News_Warbirds

Falcon Warbirds member Monte Montez is a retired Air Force general who fears losing a place at Falcon Field to park his plane. (Chris Mortenson/Tribune Staff Photographer)

A plan to preserve Falcon Field’s rich history as a World War II training base seemed so simple and laudable on the surface – but it’s still encountering a bumpy ride.

A lease approved by the Mesa City Council in December combined two non-profit vintage aviation organizations into one of two large hangars built during WWII, when the U.S. Army turned a quiet orange grove into a significant training base, especially for the Royal Air Force.

Under the plan, Wings of Flight and Falcon Warbirds would keep history alive, showing off their collection of vintage planes to school children and flying in special events as the Warbirds focus heavily on honoring veterans by flying missing-man formations during funerals.

“It seemed like a perfect fit. Let’s dedicate this one hangar to this specific purpose’’ of honoring Falcon Field’s unique history, said Corinne Nystrom, airport manager.

But the planned marriage between the two organizations with some similarities but different missions is hitting turbulence because it fits a bit too snug. 

Although the 20,000-square-foot hangar is quite spacious, it’s still not large enough to accommodate both collections of vintage aircraft.

In hopes of keeping all of their aircraft together, the aviation organizations want to lease a 13,000-square-foot hangar next door from the city.

But because it has no historical connection, they will have to pay market rate and compete against private industry.

Mesa has advertised the coveted hangar but has not selected a new tenant.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a fix,’’ Dan Condon, president of Wings of Flight, said about his lease with Falcon Warbirds.  “We want this to be a central location where we can celebrate the history of Falcon Field. It’s impossible to fit 10 pounds in a five-pound sack.’’

Dick Stich, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force and president of the Warbirds, said his organization would need to kick out five of its 10 vintage planes to make room from Wings of Flight in May.

“We’ve got to get rid of five of our guys, it’s what tears me apart,’’ Stich said. “It’s going to hurt the hell out of us.’’

It’s why the goal of combining two hangars together works so well for both organizations – but it remains uncertain if it works out for the city. 

Stich and Condon presented the two-hangar plan as a solution rather than just dwelling on the space issue.

“We just thought it would be great to have all of these planes in one spot. I would say 90 percent of our flying is for veterans,’’ Stich said.

The Warbirds’ missing-man formations require considerable skill by the four pilots flying in close quarters.

They make a powerful statement at the funerals of veterans as one plane peels off from the rest as the symbol of death, he said.

If the two vintage aviation organizations could somehow rent the smaller hangar next door, they could merely open a sliding door during special events, allowing visitors to see all of the planes, Stich said.

Although such an arrangement would be ideal, Nystrom said the lease signed by the Warbirds and Wings of Flight anticipated the space issue. 

It reserves four small hangars, designed to store one airplane each, as an overflow area for any planes not fitting in the historic hangar when the two organizations combine.

“I think we all knew because of the size of the hangar, it would be a tight fit in there,’’ she said.

From the start, Mesa had a strong desire to preserve the WWII history of Falcon Field, Nystrom said.

More than 2,000 cadets were trained at Falcon Field between 1941 and the war’s conclusion in 1945. 

A plaque located in Falcon Field Park across from the WWII hangar pays homage to the 23 British cadets who were killed in accidents during the training mission, along with one American.

These Royal Air Force cadets are buried together at the Mesa City Cemetery, the scene of many memorial ceremonies over the years. 

The base was turned over to Mesa after the war and has gradually grown into a major municipal airport and an economic asset as East Mesa has grown up around it.

 Mesa attempts to signal the area out as a special destination through the creation of the Falcon District, with blue street signs featuring a wing as a nod to aviation.

“We played a big part in this. Our history at Falcon Field is very important to us,’’ Nystrom said.

Wings of Flight’s collection includes a Stearman trainer from World War II, much like the trainers used at British Flight School Number 4, and a T6 Texan, also a WWII trainer.

The Warbirds’ collection includes military trainers from the U.S., Russia and China, mostly from the Cold War era. Stich’s immaculately maintained Ryan Navion looks like it just rolled off an assembly line – though it actually was built in 1950 as a civilian version of the popular P-51 Mustang, an acclaimed post-WWII era fighter.

“It’s a great way to get people interested and to say, this is the role we played,’’ especially with the RAF cadets, Nystrom said. “It’s a great way to commemorate the history we have.’

She said the organizations are required by the lease to serve as ambassadors of Falcon Field, giving tours and demonstrations. The city’s prefers WWII vintage planes. 

This is a perfect fit for Wings of Flight, which focuses on preservation and education, Condon said.

“We’re basically a marketing division for Mesa and Falcon Field,’’ Condon said. “Our program is education, preservation and education.’’

While historic preservation is important to the airport, other, somewhat competing interests also are important, Nystrom said.

“The hangar located next to them has no historic value,’’ she said. “We will be renting it out at fair market value and we will award it to the highest and best use.’’

The lease considerations go beyond price and also take into account such factors as whether the tenant will improve the premises and if the tenant would create jobs, another mission of Falcon Field, Nystrom said.

“The airport is fully self-sustaining. We do not get any of our revenues from the city’s General Fund,’’ Nystrom said.

The space problem is not expected to reach its height until May, when Wings of Flight’s lease in a less desirable airport location is scheduled to expire.

 The hopes of both organizations rest heavily on securing the second hangar, but they both vow to take due, no matter what.

“We understand the city has an obligation to the citizens,’’ Condon said. “They have to make money.’’ 

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