The day Mesa took flight: July 16, 1941 - East Valley Tribune: Columns

The day Mesa took flight: July 16, 1941

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 3:02 pm | Updated: 12:10 am, Sun Mar 20, 2011.

My Mesa Takes Flight sub-committee assignment is to write a narrative about events that took place 70 years ago - events that changed everything in what we now know as the East Valley.

My sub-committee is planning a ceremony on July 16, 2011 as part of the year-long Mesa Takes Flight celebration.

Seventy years ago on July 16, 1941, the mayor of Mesa, the president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce and a slew of state and regional dignitaries broke ground on a 2,160-acre American military pilot training field.

What began as the Mesa Military Airport soon became Williams Field, then Williams Air Force Base and today is the location of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport complex and Arizona State Polytechnic in southeast Mesa.

It is the heart of an economic development area that Mesa and the neighboring municipalities of Gilbert and Queen Creek believe will someday employ 100,000 people.

July 16, 1941 is also the day that then Mesa Mayor George Goodman and dignitaries broke ground on a 720-acre training field for Royal Air Force pilots. What began as British Flying Training School No. 4 soon became known as Falcon Field.

Today Falcon Field is one of the nation's busiest general aviation airports and is also a hub of economic development in northeast Mesa. It's best known neighbor is the Boeing Company, which right across the street north of Falcon Field produces the world's deadliest attack helicopter.

With groundbreakings at both air fields on the same day, it does not take a flight of imagination to identify July 16, 1941, as the day that Mesa entered the age of aviation.

My assignment should be an easy one. I started researching the history of aviation in Mesa last fall.

I'm a volunteer board member of the Mesa Historical Society, which last year decided to explore the history of aviation in Mesa.

We knew that aerospace is critical to the East Valley's economy and future, but how did that get started? What is our story?

What I found fascinated me.

Perhaps it shouldn't have. I was a top editor at the Tribune for 16 years. It was my job to know what made the East Valley tick.

But in those heady days of the real estate boom, the aviation industry was pushed into the shadows.

Plus, our local age of aviation began when Mesa was a town of a mere 7,200 people. Chandler, which played a major role in the development of Williams Field during World War II, claimed only about 2,000 people. And neighboring Gilbert was a speck.

With such a small population base, how was that story to become embedded in the culture of a region that would add hundreds of thousands of people?

Last fall when it dawned on us that the story hadn't been told of how two airfields changed our community and that we were a few clock ticks away from the 70th anniversary of aviation in the East Valley, a small knot of people gathered to brainstorm.

At the table were Mesa Historical Museum director Lisa Anderson, Mesa Arts and Culture Director Cindy Ornstein, Boeing community liaison Mary Baldwin and myself.

Out of that meeting grew the idea of a year-long celebration of "Mesa Takes Flight" that included multiple exhibits at the Mesa Historical Society; celebrations at Falcon Field and Gateway airport; exhibits at the Arizona Museum for Youth and Arizona Natural History Museum; activities at the Commemorative Air Force and more.

While the project expanded, my focus lasered in even more on events leading up to mid-July 1941.

You see, the United Kingdom, while locked in the Battle of Britain, just didn't decide to locate a training field seven miles northeast of town.

And the U.S. Army just didn't show up one day and tell the Mesa town council it was building an airfield 13 miles southeast of town just because the United States might get drawn into the war.

In both cases, the small town of Mesa had the vision, bought the land and made the pitch. And what they did changed everything.

The United Kingdom's first pick for an airfield was on the Salt River Indian Community. But when negotiations faltered, Mesa stepped up having purchased 720 acres from an orange grower northeast of town.

On June 10, 1941, British authorities announced they had selected Mesa as the site for training field number four.

Mesa started working to get the United States War Department's attention 70 years ago this month. It found out what the federal government was looking for, identified land that fit the specs, hosted federal site search representatives, purchased the land at $5 an acre and on June 13 found out their efforts had paid off.

The U.S. Air Force records on the history of Williams Field concluded: "... the early efforts of public spirited citizens of the City of Mesa were rewarded by the selection of the site they had worked hard to secure for the government."

The Mesa Journal-Tribune's story on the twin groundbreakings didn't hold back. "Mesa's Baby," the newspaper trumpeted.

But it wasn't just "Mesa's Baby"

An exhibit at the Chandler Historical Museum says that jobs at Williams Field brought Chandler out of the Great Depression.

"Small town, big plans" is the name of our July 16, 2011 celebration.

Now you know why.

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