Arizona is moving to reassert its claim as a top tier aerospace and defense player.

But does the state have the unified leadership, the will and enough time to make it happen after so many years of neglect?

The latest move was an impressive gathering of engineers, academics and industry players on the campus of Arizona State University Polytechnic last week.

The gathering was billed as the formal launch of the Aerospace and Defense Research Collaboratory - an Arizona State University initiative to encourage collaboration among universities and to, as one speaker put it, "team our best and brightest."

The University of Arizona was represented by Michael J. Drake, director of the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott sent Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Frank Ayers.

The resumes of panelists and speakers were stellar.

Among them: Mark Ogren, vice president, business development, Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has a facility in Chandler; John E. Schibler, chief engineer and Integrated Product Team Lead at The Boeing Company in Mesa; Bob Witwer, vice president Aerospace Advanced Technology, Honeywell International; Pete Palmer, director of EDGE Innovation Network for General Dynamics; and Doug Limbaugh, chief executive officer, Kutta Technologies Inc.

Journalists are told to avoid trying readers' patience with tedious lists of names and titles. But, if nothing else, the list should establish that this combined university initiative is being taken seriously in the defense industry in Arizona.

Something else to be taken seriously is that 94,000 Arizona jobs are in aerospace and defense. And if we want to see Arizona's economy healthy again, we need more of the same.

There's one more speaker's name to put on the table. He's new to the state and key to ASU's leadership in aerospace and defense. He's Werner Dahm, the former chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. Dahm's ASU title is director, Security and Defense Systems Initiative.

The defense industry is like a lot of others: It's who you know as well as what you know. And for two years, Dahm had an office in the Pentagon.

I saw someone in the crowd who wasn't recognized from the podium and who didn't speak, but whose presence was symbolic.

His name is Terry Isaacson and in the 80's he was wing commander at Williams Air Force Base. That means he was the top guy.

Don't feel bad if you aren't familiar with Williams Air Force Base. It closed in 1993.

The base was 13 miles southeast of downtown Mesa and nine miles due east of Chandler, and it was a big player in the state's defense arsenal.

When Isaacson ran it, it was the largest pilot training field in the country, 25 percent of all Air Force pilots had trained there, and nearly 4,000 local workers made their livings there.

Don't feel bad if you didn't know that either. I moved to Arizona before the base closed and I didn't know that.

With growth driving the economy a whole lot of us didn't pay attention or took the defense industry for granted.

Today, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and ASU Polytechnic occupies the land that was once a great air force base.

How appropriate that the joint university aerospace and defense research initiative was launched on land where 70 years ago Mesa entered the age of aviation. Isaacson, I'm sure, took some pride in knowing that the research "collaboratory" was launched on his home turf.

The genesis for the university research collaboration launched last Friday dates back to 2003 when Boeing considered Mesa for building its 787 Dreamliner.

Mesa didn't get it, of course, and afterwards ASU President Michael Crow asked Obie Jones, then site manager of Boeing's Apache helicopter plant in Mesa, why.

One factor, Jones told Crow, is that Boeing did not believe that ASU had the research capabilities to support the plant.

The winner was South Carolina where officials expect the project will bring in nearly $7 billion worth of economic activity and create more than 12,000 jobs.

Think what that would have meant for Arizona's economy.

Jim Ripley is former executive editor of the Tribune. Contact him at

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