Welcome to the East Valley's aerospace future - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Welcome to the East Valley's aerospace future

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

Posted: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 6:15 am | Updated: 2:03 am, Sat Aug 6, 2011.

You’ve probably never heard of Restricted Area 2310.

I’ll confess that the term didn’t mean diddly-squat to me a few weeks ago.

But I know this much now: It means a whole lot to the future of the East Valley.

My awakening to Restricted Area 2310 began in the office of Mesa Chamber of Commerce CEO Peter Sterling.

We were talking about east Mesa’s promising aerospace future when Sterling pulled out a map and pointed to a 40-square-mile finger of land that stretches from north of Florence to near the Florence Junction on U.S. 60.

He was pointing to Restricted Area 2310 and doing his best to explain to me why airspace over land the Arizona National Guard uses for training is an economic “asset” for the East Valley.

It’s an asset when you figure that the future of aviation and aerospace spending and development is veering toward unmanned vehicles or what are commonly referred to as drones.

The defense community, by the way, does not like the term drone as a generic for unmanned aircraft.

In military parlance, drones refer to rockets and such that are designed to be shot down in target practice.

The preferred term is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and UAVs are capable of doing so much more than rocket-powered clay pigeons.

So what makes restricted air space an asset?

Well, you just can’t test unmanned aircraft where manned aircraft fly. They need their own space; so much so that Congress has been weighing legislation to establish four national sites for UAV testing.

The history of Boeing’s Apache helicopter program and how it came to Mesa offer insight into the importance of places like Restricted Area 2310.

A Boeing official once explained to me that Hughes Aircraft moved testing of early models of the Apache helicopters to Mesa because of the availability of airspace.

It wasn’t long before Hughes decided to save the headaches of transporting helicopters from Culver City, Calif., to Arizona and moved the entire assembly plant to Mesa’s Falcon Field area.

The same principle applies to Restricted Area 2310.

Identify restricted air space and they will come.

Combine it with Arizona State University’s College of Technology and Innovation, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and the high tech Mesa Research Lab — all in East Mesa — and they will stay.

Actually, they are already here.

According to Arizona National Guard Capt. Valentine Castillo, Department of Defense contractors are conducting three to five UAV tests a week in the restricted air space. An increasing number of requests to conduct tests in the Guard-controlled area are coming in from commercial UAV developers, not connected to defense contracts. But Castillo said they are being turned away.

Last September when UAV testing was ramping up, pilots of manned aircraft were warned to keep their distance.

“The airspace is increasingly being used for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle training. The UAVs in the area are not the Predator class type of aircraft you may be familiar with but various smaller models used for tactical purposes in remote theatres of operation,” an advisory said.

I was not able to determine if Boeing is conducting tests there, but the behemoth aerospace company not long ago moved its unmanned helicopter operations from California to Mesa.

Two of their A160T Hummingbird unmanned helicopters have rolled off of the Mesa production line and a third is being assembled.

Boeing’s director of Unmanned Airborne Systems is moving his office from Seattle to Mesa.

Sterling did me a favor showing me that map of Restricted Area 2310, but he did me a bigger one by pointing me in the direction of Barry Albrecht.

Albrecht, Sterling said, knows more about Arizona’s UAV scene than anyone else.

Albrecht is CEO of the Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation, which is located in Casa Grande.

Before that, Albrecht said he was an “aviator in intelligence. UAVs have replaced what I used to do in the Army.”

Albrecht in 2009 put together a group of executives from Arizona’s aerospace and defense industries.

Called Arizona Center of Excellence, one of the group’s missions is to “support our military installations by pursuing new emerging missions of opportunity.”

Albrecht gently cautioned me against confining my focus to area 2310. The restricted air space offered by 2310 is “an opportunity for Arizona and it will create jobs.”

But its size makes it more suitable for “smaller and vertical take-off and landing vehicles.”

“It’s an opportunity, but probably not the biggest opportunity,” Albrecht said.

Bigger stories with bigger potential for Arizona’s future are already taking place at Fort Huachuca and in the Yuma Proving Ground, one of the largest such military facilities in the world.

Did I know, he asked, that the largest UAV training center in the world is at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista? The center is involved in the training of 3,000 UAV operators and technicians, he said.

Did I know that Northrop Grumman has support and training facilities in Sierra Vista for a remote-controlled airship that is over a football field long and seven stories high and that can hover over a battlefield for three weeks at a time?

I didn’t, but then I stumbled across a website that posted test pilot jobs in Sierra Vista.

Test pilots not of the fearless Chuck Yeager ilk, but of the ground-bound computer savvy 21st century variety.

This column has mostly focused on military vehicles. But pressure is growing for testing unmanned aerial vehicles for a range of commercial uses.

The Air National Guard is turning down requests to use Restricted Area 2310 airspace for all but Department of Defense projects.

There are a “myriad of uses,” for unmanned aerial vehicles, but there is “no legal place to go to for testing,” Albrecht said. Look for Albrecht, Mesa Chamber head Peter Sterling and their associates to work on changing that.

“Airspace is an asset,” Sterling said.

Now you know why.

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

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