Graduate school transforms from air field to ASU campus
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In 1941, men came to a dusty plot of land in Glendale to learn how to fight their enemies.
The war had been raging for two years overseas and the Americans knew they’d soon be in it.
Over the next four years, more than 15,000 pilots trained at Thunderbird Field before going off to fight in World War II.
Then the war ended, and by 1946, the patch of desert was transformed from a place where men were taught to battle foreign foes to a school where they learned how to be global citizens.
The control tower that once guided fighter pilots now looked over a brand-new business school, the American Institute for Foreign Trade.
The barracks became dormitories and the runways were used as campus footpaths.
During the institute's first few years, almost all the students were male veterans, studying under the GI Bill, who hoped to work abroad.
And by the 1950s, the economy was booming with so many jobs that companies tried to lure the men away while they were still taking classes. American Express, Goodyear Tire and Rubber and the National Bank of New York all recruited heavily from the school for their international operations.
“Then, it was the only school of its kind where people were studying to go overseas,” said Dean Warner, a graduate of the class of 1957 of what is now the Thunderbird School of Global Management.
In its 70 years, Thunderbird grew from a small trade school to a bustling center of graduate education that drew thousands of students from around the world. Alumni were fiercely proud and formed groups in more than 100 countries.
But by the late 1990s, the Internet began to shrink the world. People could earn degrees online and companies didn’t have to send employees overseas to do international business. Fewer students came to Thunderbird, and the school needed to find a new model to continue operating in changed circumstances. In 2014, Thunderbird became a unit of Arizona State University.
Its passionate alumni are relieved that the school was saved, but hope that Thunderbird can keep the unique identity that it forged in those post-war years, when anything was possible.
Because, as Warner recalls, “There was nothing else like it back then.”
‘Keep 'em flying!’
Thunderbird was born for business. In 1940, that business was war.
Before the U.S. even joined the fight, a group of Hollywood investors formed a corporation called Southwest AirwaysThe business has no relation to the present-day commercial company Southwest Airlines.. They found a patch of land in the Glendale desert and told the Army that if it put an air base there, they would run it and produce pilots for the battles everyone knew were coming.
The spot was perfect for pilot training — remote with excellent weather and nearly endless visibility.
Construction started in January 1941 and by March the first group of 57 Army Air Force cadets arrived for 10 weeks of primary flight trainingThe “Thunderbird Annual” lists their names and hometowns — almost all small towns in Kansas and Missouri.. The barracks were only half done and the runways were still being graded but the cadets got right to it.
The base motto was “Keep 'Em Flying.”
The cadets’ supervisors were military officers, but everything else at the base was run by civilian employeesAbout a quarter of these were women. A monthly company magazine from 1943 included a “Strictly Feminine” page that had the headline “Girls handle man-sized jobs.” Another issue announced a woman flight “instructress” at Sky Harbor, described as a “pretty, young wife … .” of Southwest Airways — flight instructors, field personnel and maintenance workers.
Operations quickly ramped up. Class after class of cadets flowed in. Instruction was held seven days a week.
Thunderbird was one of four military-training air fields that Southwest Airways operated in the Valley. The others were Sky Harbor, Thunderbird Field Two, which later became Scottsdale Airport, and Williams Field in Mesa.
In the first year, the cadets were Americans, but soon the field started accepting traineesThunderbird training included 65 hours of flying and 275 takeoffs and landings. from the Chinese Air Force. Pilots from the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force studied at Thunderbird for several months before their training was moved to Falcon Field.
The conditions were not luxurious.