When Alan Mulally took the helm at Ford Motor Co. in October 2006, many auto industry insiders questioned whether an outsider could revive the troubled company.

Fast forward to 2009 and it’s hard to find a Mulally critic. In a remarkably short time, the former Boeing Co. executive has managed to turn Ford into the darling of the domestic auto makers, deftly maneuvering the auto maker through a global economic recession without resorting to government assistance.

Ford’s performance is pegged to Mulally and his business plan, which focuses on leveraging the auto maker’s global resources. Central to this strategy is an initiative to stock Ford’s U.S. showrooms with products inspired by its European design and engineering operations, such as the Fiesta B-car, Grand C-Max cross/utility vehicle and next-generation Focus C-car.

But recently, aerospace blogs and message boards are seeing an increasing number of people clamoring for Mulally’s return to Boeing.

The airplane manufacturer, which Mulally joined in 1969, is in trouble as its cutting-edge composite-body 787 Dreamliner program encounters numerous setbacks.

AOL’s Daily Finance site recently ran a story titled “Could Ford’s Mulally fix Boeing’s 787 Woes?” Stan Sorscher, legislative director of the Society of Professional Engineers in Aerospace, says in the story Mulally’s unique problem-solving approach likely would get the plane’s takeoff back on schedule.

Grassroots support for Mulally’s return also has been growing, evidenced by a website that features an image of the former Boeing executive in the cockpit of a jet and lists his accomplishments at the aerospace giant.

As CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Mulally spearheaded the 787 program, which uses the unique approach of outsourcing components to suppliers around the globe. The aircraft would be assembled by Boeing.

Mulally’s contract with Ford runs through 2011, ironically the year he says the auto maker will turn a profit. But it’s no secret he still has a passion for the aerospace industry.

While stories about his departure are speculative, they raise the question: How would Ford fare if Mulally left?

“I wouldn’t want him to leave tomorrow,” says Erich Merkle, president of Autoconomy in Grand Rapids, MI. “It would be very beneficial for Ford to have him to see them through this historic downturn we’re facing.”

Merkle likens auto makers to sports teams and says Mulally plays an integral role in ensuring his players have their heads in the game.

Ford “has a lot of talent, but they didn’t function well together or understand each other,” he says.

Mulally’s arrival changed all that.

Some analysts say Ford is on the right track and a sudden departure by Mulally assuredly would cause some concern in Dearborn. But it wouldn’t derail the auto maker. “It would be a hiccup vs. a major cough,” says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI. “(Ford) could still move forward with their plan,” Cole tells Ward’s. “(Mulally) has an excellent team of people reporting to him. However, I would personally be disappointed.”

Cole says it’s doubtful Mulally will be leaving Ford anytime soon, but admits it’s “obvious” he enjoys a challenge. “And Boeing is a challenge.”

Van Conway, senior managing partner of Conway MacKenzie, an international financial and management consultancy in Birmingham, MI, says Mulally likely will remain at Ford until the job is done and the auto maker begins to consistently post profits.

“He’s really accomplished a lot, but the job is not finished and I read him as a guy that stays until the (job is) complete,” Conway says, adding Boeing is “more difficult to predict.”

Mulally still maintains a residence in Seattle, where most Boeing operations are based. The company was founded there in 1916 but moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2001, which could play a factor in any decision to leave Ford, Cole says.

“Would (Mulally) live in Chicago or Seattle? Those are the questions nobody knows the answer to,” he says. “Does he have a very close friend trying to bring him back in? Who knows? But to me it’s a logical rumor with the problems (Boeing) is having that someone like Alan would be heavily discussed.”

Money probably would not be a motivating factor either way, Conway says. Mulally, 64, last year earned $13.5 million, including bonuses. Ford says his total compensation will be cut some 30% for 2009.

“He isn’t going to jump for the money,” Conway says. “But you can’t factor in all the intangibles, such as his personal relationships with Boeing. People leave at odd times sometimes in business, but I would be surprised” if Mulally left.

Ford declines official comment on the possibility of a Mulally departure, but Chairman Bill Ford Jr. recently told Reuters he wants the CEO “to stay as long as he would like to stay, and hopefully that is quite a while.”

United Auto Workers union President Ron Gettelfinger, who bargained for Boeing workers while Mulally was there, once described him to Reuters as “a very approachable person and someone who would listen to the concerns of the union.”

Whether Gettelfinger’s opinion of the CEO has changed is unknown. The UAW, which currently is embroiled in a contentious internal fight over Ford’s demand for concessions, did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Ford dealers also largely support Mulally. Lou King, general manager at Ourisman Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Alexandria, VA, says if the executive were to depart it would be a “huge setback” for the auto maker.

“We as dealers absolutely love him,” King tells Ward’s. “There’s no question he’s made the right decisions along the way, from product (to) the way people view Ford.

“Every decision he’s made from our standpoint has been on point,” she adds. “You couldn’t find a dealer who doesn’t like him.”

King says she’s doubtful Mulally will leave until “he’s completed the job” of returning Ford to profitability.

It likely would take a serious overture on Boeing’s part to lure Mulally away, and it’s difficult to see the aerospace giant doing that now, even considering its problems, says Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the defense and aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp.

“It’s a possibility, but not something I’ve heard anything about,” Finnegan tells Ward’s, adding Mulally “did a good job at Boeing, but the problems with the Dreamliner seem to go pretty deep.”

Boeing in 2005 set out to change the way commercial jetliners were designed and constructed with its 787 Dreamliner. The mid-sized, wide-body aircraft will be the first fullsize commercial jetliner to feature a fuselage and wings constructed mainly from composite materials instead of aluminum.

Boeing says this unique design will dramatically lighten the plane, resulting in better fuel economy. The materials will also provide improved rigidity.

The ambitious program has hit many snags, however, as the decision to outsource the production of numerous components of the air craft to suppliers around the globe has proven to be a logistical nightmare.

While the aircraft maker appears to be getting a handle on these issues, it’s too soon to be assured of success. “How much difference (Mulally) could’ve made had he been there is hard to say, but it’s hard to imagine that one person could’ve dealt with such widespread problems,” Finnegan says.

At some point in the future, Mulally will leave Ford. The question then becomes, who will succeed him?

Last year, media reports said Joe Laymon, former group vice president-corporate resources and labor affairs, reportedly disclosed Ford’s internal succession plans, naming executives who were in line to replace Mulally.

At the time they included Mark Fields, president-The Americas; Jim Farley, group vice president-marketing and communications; Don LeClair, chief financial officer; Lewis Booth, executive vice president-Ford of Europe; Joe Hinrichs, group vice president-global manufacturing; and Stephen Odell, chief operating officer-Ford of Europe.

Since then, LeClair has left the company and was succeeded by Booth.

Cole says he has no first-hand information on who would succeed Mulally but agrees with the list. He also says Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development, is a possibility.

Picking a winner is “a tough one,” Cole says. “You have Hinrichs, who is relatively young, and Kuzak, Booth and Fields.

But he doubts it would be Farley. “He’s so much on the sales and marketing side that would probably be a stretch.”