Seventy-five years ago this month, the first bi-wing military training aircraft arrived at the brand new Thunderbird Field II, launching Scottsdale as an aviation hub. “T2,” as it was nicknamed, also introduced this patch of desert land as a major employment center and economic engine for Scottsdale that continues today.
Before we pop the cork on the Champagne to toast this anniversary, consider a few milestones that have morphed this World War II aviation cadet training base into the multi-use Scottsdale Airport/Airpark area.
In 1940, a group from Hollywood, led by producer Leland Hayward and test pilot Jack Connelly, assembled funds and won a Civilian Pilot Training Program government contract to build airfields around metro Phoenix to train U.S. Army Air Force aviation cadets. Their company, Southwest Airways (no relation to today’s Southwest Airlines), began operating a training site at Sky Harbor in 1940, built Thunderbird Field I in Glendale in the spring of 1941, constructed Falcon Field in Mesa in summer 1941 and built Thunderbird Field II (“T2”) north of Scottsdale in spring, 1942.
T2 opened on June 22, 1942 with Hollywood photographer and pilot John Swope as its field manager. (Fun fact: While T2 field manager, Swope married actress Dorothy McGuire; they rented a house from the Ellis family at Cattle Track.) The airfield encompassed 720 acres on previously undeveloped desert. The runway was unpaved and needed frequent oiling in order to keep the dust down. The 20 buildings (classrooms, hangars, control tower, cadet dormitories, cafeteria, etc.) were located on the south side of the landing/runway area, where Thunderbird Adventists Academy is located today.
Like at the other three Southwest Airways sites, all field employees were civilians, with a small cadre of military assigned to ensure the Army Air Corps syllabus was followed to the letter. Scottsdale’s future first mayor, Malcolm White, was a T2 flight instructor; Lucy Lutes became one of the first women certified as an aircraft mechanic; Dorothy
Cavalliere was a parachute rigger. Mildred Barthalow closed her Adobe House guest ranch in Scottsdale “for the duration of the war” and became the T2 cafeteria manager.
Before arriving at T2 and the other Southwest fields, aviation cadets went through pre-flight training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in Southern California, where they were put through a basic-training-like program of military indoctrination. Once here, they had 10 weeks of basic flight training, which included 98 hours of ground school and 65 hours of flight instruction. Many had never been in an airplane previously.
Flight instruction was given in Stearman PT-17s, a bi-wing, two-seat aircraft introduced in 1934 that had fabric-covered wooden wings and a piston-driven radial engine. With few instruments aboard, flying was done in daytime using visual flight rules (VFR) and Pinnacle Peak was a key navigational landmark for cadets on their first solo flights.
During its two-and-a-half years of operation, 5,500 cadets trained at Thunderbird Field II. Many became decorated combat pilots in World War II and subsequent wars. Once introduced to the great climate and unlimited opportunities in the Scottsdale area, many returned after the war and settled here, creating a population and business boom that significantly changed Scottsdale from a farming and ranching community to a tourism, high-tech, medical and entrepreneurial economy.
True to their Hollywood origins, T2, T1 and Falcon Field served as a movie set for the 1942 filming of Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air starring Gene Tierney, Preston Foster and John Sutton. To thank the cadets for serving as “extras,” producer Darryl Zanuck donated a swimming pool to each airfield.
After T2 closed in October 1944, it was turned over to the federal government. In 1947, Arizona State College (ASC) began operating a technical trade school in the hangars and classrooms formerly used by the aviation cadets. Many veterans, using their new G.I. Bill benefits, learned skills such as air-conditioning maintenance, car repair and upholstery there. The college also built a rodeo arena where they held intercollegiate rodeo competitions.
Citing distance from the Tempe campus and declining enrollment, ASC returned the property to the federal government in 1951.
In 1953, the Arizona Conference, Seventh Day Adventists assumed ownership of T2 from the government and moved its Thunderbird Adventist Academy to the site. It continues to operate there today, although in a completely rebuilt campus.
By the 1960s, the hastily constructed World War II vintage cadet facilities were no longer adequate for Thunderbird Academy’s students and Elder Daniel Butherus and his staff looked for ways to fund improvements. Although they were using the airfield to train missionary pilots and allowing local private pilots to take off and land at the vast acreage, their primary focus was on the classroom and dormitory area for their boarding and day school.
The City of Scottsdale expressed its desire to have a municipal airport and had annexed the area including Thunderbird II airfield into the city in 1963 following a so-called “annexation war” with Phoenix. The Adventists offered to transfer the airfield portion of their property to Scottsdale for a modest sum.
Scottsdale Municipal Airport opened on June 16, 1967 (50 years ago this month) with a 4,800-foot paved runway, lights, beacon and 160 aircraft tie-downs. Robert Wachs was the first fixed-base operator (FBO), working out of a trailer with one aviation fuel truck. One week after opening, a convention of 200 dentists flew into “SDL” (the code for Scottsdale Airport).
It wasn’t until 1969 that the SDL terminal building opened, and the airport didn’t get an FAA control tower until December 1974 (then located on the west side of the field; a new tower on the east side opened in 1989). Both were dedicated by then U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, a lifelong pilot and aviation booster.
The Adventists asked developer George Tewksbury to come up with a plan for the land surrounding the new airport that was excess to the school’s needs. Sale of the land would become a source of funding to rebuild the campus buildings. Tewksbury, though his Landel Corporation, began pitching businesses to locate in the Thunderbird Industrial Airpark, primarily on the west side of the field and near Scottsdale Road. Among the first to move in were Casa Precision, Delavan Electronics and Telos systems in the late 1960s. Having taxiways that led from the SDL runway to their new facilities was a major incentive to move to this rather remote location.
Scottsdale opened a park at the north end of the runway, Desert Park, in 1972. When the runway was extended in the early 1980s, the equestrian park was relocated a few miles away to what is now WestWorld.
Companies like Armour-Dial research and development center, Discount Tire headquarters and even, briefly, the Ice Capades, continued to move to the renamed Scottsdale Industrial Airpark throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. By the late 1990s, Scottsdale Airpark had become one of the top-three employment centers in Arizona. With completion of the Loop 101 Pima Freeway in 2001, regional access to the area was greatly enhanced, further elevating its status as an employment, shopping and now even as a residential area.
The Scottsdale Airport is in the midst of change during its 75th year in operation. The aging terminal building is being razed and replaced by a new facility starting this summer. The Aviation Business Center will include a larger restaurant with outdoor
patio seating; an event venue for meetings and other special events; offices for airport administration, the U.S. Customs Service and Civil Air Patrol; and office space available for lease. Two large, 30,000-square-foot, executive-type hangar facilities will also be built. This new construction complements a new airport operations facility that opened at the north end of the field in 2016.
As a tribute to its founding as Thunderbird Field II, a centerpiece of the new facility will be the display of an actual Stearman PT-17 aircraft like that flown by aviation cadets in the 1940s. It was flown to Scottsdale Airport in April and is a project of the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial Inc. (tbird2.org).
Happy anniversary, T2 and SDL! Thanks for making such fascinating history.