When Tommy Filler moved from one dust bowl town to another as an engineer in 1982, he was an analog man living in a world of dials and gauges that covered the cockpits of helicopters used by the military during the threat against the Soviet Union.
Today, 30 years later, Filler, like the company he continues to work for that Hughes Helicopter, Inc. morphed into — Boeing of Mesa — has gone digital. The Boeing Company’s Mesa facility continues to look for ways to keep ready and relevant the rotorcraft manufactured and refurbished in the East Valley: the Apache helicopter.
Mostly used as the weapon of choice by the U.S. Army’s ground soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Apache helicopters are also utilized by the militaries of 11 other allied countries.
During one of many “red-shirt Fridays” held to honor veterans, about 700 employees from Boeing Mesa and some of their family members celebrated the 30th anniversary of the facility that rose from an orange grove and open desert to become the home of the production line for the AH-6i Light Attack and Apache Attack AH-64 helicopters, along with other weapons systems and aerospace technology.
The anniversary ceremony took place for the employees of Boeing in front of the facility on the helipad at 5000 East McDowell Road, and featured numerous speakers including Tony Ham, director of operations for Boeing Mesa, David Koopersmith, Boeing Vice President of Attack Helicopters, U.S. Army Apache Project Manager Shane Openshaw and other Army representatives, and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. Retired U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Mike Burke, former commander of the Apache Fleet, also was present.
Filler, who considered himself to be “the first employee” of Boeing Mesa, began working as an engineer for Hughes at the U.S. Army’s Castle Flight Test Facility at the Yuma proving grounds that logged real-time data for the YAH-64 helicopters in June, 1979. He came from Yuma before Boeing’s first building was built in Mesa and was among a small group of employees who initially worked in a small warehouse on the Tempe-Scottsdale border near Scottsdale and Curry Roads, finishing up on projects before moving into the new Building 520.
Boeing’s access to a technology-related workforce in the state and mild weather conditions that contributed to a high volume of flying time helped to solidify the company’s success after then Mesa Mayor Don Strauch and City Manager Chuck Luster helped persuade the company to expand in Mesa.
Like a steel mill or auto manufacturing plant in the Midwestern United States, Boeing now is a point of pride in the city it and its many workers who moved from other parts of the country to call the East Valley their home.
In a process that is conception to completion, Boeing has designed, manufactured, qualified, tested and delivered about 1,800 Apache helicopters to its customers in the last three decades at the complex now consisting of 2 million square-feet of workspace. Filler is Deputy of Attack Helicopter Programs for Boeing.
“In Yuma, we lived from year to year on a contract not knowing whether we would have a job the next year or not,” Filler said. “Then one year, we were awarded a production contract from the Army and Mesa was chosen as the site of where we were going to begin building Apaches. And here we are today. The biggest change? Technology.”
Ground was broken on the former Hughes Helicopters, Inc. (later McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems) plant in March 1982, and the ribbon cutting for the first building (No. 520) was held the following December.
It was built to assemble Apache helicopters for the U.S. Army. In three decades, the site has grown and now builds Apaches for international customers, and has added the light attack helicopters and unmanned airborne systems to its product line. The site is also a key supplier of electrical and composite assemblies for other Boeing facilities. Boeing will be working on the Apache helicopters until at least 2040 and with its Block 3 programs for the 690 aircraft until 2024.
“We’re not designing the helicopter just for today, but five years and 20 years out,” Filler said.
The Apache helicopters are at least “three generations” ahead of any other attack helicopters, according to Burke who said the advancements are needed to stay ahead of the enemy, which also always is evolving.
Not certain of how to quantify the returns Mesa has reaped from Boeing, Mayor Smith said, “When you get a company such as Boeing, it’s so worth it. Thirty years ago, Mesa invested in a company that could have relocated elsewhere. Boeing has enriched the city more than anyone can ever imagine. It’s an incredible privilege for whenever a mayor sees an Apache helicopter fly overhead and be able to look up and say, ‘that’s made in Mesa. Like the dedication Boeing has shown to our soldiers, Boeing also has shown us. Our relationship has never wavered.”
Today, Boeing of Mesa employees 5,000 throughout the state, including 4,700 at its Mesa facility. It also employees slightly more than 100 at its Satellite Technical Support Center in Chandler, about 100 at its Tucson facility and about 100 Boeing employees at Honeywell working in support of the 787 commercial aircraft in northwest Phoenix, according a spokesperson for Boeing of Mesa.
“If I had it to do all over again, I would,” said Jimmy Howard who has worked for Boeing for 45 years and now operates a laser that marks the wires for various programs. Howard, 68, began working for the company’s St. Louis facility in 1966, but moved to the Mesa facility in 1995.
“When I told my wife were moving to Mesa, Arizona, she said ‘where?,’” Howard, 68, said. “We had never been to Mesa before. We’ve come a long way as a company.”
As part of the celebration, Boeing employees raised the American flag in honor of all those in attendance who served in all branches of the military and also unveiled its Wall of Honor containing the names of its employees who have served in the military; the idea came from Ham and former Marine Jim Casey who worked for the Defense Contracting Management Agency before he died last year.
“For 30 years the people of Boeing in Mesa have been supporting our soldiers by building the AH-46 Apache helicopter, and we’ve also supported the Air Force, Navy and Marines with the products of our Electrical and Composites Strategic Fabrication Centers,” Boeing of Mesa director of operations Ham said. “Here, we would not have jobs without a project to build and we would not have freedom without those willing to defend our country,” Ham told the crowd consisting of many veterans.
Construction began on the Wall of Honor in January. The monument is an 80-foot diameter circle, with four sections of stainless steel panels. Each panel is six feet high and 16 feet wide.
The wall currently has 699 names on it, but has space for 4,000.
Boeing has recorded significant accomplishments in flight and also supports the community, funding education and social services, and through volunteer efforts of its employees and has been a supporter of United Way.
“It’s easy to put a building up, but you can’t get the job done without the people,” Thompson said. “It’s really all about the people.”