Thunderbird memorial staff encourages students to fly
By Octavio Serrano
Former Coast Guard rescue pilot Steve Ziomek finds comfort when he looks to the sky and hears the roaring sounds of airplanes passing by.
He recalls flying a World War II-era, blue and yellow Boeing-Stearman PT-17.
“The open cockpit feels like riding a motorcycle at 500 feet above the ground,” Ziomek explains. “I had more fun flying that (Stearman) for a year and half than I ever did flying for the Coast Guard.”
Thanks to his efforts, the plane is the centerpiece of the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial, which serves as the gateway to the Scottsdale Airport business center and restaurant. Ziomek, who acquired the plane to raise funds for the memorial, hopes children who visit the memorial feel the same way about aviation.
Studies show the United States will see a pilot shortage upward of 40,000 over the next 10 years, he says. Because of this, the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial staff is dedicated to raising funds for scholarships, particularly at ASU and Embry-Riddle University.
The staff has yet to award scholarships, but the organization would pay $2,000 directly to the student’s choice of school.
“Just seeing the reaction of the children makes it worthwhile,” Ziomek says about the memorial. “It’s all about the kids.”
“The majority of pilots who I know were inspired by aviation because our parents took us to an airport when we were young,” Ziomek says. “We hope the public does the same thing.”
At the exhibit, which is free to visit, the 1941 Boeing-Stearman PT-17 aircraft is suspended from the ceiling. Two interactive 49-inch kiosks inform visitors about the plane’s history. Next to the kiosks is a plaque with contributors’ names, a nearby plaque reads, “In honor of all who trained here and those who served our country.”
An experience that immediately pops into Ziomek’s head was when he flew a 93-year-old World War II veteran to raise awareness for the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial.
Thunderbird Field II references the airport’s former name. It opened in 1942 to train World War II Army Air Corps pilots. More than 5,500 pilots were schooled there, making it one of the largest training facilities in the world, he says. It was one of three Thunderbird Fields in the Valley. The school was deactivated on October 16, 1944, and is now the Scottsdale Airport.
Capt. Jerry Yellin, who flew the last combat mission of World War II, trained at Thunderbird Field II in 1942. In 2017, Yellin rode in the Stearman one last time, six weeks before he died. It was the first airplane model he ever piloted, Ziomek says.
Ziomek also flew Dave Woellner, a 97-year-old veteran in the Stearman, to raise awareness for the memorial.
“He spent the last days of the World War II in a German concentration camp because the B-17 (aircraft) he was piloting got shot down. Half of his crew didn’t make it,” Ziomek says. “His wife Jean told me when they came out to the airport that, for 40 years, all the general wanted to do was get back in the Stearman. It was humbling.”
But as important as the history of the airport is, its future is what Ziomek is focused on as he strives to inspire and provide resources to the next generation of pilots.
“Having a museum to remind people of who we were then and what we are now is extremely important,” Yellin says in a video on Thunderbird Field II Memorial’s website.
For more information, visit tbird2.org