Mesa’s Falcon Field: past, present and future - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa’s Falcon Field: past, present and future

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Posted: Monday, August 4, 2014 7:30 am | Updated: 10:02 am, Wed Aug 6, 2014.

When the name “Falcon Field Airport” is mentioned, the next thing people often ask is, “Isn’t that place getting shut down?” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The airport will begin, this summer, with renovations that will total an estimated $4 million. The plan is to continue serving the local population for the foreseeable future.

It’s true Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is steadily growing, along with the area surrounding it, but as Dee Anne Thomas, marketing specialist for Falcon Field, points out, Mesa’s smaller field is classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a reliever airport (the fourth-busiest in the nation, actually — No. 1 being Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix) As such, it performs a specific task — handling surplus private traffic that would bog down Gateway or Phoenix Sky Harbor’s commercial services.

To that end, Falcon Field received grant funds from the federal government to complete several projects, including repaving the runways, renovating the terminal and repainting the most memorable sight at Falcon Field — the water tower.

Past

Falcon Field was established in 1941 and served as a training base for British pilots in World War II. The field was named, at the suggestion of Mesa City Engineer E.B. Tucker, after the British bird of prey, in recognition of the Royal Air Force pilots who would train there.

After the war, the federal government sold the field to Mesa for $1 and it was loaned out to several private enterprises for use. Finally, the field was set up by the city for general aviation and has operated as a contributor to the city’s enterprise fund.

Still present on the grounds are two hangars built in 1941 and used for the training of the RAF pilots. Today, one of the hangars houses an aviation company and the other houses a club called the “Falcon Warbirds” — a group that restores and maintains retired military planes.

Dick Cooper, a local resident who was an RAF pilot and student at Falcon Field in 1944, said the airport is a completely different place now than when he flew there.

“The biggest reason we were here was wartime England was no place for small airplanes to be flying around and training,” Cooper said. “And so our training was all done overseas.”

Cooper met his future wife while in Arizona and returned to the state after his service was over. He spent years in the grain industry and recalled doing business with the farmers after whom Mesa’s major streets are named — the Dobsons, the Reckers and the Sossamans, to name a few.

Now, living only about 5 miles from Falcon Field, Cooper watches the aviation students at the airport take off every morning and reminisces about old times.

“They take off in the same direction,” he said. “We always took off on the northeast runway … and that’s what they are doing now. Anybody that knew Falcon Field way back like I did would have a hard time recognizing … what is there today.”

The Falcon Warbirds fly retired aircraft ranging in age from an American plane constructed in 1954 to a Chinese single-engine plane built in 1991. The group performs flyovers for veterans’ funerals as well as other events — military and otherwise.

Dick Stich, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, said that the group is very focused on teaching and practicing formation flying, which is, appropriately enough, what the students who originally studied in the hangars there learned. The assembly came together when several enthusiasts, who were all renting separate hangars, decided to pool resources and form a group. Mesa allowing them to utilize the historic hangar is something Stich said they are very thankful for.

“We’re just really, really proud … of what we’re doing,” said Stich. “We’re proud that every airplane that we have [flies.] This is not a museum. These fly — every one.”

Present

Over 700 planes call Falcon Field home, along with dozens of businesses, related to aviation and otherwise. Several aviation instruction schools operate at Falcon Field and two major companies, Boeing and MD Helicopters, manufacture helicopters on-site.

The Commemorative Air Force, a group that restores, maintains and shows historic military airplanes, recently upgraded its wing at Falcon Field to the status of “Airbase,” making it one of the group’s larger installations. Notably, the CAF maintains a B-17 Flying Fortress, called “Sentimental Journey,” which is one of the larger types of plane ever flown in WWII by the U.S. Air Force and an instrumental part of the war’s campaign.

Falcon Field is beginning renovations to make changes to the runways and update the look of the terminal. Besides just changing the appearance, some important operational adjustments are in store These are partially in answer to complaints from locals about noise from the runways, particularly on nights and weekends.

In the more recent past, locals have complained to the city about noise from the planes taking off and landing at Falcon Field. The relatively newer installation of a campus of one of the country’s largest aviation instruction schools, CAE Oxford Aviation Academy, certainly did little to abate this problem or the resulting complaints.

However, some changes are being made, specifically to the angle of approach for landing aircraft, which field administrators hope will have a significant impact on noise pollution spread to the surrounding community.

The difference — from 3 degrees to 4 degrees on one runway, in particular — means that, at 1 mile out, aircraft will be over 90 feet higher in altitude during their landing phase.

“We’ve been having meetings to try to find reasonable solutions to try to help,” said Brad Hagen, airport projects and operations supervisor for Falcon Field. “We’re hopeful it will provide a noticeable improvement for residents.”

Other renovations, such as the terminal, are more focused on updating the look and feel of the airport’s customer service areas, changing the impression short-term guests receive of the Valley as a whole. Another proposed benefit is attracting more locals to the field, something Falcon Field already tries to do with an annual open house.

“We’re going to have a very, very busy construction season,” said Corinne Nystrom, director of Falcon Field. “The whole purpose is to invite people out to the airport, to come see what it’s like.”

The other major project going on at the airport is the painting of the now-unused water tower. As it turns out, the signal antennas on top of the tower are more valuable than the upkeep to maintain the tower, let alone the cost of tearing it down and building a new one, and so the tower is being repainted to preserve both the look and the integrity of the structure. The airport logo will be painted on the side facing the field, and the city logo on the opposite.

Future

Between now and 2019, some $18 million in capitol improvement projects will be completed at Falcon Field, bringing the airport fully up to date and preparing it to handle the East Valley’s civilian air traffic of the future.

“It’s always important for us to let people know that the majority of our projects are funded by grants,” said Hagen, noting that none of the funds are taken from city tax monies. Commercial airline tickets include an FAA levied fee, which is funneled into trust funds. It is from these trust funds grants for airport improvements are funded.

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