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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
Thunderbird Field 1

© John Swope
Courtesy John Swope Trust

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Home Field Advantage
Because of its proverbial sunshine and never-ending open space, Arizona was the logical choice for a World War II training facility, where more than 16,000 Allied pilots learned to fly.

By Sally Benford

Glendale In 1940, as the winds of war were blowing across Europe, an isolated piece of desert land, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix, was poised to play a major role on the world stage

It was around that time when General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps, realized that the United States needed to increase its air power in case the country were to enter the war. He believed the U.S. had to act quickly, so he recruited some patriotic entrepreneurs — Hollywood heavy-hitters — who had the money and the desire to build air-training fields. Hollywood agent and producer Leland Hayward and former pilot John Connelly, the founders of Southwest Airways, joined forces with pilot and Life magazine photographer John Swope to secure investors for the project. The star-studded list included Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor and Henry Fonda.

Arizona, with its clear skies and scattered population, proved the perfect place for an airfield. So, with nothing more than a memo and a handshake, construction of Thunderbird Field 1 was launched on January 2, 1941. The field was designed by well-known artist Millard Sheets to resemble a mythical Thunderbird as viewed from the air. Meantime, Southwest Airways provided top-rate instructors, including founder John Swope.

The first class of 59 candidates started training on March 22, 1941, a little more than eight months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Southwest added two satellite airfields: Falcon Field in Mesa and Thunderbird Field 2 in Scottsdale. From 1941 to 1945, more than 16,000 Allied pilots from 26 countries, including hundreds of Chinese pilots who served under Chiang Kai-shek's army, were trained at the Thunderbird fields.

After the war, the federal government decommissioned the training base and sold it to Lieutenant General Barton K. Yount, a retired commander of the Army Air Forces, who used the site to establish the American Institute for Foreign Trade.

Today, the former airfield, which is located at 59th Avenue and Greenway Road in Glendale, is known as the Thunderbird School of Global Management, one of the top-ranked international business schools in the world. Although modern students aren't learning to fly, remnants of the airfield still remain, and last fall, the air-control tower was targeted for restoration. The refurbished building will reopen in fall 2011 as a social center, with facilities for dining, shopping and socializing. In addition, World War II memorabilia will be displayed in the hall.

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