The Pilot from Thunderbird Field

Dedication to Leo and Jimmy Purinton
Scott Weaver

My grandfather Leo Purinton and his older brother Jimmy were World War II instructor pilots at one of the best and most famous pilot training centers in the nation. During the war, US, British and Chinese student pilots came to Thunderbird Field to learn the techniques of flying in war zones and successfully delivering their payloads. Leo Purinton was adamant that these young pilots absorbed the importance of their mission – they were defending their countries and defending freedom. Those young student pilots were the best and the brightest of our nation and had come to Thunderbird to learn from the best instructor pilots our country had to offer.
Leo Purinton was born in 1910 in a small town called La Junta, Colorado, 30 miles east of Pueblo, Colorado. Leo and his older brother Jimmy wanted to learn how to fly. Scrimping and saving earnings from their menial jobs, they were able to scrape together enough money to take frequent fifteen-minute flying lessons. They learned to pilot small aircraft deepening their desire to carve out a career in aviation. Ultimately two of the three brothers – Leo and Glen – went on to become civilian instructor pilots before they both were hired by Southwest Airways to instruct at Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona.
The impact of Leo’s training program at Thunderbird had been remarkable. Later generations of pilots from Leo’s lineage went on to have diverse careers in flying. He trained those who came and awakened a dream in the sons and daughters who followed in their footsteps. The children of Thunderbird – the literally thousands of sons and daughters who came after the original student pilots – went on to become fighter pilots in all the nation’s wars, commercial pilots for all the major airlines of the world and to play an integral role in putting the first man on the moon. Hearing the stories of my grandfather’s work earned my unending admiration and my own desire to ultimately pursue a career in aviation. Leo Purinton was a man who continued to have a positive influence over generations of not just pilots but other men and women in many walks of life around the world. This web site is dedicated to my grandfather, Leo Purinton and all his fellow instructors, support staff and cadets who are a part of this country rich aviation history.
It was the impending war and geo-political events that led to the founding of the pilot training program at Thunderbird Field where my grandfather made a mark for himself and greatly influenced what I myself would one day pursue as a career. While Leo and his brothers stayed focused on their dream to become part of the ever-expanding aviation industry, the world was marching toward war. In Europe, the menacing power grabbed by the Nazis led by Adolph Hitler was becoming an increasing threat to the freedom of US allies in Europe. When the nation of Belgium – a weak nation by military standards – was invaded and easily taken over by the Nazis in 1940, Germany had effectively declared war on the rest of Europe. Air power was a huge factor in the conflicts that followed. More than 50,000 Londoners were killed by bombs during German blitzkrieg air raids.
Although US policy led by President Woodrow Wilson ordained that the US was to remain neutral, Great Britain and other European powers sought the help of the US whose fighting forces included an advanced air capability. When the US was attacked by Japan, an ally of Germany, at Pearl Harbor the nation dropped its neutrality stance and declared war on Germany and its allies and brought the full force of its powerful military both on ground and in the air into the battle.
In 1942 during the lead-up to American involvement in the war, visionary US Army General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold immediately saw the need for future generations of military pilots. He recognized that aviation would continue to have a growing impact on the conduct of wars in the future and was pivotal for the security of the nation. He found the current training facilities and capabilities located around the nation as inadequate in keeping up with that ever-increasing need. General Arnold toured the US to see first-hand just how lacking the nation’s aviation training program for military pilots was. It was even worse than he had imagined.
With only a handful of US Army Air Corps bases located throughout the country, there were only limited training facilities available for the establishment of an advanced aviation training program. General Arnold faced a real dilemma. The keepers of the nation’s purse strings – the US Congress – had only very limited funding set aside for aviation training. While senators and representations could be criticized for their lack of forethought, it was the American people who would suffer. The nation would feel the impact of this poor planning unless the US pilot training program was enhanced and accelerated.
It was difficult to get the attention of the legislators and the media for a cause that General Arnold felt was crucial for the security of the nation. The General, therefore, decided to take the issue to the public. He flew around the country expressing his concerns and emphasizing the nation’s dire need for pilot training facilities and why it was essential that action be taken immediately. He cited the bombings in London and other parts of Europe that were killing people by the thousands. America had to be poised to defend itself as mightily by air as it defended itself at sea and on land.
Ultimately, General Arnold proposed that the federal government enter into contracts with private civilian training bases situated around the nation in order to develop the great number of talented young pilots who were needed to help the Allied Forces defend their freedom in the European War. These training centers were needed in order to elevate the aviation skills and abilities of pilots who faced the challenge of flying sorties into the perilous European and Pacific theaters of World War II, the most devastating conflict ever to face man. General Arnold made a convincing case and the public voiced its support for establishing these private training centers.
The burgeoning conflict in Europe and America’s eventual entry into the war underscored the need for advanced air power and was an integral part of my grandfather ultimately becoming a pilot instructor. It was the war that propelled the need for expert pilots and it was that need that led to the recruitment of top trainers with the knowledge and expertise that would give the pilots the best chance to become flying aces.
So it was the push by an Army General who recognized the need and the public who demanded the establishment of training centers that led to the creation of pilot training centers including Thunderbird Field. It was one of dozens of training centers that were established across the southern states from Florida to California. With the US’s entry into the world war, the growing public voice for action forced the US Congress to start throwing real money at training its military pilots. The Pentagon and other federal agencies began to lure businessmen into investing in the training programs by promising to pay a substantial amount of money for each successful graduate. Ultimately, over 200,000 Americans were trained as military pilots over the course of just a few years.
Creating the nation’s flying aces, its airborne heroes, was integral in the victory of the Allied Forces over the Axis Powers. Without training centers like Thunderbird Field and expert trainers like Leo Purinton there could have been disastrous results – even defeat – and today’s world would be a very different place. Ironically, when the operation at Thunderbird Field was shut down, it was sold for just one dollar. Many business deals are difficult to understand and this was one that bears explaining. In the case of Thunderbird Field, it had served its purpose during the war and the lead-up to it. After that, it had lost its purpose and therefore its value.
In April of 1946, Lieutenant General Barton Kyle Yount, the commanding officer of the US Army Air Training Command, chartered Thunderbird Field to use for educational purposes after the airbase was no longer needed by the federal government and declared surplus. Yount was the sole bidder on the property and therefore was able to acquire Thunderbird Field for one dollar. The classes that were held at the new school which was named The American Institute for Foreign Trade began in October 1946. It was General Yount’s dream to create the first US-based international business school that focused on growing and educating international business leaders with roots in both cultural customs and sound business and management practices.
Thunderbird Field was unique in that there was a lot more to its story than the magnificent flying aces it produced. There was the involvement of Hollywood and movie stars.
The initial idea for Thunderbird Field was the brainchild of three men, two of whom weren’t natural fits for the aviation industry. Thunderbird Field began in 1939 as a collaborative effort between these three men from totally different walks in life, but the men had one thing in common – they were fans of the booming aviation industry and in the wake of a world war looming, they were dedicated to assuring the security of the nation. These men were Hollywood agent and producer Leland Hayward, former Air Service pilot John H. “Jack” Connelly, and Life magazine photographer John Swopes who together founded Southwest Airways. The three training facilities that comprised Thunderbird Field were all operated under the Southwest Airways umbrella.
The men went together to purchase desert farmland located twenty miles from the boom town of Phoenix, Arizona. The land was desolate and at first glance seemingly unworthy of any important use. But they shared a dream and saw the barren land as so much more than dried up and abandoned farmland. With only the hopes and dreams of an innovative venture in their own minds, they formed a company which they named Southwest Airways. It was a big dream and the possibility of failure was more than the men were willing to voice. They were taking a risk but the risk was a worthy one – the nation’s very security was in question with the threat of war and nefarious plans to conquer the world.
The men pooled together several thousand dollars that, even in those days, was not a daunting amount for the founding of a new company. But what they lacked in funding they made up in tenacity and determination. The men sensed that they were embarking on an extraordinary journey that could literally change the course of history. With the influence of a Hollywood insider and the artistic contribution of a photographer, the men decided to create a training center for military pilots that would be unique and designed specifically for the trainees. The unusually structured complex comprised of hangers and barracks was laid out to resemble the wings of a bird. The control tower that was at the center of the complex was the head and eye of the bird. The long tail represented the runway and landing area. And it was designed for the pilots because the image of the thunderbird could only be seen from the sky.
The field was originally called Thunderbird Field #1 and was built by the Del Webb Construction Company in 1941. It was a functioning pilot training airbase through 1945 the year that marked the end of the war. Jay Thorne, the senior director of communications for the Thunderbird School of Global Management had referred to it as the airfield that served as a “training site for international World War II pilots.”
Thunderbird Field is part of America’s storied aviation history. It was considered an airbase that was “steeped in multicultural tradition” with student pilots from America, Canada, Britain and China. Adjacent to Field 1, there were other airfields in the valley that were also used for training. Those fields included Thunderbird Field #2 which ultimately became Scottsdale Airport and Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. The field at Mesa was originally called Thunderbird Field #3 but since the facility would be dedicated to the training of British pilots, the Brits asked if they could name it after one of their indigenous birds. Thus, Thunderbird #3 became Falcon Field. More than a $1 million in 1940 dollars were originally raised to build the base.
Scottsdale Airport was originally founded on June 22, 1942, as Thunderbird Field II. It was the basic training facility for World War II Army Air Corps pilots. The grounds were transformed from a small piece of land in the remote Arizona desert into a cutting-edge training facility that left its mark in history. Two visionary leaders – General H.H. Arnold and Lieutenant General B, K. Yount – are credited with this transformation. The contributions of Leyland Hayward and John Connelly who operated the civilian contract school were also instrumental in the training facility’s success. Together these men were dedicated to providing the best training and ultimately helped to build the most powerful aerial striking force that the world had ever seen.
Although Thunderbird Field training facilities were churning out pilots at a break-neck speed, there was always pressure to do more. As the war clouds thickened over Europe, the quota of cadet pilots to be trained increased with every scheduled new class. In November 1943, the training center was operating at peak capacity training 615 cadets who clocked an average of two flight hours a day which translated into 1,845 separate takeoffs and hours upon hours of rigorous in-class training. Despite the pressure to produce more and more qualified pilots, Thunderbird Field only grew in its reputation for intense and thorough instruction and for producing the top flying aces in the world.
Ultimately, Thunderbird II graduated over 5,500 students which beat original expectations by the Air Force threefold. Collectively Thunderbird II pilots flew nearly 26,500,000 miles which is the equivalent of circling the earth 3,000 times. Those stats represented the glory days of Thunderbird Field II but the training center’s time was limited. After operating for two years, three months and 24 days, Thunderbird Field II was shut down.
There was a secondary purpose for the one-of-a-kind design of Thunderbird Field and that was the creation of an unusual and eye-appealing set for a future Hollywood movie. With a Hollywood agent being part of the founding fathers of Southwest Airways, looking back it was almost inevitable that a bit of glamour and drama would be part of the mix. The movie which was also produced in 1942, the same year that Southwest Airways was founded, was called Thunder Birds – which preordained the design layout of the complex. It was a natural that the actual airfield was named for the large “bird” that could be seen only from a bird’s eye view.
Thunderbird Field emerged among the many new training fields as unique and by far the most famous. It was the place to be. It was metaphorically the “life of the party” compared to the other more staid and less glamorous training centers. Jimmy Stewart who had joined the US Air Force during the war effort was instrumental in the establishment of the field and in bringing attention to it. Celebrities came to Thunderbird Field and partied until the wee hours. There were swing bands and lavish gatherings of the famous. Old Hollywood made Thunderbird Field their exclusive desert getaway.
The field would figure as one of the silent heroes of the war effort. The ace pilots that Thunderbird Field turned out were a key element in the Allied victory over Axis powers and Nazism. But as the Hollywood stars danced and partied the nights away, no one had any certainty about what world they would be faced with after the war, especially in the frightening prospect of defeat. America was proud and sure of itself but it had never before been beset with the evil challenge led by Adolf Hitler.
While Hollywood made war movies in which the Axis powers were defeated, the rest of America was experiencing a transitionary period. The nation was finally in the last stages of recovery from the economic and social disaster spawned by the Great Depression. With barely a blink of the eye, this post-depression era was replaced by a country that was on the verge of world war. The military was strengthening its numbers and making plans for what the Pentagon knew would be the biggest wartime challenge that the nation had ever faced. On one hand times were good – unemployment was low, breadlines had disappeared and the ordinary person was enjoying life for the first time in decades. But war was looming and if the US entered into the war that was raging in Europe, life for many families would never be the same again.
Although Thunderbird Field represented the fight against world domination by the Nazis, it was also a bright spot, a beacon of hope for the nation and future generations. The facility was established to turn out expert pilots who would sacrifice their very lives to keep their countrymen safe. After years of hard times there was something bigger than the individual that everyone could be a part of. Unlike wars that followed World War II like Vietnam, the nation came together in support of the war effort and its brave soldiers including the elite pilots who were to play a huge role in the Allied victory. Perhaps it was not voiced, but most people knew that the very future of the world depended in large part on the successful missions of the men and women who would pass through the gates of Thunderbird Field.
Primary Pilot Training taught at Thunderbird covered aviation basics using two-seater training aircraft. This initial stage of training was generally taught by instructors from contract civilian pilot training schools through the Civil Aeronautics Authority, War Training Service (CAA-WTS). Cadets typically were required to earn 60 to 65 flight hours in Stearman, Ryan or Fairchild primary trainers before going on to Basic Training. Basic Pilot Training covered instruction in flying in formation, by instruments or by aerial navigation, at night and for long distances. Cadets generally clocked around 70 flight hours in BT-9 or BT-13 basic trainers before they were approved to go on to Advanced Training.
Advanced Training was separated into two major categories: single-engine and multi-engine. Those cadets in the single-engine program flew the AT-6 advanced trainer. The cadets in the multi-engine group learned to fly the AT-9, AT-10, AT-11 or AT-17 advanced trainers. Cadets in advanced training were expected to amass 75 to 80 flight hours before being eligible for graduation when they would receive their pilot’s wings. Transition Pilot Training transitioned single-engine pilots to fighters and fighter-bombers and multi-engine pilots to transports or bombers. The total amount of training time before pilot cadets were deployed into active combat duty was two months.
Training at Thunderbird was demanding, with a high wash out rate and the student pilots who trained there were dedicated and well-aware of their role in the war and in defending their country but were young men who liked to have fun. The real treat for pilots who had completed the training program was the celebration that followed the graduation ceremony. Cadets were encouraged to invite their families, wives and girlfriends to the festivities. In the ballroom the young men would dance to Big Band music. Often Hollywood stars were invited to attend graduation celebrations. They would fly out to be part of the scene much to the thrill and delight of the cadets and their guests.
From Hollywood luminaries to the ordinary guy on the street there was widespread support for the war. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and many others supported the troops by touring the country and selling US treasury bonds. It was a national movement. In contrast to the bitterness that America held for later wars, it was astonishing in hindsight that there was such widespread support of the nation’s participation in the war. Those who supported the war saw it as vital for the perpetuation of life as they knew it.
A training center newsletter simply entitled, “The Thunderbird” was issued on a monthly basis. Values like serving and patriotism were common themes found in articles included in these newsletters. In one article in the December 1943 issue, the close relationship between pilot and airplane mechanic was focused upon. That same issue touted the patriotic tenor of Southwest Airways’ employees who considered contributing to the war effort more important than what they were paid.
Letters from former Thunderbird cadets who were on the war front were also referenced in the newsletters to serve as examples to the cadets in training that they would see action on the war front. The newsletters were intended to keep up the morale of the cadets going through demanding training and to instill in them the spirit of patriotism. While the in-class training and flight hours taught them how to fly, these newsletters worked at inculcating positive values in the pilots thus putting the finishing touches on the ace pilots coming out of training and heading to the dangers of the real battlefield.
In each newsletter Thunderbird’s roll of honor made mention of fighter pilots who had graduated from Thunderbird and the important roles they were playing in the war being fought in defense of democracy. One newsletter reported that according to official military press releases there was a marked increase in the number of Thunderbird graduates in active duty on the war front. Graduates of the training facility were serving on five continents and on assignment in such diverse locations as Alaska, Guadalcanal, Africa and England. The article proudly listed the citations and decorations that Thunderbird alumni were earning. Such articles inspired the cadets currently in training who read these articles. The young pilots were fearless and patriotic and eager to get through training and onto the battlefield.
One of the newsletters featured an article on the seventh class of Chinese cadet pilots who had completed primary training at Thunderbird Field. Although the modern-day relationship between the US and China is a tenuous one at best, during World War II there was a genuine collegial synergy between the two countries much of which was due to the many Chinese airmen who were trained through the Thunderbird training facilities.
In a symbolic gesture to show the good will between the countries during the lead up to World War II and actual engagement in the conflict, China’s beloved First Lady, Madame Chiang Kai-shek paid the highest tribute to Thunderbird for providing the primary training of her nation’s air force cadets.
Madame Chiang Kai-shek, affectionately known as Missimo by the Chinese people, included in her tribute to the training center the presentation of the Chinese flag that would fly with the American flag to symbolize the two nation’s solidarity. China was at great risk in the Pacific Theater due to the threat of an aggressive and militaristic Japan which had allied with Germany. It was essential that China’s air force be strengthened and expanded which compelled the nation to turn to America and Thunderbird Field for the best training that was available.
I learned a lot about Thunderbird Field and my grandfather by reading Leo’s flight log books. I sometimes felt as though I was intruding into a very personal time in my grandfather’s life and into events that held much significance in his life. It was a time that became a part of the nation’s history. Leo kept a diary that was largely focused on the successes and numbers of sorties flown each day. My grandfather had developed a coded shorthand that allowed him with just a word or two to describe the day’s activities. Leo was scrupulous about keeping his diary up to date. Perhaps a thought or two may have flashed through his mind that someday someone else might stumble upon his diary compelling him to make sure that it was all-inclusive. During the time period that would have been the lead-up to the war, Leo logged as many as six or seven, one-hour or longer flights for each day. He would list the names of the pilot students who flew each of the training missions. I ran across words like ground loop, pinked, spins, stalls, washed back and even the names of Hollywood actresses to which special meaning must have been attached, meaning that has been lost in the intervening years. Leo also noted the events that occurred each day and visitors who stopped by – often it was a celebrity’s name that was jotted down under “visitors”. It was by reading and deciphering his logbooks that I got a real grasp of what those times must have been really like, and I developed a deeper and stronger connection between myself, a professional aviator and my grandfather, a man that was not only part of my family but also a key piece in aviation history for our country.
My goal with this web site is to list the names of all who participated in the mission of Thunderbird Field, to include Thunderbird Field II, Falcon and Sky Harbor. Using archived material, newsletters, year books, news articles and letters I hope to add as many staff, instructors and cadets names to our list. Of the 55 or so civilian airfields used around the nation to train over 200,000 pilots to serve in WWII, there are only a few dedicate sites available to track and research this important part of our aviation history. With your help, I hope we can continue to add to the legacy and history of The Pilots from Thunderbird Field.


Scott R. Weaver
Lt. Col., USAF (retired)