge factor in the Scottsdale and East Valley economy. Scottsdale Airport has attracted a mass of businesses — many of them not aviation related — by its presence. The area around Falcon Field is becoming a major jobs center, and planners have high hopes for Williams Gateway, a former Air Force base that could become a future hub for cargo and passenger traffic. Chandler Municipal Airport also expects to become an important business hub with construction of the nearby Santan Freeway segment of Loop 202.
Sky Harbor has an enormous economic impact, employing more than 11,000 residents of the East Valley who take home paychecks totaling $426 million annually.
Aerospace manufacturing also is a big chunk of the East Valley economy. In addition to Boeing, which employs 4,100 in Mesa and Spectrum Astro with 450 employees in Gilbert, General Dynamics in Scottsdale employs 2,800 to make space and aviation related communications gear. MD Helicopters employs 350 in Mesa to make helicopters for the civilian market, Orbital Sciences employs 750 in Chandler to make rocket launchers and Talley Defense System employs about 240 in Mesa to make jet-aircraft ejection seats and other propellant-based products.
The Valley’s biggest aviation related business is Honeywell, which employs about 15,000, mostly in Phoenix where the company’s avionics and engine businesses are based. Also the company makes airplane components in Tempe.
In the commercial aviation arena, America West Airlines maintains its corporate headquarters in Tempe and employs about 9,100 Valley residents. It also operates aircraft maintenance and training centers at Sky Harbor, a reservations center in Tempe, America West Vacations, accounting and warehouse facilities in Phoenix.
According to a 2000 study by ASU College of Business, America West had a direct economic impact on Arizona of $2.3 billion, not including visitor spending or multiple effects. The airline indirectly supports an additional 23,495 jobs in such businesses as lodging, restaurants, entertainment, retail goods and services and ground transportation, the study found.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, another airline with major operations at Sky Harbor, employs 4,700 Valley residents and operates reservation and aircraft maintenance centers in Phoenix.
The East Valley is becoming an important site for aviation education. The Maricopa Community College District, through the Chandler-Gilbert Community College Aircraft flight technology programs, offers pilot certifications and ratings and associate degrees in airway science technology and aviation maintenance technology in partnerships with the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle University.
US Positioning, a private company based at Williams, is working with the airport and U.S. Air Force to create a research institute that will develop new aviation technologies. The systems developed by the institute could lead to new start up businesses at Williams that would commercialize those products.
"As we go into the second 100 years, a new aviation dogma is emerging," said Steve Shope, president of US Positioning. "In the next 100 years, man and machine will merge into one thing."
The research institute will work on that transition with such projects as unmanned aerial vehicles and better command and control structures, he said.
"Aviation will become more integrated into everyday life," Shope predicted. "Unmanned vehicles could be used for border patrol, news coverage, aerial coverage of sporting events, forest surveys. They could even be used for aerial surveys of buildings for tax research. The number of applications will explode."
The history of Arizona aviation began around 1908-9 in Douglas where an informal aeronautical group led by John C. Wright and Ben Goodsell experimented with a glider. Early reports are sketchy, but the glider may have been strengthened and motorized by the end of 1909.
What’s known for sure is the first air show in the state was held in February 1910 in Phoenix , which featured two powered Curtiss biplanes. Among the events was a fivemile race between a plane and a Studebaker car, which the airplane won by a few seconds.
Aviation didn’t have a big impact on the East Valley until World War II when major training operations started. Scottsdale Airport began in June 1942 as Thunderbird Field II, a basic training base for Army Air Corp pilots. Thunderbird Field I was located in Glendale and is today the location of Thunderbird — The American Graduate School of International Management. During the course of the war the Scottsdale field graduated more than 5,500 students.
The Arizona Conference of Seventh Day Adventists purchased the airport in 1953 and established Thunderbird Academy. Hangars were adapted to house a wood products industry and a vocation education center offering training in mechanics, woodworking and welding. The airfield itself became a training field for missionary pilots. In 1963, to finance renovation of its buildings, the academy commissioned the first industrial park surrounding an airport.
Scottsdale acquired the airfield portion of the academy’s property in 1966 and has continued operate it since then. By 1999 the airport had become the second busiest single-runway airport in the country and the busiest corporate jet facility in Arizona. The surrounding 2,600-acre business park is home to 2,200 businesses and more than 44,000 employees.
The airpark area is the second largest employment center in Arizona after downtown Phoenix, said Scott Gray, Scottsdale aviation director.
As corporate executives came out to Scottsdale on vacations, they liked the area and set up corporate offices in the area, which generated the corporate jet use, he said.
The Scottsdale airport has supported small commuter passenger service in the past and could do so again, but Gray doesn’t expect it will ever be a major passenger center.
Falcon Field officially opened northeast of Mesa in September 1941 as a training base for British Royal Air Force combat pilots after the American government agreed to help train British pilots to defend their country against the German "blitz." Originally it was to be called Thunderbird Field III, but the British wanted it to be named after the Falcon, a hunting bird in Great Britain.
When the war ended, Falcon Field was turned over to Mesa, and it has become one of the 10 largest airports in the United States in terms of number of based aircraft. It is home for more than 900 planes, and its industrial park contains more than 30 aviation-related businesses and more than 50 commercial enterprises.
Williams Gateway Airport started as an advanced flying school for the Army Air Corps in July 1941 and was renamed in February 1942 for Charles Linton Williams, an Arizonaborn pilot. It was redesignated Williams Air Force Base in January 1948.
During the base’s 52 years it graduated more student pilots and instructors than any other base in the country and produced 25 percent of the Air Force’s pilots annually.
WILLAMS SHUTS DOWN
Williams Air Force Base was closed in 1993, causing a loss of more than 3,800 jobs and $300 million in annual economic activity. The state and local communities began work to redevelop the base after the announcement of closure in 1991 and the Governor’s Economic Reuse Advisory Board was appointed by then-Gov. Fife Symington to coordinate reuse efforts. A plan was developed to turn the base into an aerospace center with commercial passenger service, aircraft maintenance and manufacturing, air cargo operations, flight training and an education and research campus — the basis for ASU East.
A Williams airport operating authority was formed in May 1994 composed of the Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek and the Gila River Indian Community. Today more than 20 aviation companies operate at Williams and 1,000 acres are available for development.
The Chandler Airport started in 1948 when the town purchased the property. It remained a dirt strip until the late 1950s when the first runway was paved. In the 1980s the first hangars were built and businesses started opening. In the 1990s a second runway was built along with a terminal and control tower.
According to the 1998 ASU study, the Chandler Airport had a $14.8 million annual economic impact, including a payroll of $5.1 million for 246 employees.