The site of Thunderbird Field I has its origins as a primary training school during World War II. In the Late 1930’s, with war looming on the horizon, General “Hap” Arnold, who authorized civilian training bases for World War II, recognized a need to train more pilots for combat. However, Congress disagreed, and only allowed the expansion of one training base, Randolph Field. Arnold circumvented Congress and sent out a call for civilian flight operators to gamble their dollars building training fields to teach Air Corps cadets how to fly. Out of this need, Thunderbird Field was established.

In late 1940, a contingent of Hollywood actors and businessmen, headed by Leland Hayward and John Connelly, formed a corporation and approached the Army to establish a primary flight training school. The corporation was named Southwest Airways ( no affiliation with Southwest Airlines ). Hayward and Connelly chose a site near Phoenix, Arizona, primarily because of space, excellent weather, and visibility : all suitable for flight instruction. Construction of Thunderbird Field was started that same month and completed three months later. Flight instruction began in the Spring of 1941 and continued through the end of World War II. During operations more than 15,000 cadets were trained in primary flight instruction at Thunderbird Field No. 1. Cadets were from China, Great Britain and Canada as well as the United States.

Southwest Airways established four training airfields in th ePhoenix area : Thunderbird Field No. 1 in Glendale, Thunderbird Field No. 2 in Scottsdale, Falcon Field in Mesa and at Sky Harbor Airport.

At the conclusion of the War, Thunderbird Field No. 1, 649 acres of land on the southwest corner of 59th Avenue and Greenway Rd., was sold by the Army as wartime surplus. The American Institute of Foreign Trade ( a business school ) was established on the site in 1946 and now is a part of the Arizona State University system.


Part of the planning for Thunderbird Field I was to use the base as a backdrop for a 1942 Hollywood movie by the name Thunder Birds. The airfield layout had the tower as the eye of the Thunderbird, than hangars dorms and staff buildings were designed to look like the wings and the flight line and landing area were designed to look like the tail. Cadets were used as extras in the film. Watch the trailer in the miscellaneous section.