Aerospace and defense may have started off as one small step for the PHX East Valley, but has now become one giant leap for Arizona. According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Grand Canyon State ranks in the top five for aerospace and defense manufacturing employment, houses 56,500-plus aerospace and defense workers, and contains a military talent pipeline of upwards of 625,000 service members and veterans. 

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“Arizona has long been a leader in the aerospace and defense sector, and the industry continues to experience rapid growth in our state,” says Sandra Watson, president and CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. “Many global leaders have a large presence in Arizona.”

Watson goes on to highlight some of the state’s major players, including Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell, Boeing, CP Technologies, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Gulfstream Aerospace and more. 

And, many of these heavy hitters — and others — have found their home in the Phoenix East Valley. 

“The East Valley has a lot of the key ingredients we look for as a business,” says Katie Yursky, director of International Apache Programs for The Boeing Company, “that are particularly important to the aerospace and defense industry.”

Out of this world workforce

One of the most important factors that companies like Boeing look for is a healthy, highly trained workforce. 

“There’s a lot of energy and excitement around aerospace and defense here in the East Valley,” Yursky says. “And part of what makes that so exciting is the partnerships that we have with our education and workforce partners.”

Boeing’s educational and community partnerships and steady workforce pipeline no doubt contribute to the company’s longevity in the Phoenix East Valley. “We’re celebrating our 40th year, which we’re really proud of,” Yursky says. 

In addition to Arizona State University’s aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering programs and Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s aviation maintenance programs, several other Arizona universities and community colleges offer programs related to aerospace and defense, including University of Arizona (UArizona), Northern Arizona University (NAU), Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Pima Community College.

“Arizona is also an ideal location for aerospace and defense companies because of the extensive supply chain, pro-business climate and proximity to some of the world’s largest economies,” Watson says. 

Virgin Galactic announced plans to open a new manufacturing facility in Mesa.

Smooth landings

Just beginning their journey in the East Valley, Virgin Galactic announced plans to open a new manufacturing facility in Mesa, according to Watson, who says the facility will serve as the final assembly point for the space travel company’s Delta class spaceships, creating 400 highly skilled aerospace engineering and manufacturing jobs.

“Our spaceship final assembly factory is key to accelerating the production of our Delta fleet, enabling a rapid increase in flight capacity that will drive our revenue growth,” says Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “We’re thrilled to expand into the Greater Phoenix area which is home to outstanding aerospace talent, and we look forward to growing our team and fleet at our new facility.”

In addition to new arrivals to Phoenix East Valley, there are many existing aerospace and defense companies that are expanding throughout the region. 

James Murphy, CEO of Willmeng has witnessed the growth of one such company — Northrop Grumman — firsthand. “Our original contract for Northrop Grumman was for a swing space in Chandler,” he says. “Then, the next thing you know, there was an RFQ issued from Northrop Grumman to renovate their existing Price Road campus.”

What happened next, Murphy describes, was a pause on the project when Northrop Grumman pondered: “Does it make sense to renovate or should we just build a new campus?”

Paying dividends

The result was indeed a new 633,000-square-foot, build-to-suit campus containing Northrop Grumman’s office and manufacturing facility which supports national defense and aerospace.

The success of Northrop Grumman’s Chandler facility led to the completion of its expansion of the satellite manufacturing facility in Gilbert, adding 120,000 square feet to the existing 135,000-square-foot facility.

“In that project,” Murphy explains, “the heaviest tilt panels ever recorded in the continental U.S. were used. They’re two feet thick and 87 feet tall.” 

In September 2022, Boeing expanded, opening its new 155,000-square-foot Advanced Composite Fabrication Center. 

As for what comes next, Murphy hints that we’ll see more projects headed to Phoenix East Valley in 2023, but due to NDAs, these exciting developments will have to remain under wraps for now. 

In the interim, this industry remains a pivotal cog in the economic development ecosystem for Phoenix East Valley and the state.  

“We have a lot of really key champions in the community — champions within different organizations — and also elected officials who see the value that aerospace and defense brings to the East Valley,” Yursky says.