Thursday, January 8, 2015

WWII Civilian Pilots Trained at Thunderbird in Glendale


These days, Luke Air Force Base is the most well-known military installation in the Phoenix area.  But back in the 1940s, another base to the east was filling a vital role: training civilian pilots to serve in the Army during World War II.  Thunderbird Field 1 was located at what today is the corner of 59th Avenue and Greenway Road in Glendale.  Back then, though, it was an isolated piece of desert land - until general Henry "Hap" Arnold came along.

In 1940, with the war raing in Europe and Japan becoming a threat in the Pacific, Arnold realized the U.S. would  need to bolster its air power if it were to enter the war.  Time was of the essence, so Arnold recruited the founders of Southwest Airways (later called Pacific Air Lines), Leland Hayward and John Connelly, and Life magazine photographer John Swope to help find investors for the project.

With Hollywood stars such as Jimy Steward, Robert Taylor and Henry Fonda on board, construction on Thunderbird Field 1 got under way on January 2, 1941 - nearly a year before Japan attached the U.S at Pearl Harbor.  Arizona's clear skies, combined with its relatively sparse population at the time, made the Valley of the Sun an ideal location for the air base.

Well-known artist illard Sheets designed the layout of the base, and from the air, it resembled the thunderbird found in the mythologies of several native American peoples.  The field began operations March 22, 1941, with a first class of 59 civilian pilots.  Swope, a former ilitary pilot himself, was among the trainers.

Before long, Thunderbird had expanded to two satellite airfields: Falcon Field in Mesa and Thunderbird Field 2 in Scottsdale.  By the time the war ended in September 1945, more than 16,000 Allied pilots, including hundreds of Chinese airmen who served in Chiang Kaishek's army, had been trained at the Thunderbird fields.

Today, Falcon Field is owned by the city of Mesa, and Thunderbird Field 2 is now Scottsdale Airport.  As for Thunderbird Field 1, the federal government sold it to a retired Army Air Forces commander, Lt. General Barton K. Yount, for $1 after World War II ended.  Yount established the American Institue for Foreign Trade at the site.

Today, you might know that learning instituion by a different name: The Thunderbird School of Global Management.  Looking at the school's campus, you might have a hard time imagining that it once was a bustling military base - this is, if it didn't still include Thunderbird Field 1's circa-1941 aircraft control tower, reopened on Veteran's Day in 2011 after an extensive renovation.  The tower houses a restaurant, an alumni and veterans gallery, and a student common area.

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