What might be the East Valley’s most prominent landmark – the “<Phoenix” air marker on Usery Mountain in Mesa – started the new year with a much-needed sprucing up, thanks to a Gilbert Boy Scout and his troop.
Lucas Witcher, a 14-year-old member of Gilbert Boy Scout Troop 681 and student at American Leadership Academy, decided to base his Eagle Scout project around repainting letters.
With each letter a 100 feet high and 12 feet wide, the marker is considered the largest of its kind in the world.
It was completed in 1956 by the late Charles Merritt, who was then the leader of Air Explorer 13 Post leader and had started the project five years earlier.
Merritt, a pilot and one of Arizona’s first recreational parachutists, thought transient pilots needed a marker to tell them when they were near Phoenix.
Considered one of the largest projects in East Valley scouting history, the marker was created with the help of scouts who were transported on weekends on buses provided by the old Williams Air Force Base. They used a white cement coating to paint the letters and the arrow that pointed to Phoenix’s location.
”During its 5 ½ years of construction, 41 members of Post 13 contributed to its making,” said Harold Fox, a consultant to the troop that performed last week’s refurbishing.
The entire length of the marker is nearly as long as the Empire State Building is high and can be read from an altitude of 50,000 feet and spotted from Interstate 10 south of Phoenix.
Lucas rounded up 38 volunteers last week to give new life to his predecessors’ achievement. Among those who showed up was Dennis Stark, one of the scouts on the original construction crew.
“I have never had so many pleasant people working on a project like this one, all 38 people,” Fox said. “Everyone was brimming with excitement and doing a fantastic job on cleaning up all of the obstructive weeds and brush – very difficult work on that steep mountainside.”
The committee and Lucas were brought together by Doug Wright, a consultant for Troop 681 who had heard of the preservationists’ hopes a prospective Eagle Badge candidate might want to refurbish the marker for his project.
Eagle candidates must organize a project benefiting the community and involves a number of volunteers so they can demonstrate their leadership skills.
Lucas’ parents, Natalie and Andy Witcher are family friends of Wright, who said the marker project likely will be the last for Troop 681 because it has been associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church is terminating its longtime relationship with the Boy Scouts because of its decision to admit members who are gay.
Fox said the committee is hoping to find other Boy Scouts who actually helped Merritt create the marker. They can find contact information at phoenixairmarker.org.