When civic leaders staged two highly publicized airport groundbreakings 70 years ago Friday, they couldn’t have imagined the momentous events would nearly be lost to history.
Mesa had assembled the governor, business leaders, the military and the public for back-to-back groundbreakings at the Williams and Falcon airfields, and the events resulted in extensive news coverage.
Over the decades, the fields brought Hollywood stars to the Valley, top defense contractors and high-wage jobs.
Despite all that, the story faded into history until volunteers working on an aviation exhibit started to connect facts hidden in plain sight. The people involved knew a lot about each airport but were shocked to discover the airfields were one story and not separate, said Jim Ripley, chairman of the Mesa Historical Society.
“What struck us was when we talked this around, we realized that nobody realized the groundbreakings were done on the same day,” Ripley said.
That led to more research telling of a visionary and determined business community that knew the fields would have a huge impact for decades, Ripley said. To attract the military, the city of 7,200 residents used its own funds to buy a 760-acre site for Falcon and 2,000 acres for Williams.
Both sites were well outside city limits and considered remote. After the war, some city leaders hesitated to accept Falcon from the Air Force because it was considered too big and its distance of 7 miles from Mesa seemed too far away, Ripley said.
Today, Falcon Field’s economic impact is $2.5 billion a year. The other field became Williams Air Force Base and then Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, with an impact of nearly $1 billion a year.
The airports’ origins deserve the kind of recognition that Ohio residents today give the Wright brothers for their contributions to flight, said Ripley, a retired Tribune editor.
“If you live in Dayton, you know about the Wright brothers,” he said. “That is just ingrained in the town’s cultures and so we thought that it should be ingrained in Mesa’s culture.”
To promote the mostly forgotten events, the city is reenacting the back-to-back groundbreakings on Friday.
The British sought Falcon Field because Nazi air raids made it impossible to train in England. Twenty-four British cadets died in training and are buried at the Mesa Cemetery, where annual memorials are still held. Williams was established primarily to train Americans.
The historical tidbit is important in today’s economic development, said Peter Sterling, president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. He notes Falcon is the home of a Boeing facility that manufactures the Apache Longbow attack helicopter. And Gateway has a former Air Force Research Lab is one of the few places in the nation cleared to perform highly classified research. Both sites have the potential to attract more high-tech companies on-site or elsewhere in Arizona, he said.
Both sites could still be farmland or sitting empty today if the fields hadn’t been envisioned, he said.
The chamber’s long-ago efforts continue with a modern-day push for aerospace companies, he said.
“The whole state of Arizona needs to look at the Gateway area,” Sterling said. “That will be the future of Arizona, right there.”
The airports also attracted new residents, starting the decades-long population boom that transformed small farm communities into one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. One is Ken Beeby, a British Royal Air Force cadet who began training at Falcon in 1942. He is one of about a dozen British cadets who became American citizens because of their time here. He recalls how the town’s residents opened their homes to cadets on the weekend and welcomed the British.
“It was superb the way the people of Mesa and Arizona responded to us,” he said.
Beeby will share his war memories in Friday’s event. Another veteran scheduled to appear is Glenn Guthrie, a Mesa Eagle Scout who raised the first flag at Williams Field and lowered the last flag on Williams Air Force Base in 1993.
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