Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 23, 2005


Host: Michael Grant

Arizona Stories "Falcon Field"


  • In tonight's Arizona Story, how an airfield in Mesa helped change the course of the Second World War.


View Transcript
Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, we begin a four-part series on the danger of wildfire. Tonight, how big fires have changed the way we fight them. A conversation with one of the world's preeminent fire historians, Stephen Pyne. And how an airfield in Mesa helped change the course of the Second World War in tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Underwriter:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening, I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. The Rodeo-Chedeski fire three summers ago and the earlier Dude fire rapidly indicated the extraordinary danger and massive destruction large wildfires could inflict. Part of the problem has been the various methods of forest management that have prevailed over the last century. In the first of a four-part series on the problem of wildfires, we look at the history of forest management and how that has contributed to the way we fight wildfires today.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For millions of years, long needle pines like the ponderosa have dominated the landscape in Arizona's higher elevations forming what is today the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. But during the last two centuries, a series of man-made circumstances significantly reduce the number of wildfires that occur naturally in this environment bringing about some very negative changes. Researcher Wally Covington has been studying forests and the dynamics for almost three decades.

>> Wally Covington:
Forests this dense are unusual in the history of Ponderosa pines. Before settlement there were only about 20 to 30 trees per acre on these areas. Most of the trees were these big yellow bark pines you see here, typically ranging from 180 to maybe 500-plus years old in age. The forests were very open and park-like. Frequent fires held pine populations in check, so grasses and wild flowers could flourish as well as trees. But shortly after the fire extinguishing, a tremendous population eruption began of Ponderosa pine trees. You see these behind me; there are almost 1200 trees per acre.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For early settlers in place like Flagstaff, timber was a valuable resource and essential to the area's growth and prosperity. The goal was to maximize the harvest of wood. Wildfires were considered wasteful and importance to the forest not understood.

>> Wally Covington:
When you read the early plans, early foresters encouraged overgrazing because they thought fire was a big threat to the forest. That overgrazing removed the grasses and wildflowers that allowed fires to sweep across the landscape.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Researchers are able to gauge the historical behavior of wildfire by examining cross-sections of old growth trees which indicates not only the age of the tree but also how often fires occurred.

>> Wally Covington:
These little arrows that you see here represents a fire scar. This particular tree has a center date of 1692. You see steady fire scars up to 1876. Then when the livestock showed up that's what stopped fires originally. After the frequent fires were disrupted there was nothing to control pine seedling establishment.

>> Paul Atkinson:
As the number of trees in the forest multiplies, the competition for water and nutrients becomes more intense. There is an increase in the mortality of old growth trees, which weaken and become more susceptible to drought and attack by insects like the bark beetle. Spaces between the large trees have dead vegetation and smaller, younger trees create fire ladders that effectively fuel a very different and devastating kind of fire.

>> Wally Covington:
Instead of fires burning through surface vegetation, which was the natural fire region, we see fires getting up in the canopies of the old growth trees. And the fires are getting bigger and bigger.

>> Paul Atkinson:
According to forest service records, between 1910, and 1930, the over abundance of trees in combination with drought conditions, high winds and dry vegetation resulted in a series of catastrophic wildfires in a number of states including Arizona. Consequently, an official policy of fire suppression began to evolve over decades that followed.

>> Bruce Greco:
During the 40s and 50s, when we started to prevent fires, a very specific direction in fire policy to suppress fires. We utilized throughout the forest service, particularly on public land. During the same time, we had a very active, very prolific regeneration in the forest.

>> Wally Covington:
The main duty of public land managers was to protect the forest, they thought they were protecting them from the fire. In fact, they were delaying fires.

>> Bruce Greco:
In the 50s and 60s, even into the '70s, we were very successful in most cases of suppressing fire. The vegetation in the forest just continued to grow and become established. During that period of time, here northern Arizona forests, many of these forests we could easily harvest 150 million board feet a year and still have wood fiber growing more rapidly than what was harvested. In the management of the forest we were not keeping up with the growth. Even by harvesting the timber at that time.

>> Paul Atkinson:
During the 70s and 80s, the environmental became a powerful force. Legislation was enacted that allowed the public to take on a significant role in natural resource management. And as people began to take a greater interest in environmental quality issues, activists began to challenge many of the traditional practices in the public forests.

>> Wally Covington:
A wood production industry concentrated on big old growth trees. A tremendous amount of money was made of course out of harvesting those old growth trees. By the 1960s and 70s, the old growth trees, those older yellow bark trees were becoming rarer and rarer. There was such a concern about over-cutting of forests locally as well as in Arizona, that a lot of environmental activist groups worked to try to eliminate the wood product industries, especially that section that used the large, old trees.

>> Sandy Bahr:
When the Sierra Club in particular and environmentalists really engaged in forest planning activities, looking at timber sales, really starting the beginning of the 1980s and over time, the involvement has increased, we have 5\% or less of our old growth forests left in the southwest. So if it's going to involve old growth logging, you can bet that people are going to be very interested and very concerned.

>> Bruce Greco:
When we got to the mid-80s, a lot of litigation, other reasons that the timber industry basically went away. Because we don't have the timber industry available or tools available to harvest the timber and thin these out, we have had to change the policy and the tactics, if you will, how we manage a forest and how we protect it from wildfire.

>> Paul Atkinson:
The debate continues as to whether or not commercial logging can play a role in sound forest management. In the early days of the 21st century, most agree that Arizona's pine forests will require considerable help if restored to health and catastrophic fire is to be avoided.

>> Sandy Bahr:
What I hope we'll happen is a more thin forest around communities where they have taken out the smaller trees, done some prescribed burning. Beyond that, we want a more natural system to come back.

>> Bruce Greco:
The challenge we have is to physically reduce the amount of fuel that's going to contribute to wildfire, to feeding that monster. We need to make sure that in that process the public involves all interests, all agencies together to move forward. We have to move very quickly to do that. Our landscape in Arizona is at extreme risk.

>> Wally Covington:
We basically have room along the Magellan Rim through Flagstaff for about four Rodeo-Chedeski sites. In practical human terms, it's a permanent loss. So we owe it to not just to ourselves and the rest of nature to restore forest health.

>> Michael Grant:
One of the world's most respected wildfire authorities, ASU Regents' professor and author, Stephen Pyne, is working this month in Australia. Before he left, Larry Lemmons visited with Dr. Pyne at his home in Glendale to learn more about the history of forest management.

>> Larry Lemmons:
I suppose before fire management policies there wasn't much to do about a wildfire but to get out of its way. You're saying that's not true.

>> Stephen Pyne:
People have lots of ways to live with wildfire. And it certainly could be a threat and they would often have to flee. But they could take protective measures, depending on your economy there are different things you can do. Traditionally the best protection you make is to fire proof, or partially fireproof the landscape around. The easiest way to do that is to do the burning yourself. They would have a cleared area, if in grass or flammables, they would burn it early in the season. Or heavy grazing around a farm site or whatever, to protect themselves. They would also rely very heavily on back firing, that is if a large fire was threatening them, they could go to some predetermined site and burn out from there.

>> Larry Lemmons:
At the turn of the century about 1910, was that the beginning of management?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The federal fire story actually begins in 1886, when the U.S. Cavalry took over the Yellowstone National Park. They were greeted by fires when they rode in, and they spent that summer putting out 60 fires. That was the beginning of organized fire fighting by the federal government. They saw it as a whole problem of controlling trespass and vandalism. The civilian agencies had not been empowered to do it. The cavalry literally rode in to the rescue. And they were immediately plunged into fire fighting. That established what is essentially a paramilitary model of fire fighting that we have with us today. So eventually a civilian agency took over but with much of the same elan, if you will. In 1910, however, the agency is barely out of its nest. The very charismatic founder is fired for insubordination by Taft earlier in the year and they were hit that summer with an immense number of fires. The great 1910 fires. Probably 5 million acres burned in the national forests throughout the west. The main center was in the northern Rockies, 3 million acres burned, essentially in a day, day and a half. What became known as the big blow-up. 78 firefighters were killed. Six different incidents but all in the same afternoon in August of 1910. That traumatized the agency. They went into debt to $1 million to pay for the cost for that, which established our whole system of deficit payment for fire fighting, unlimited money during the fire fighting. The next three chiefs of the forest service were all personally on the fire line in 1910. They carried that to their grave. They would never allow that to happen again. In the middle of all this, there's a public controversy boiling out of the west, particularly in California, which says the whole thing is a mistake. We should be emulating the Indians. The Indian way of forest management, which was through what they called light burning. Right in the middle of the whole fire fight there's an attack essentially on the fundamental policy. That skewed the debate, sort of a with us or against us attitude that evolved. It became politicized. The secretary of the interior was in favor of light burning so it's part of the politics between government agencies, it gets polarized, it gets politicized and the forest service commits with ever increasing rigor to a policy of full fire suppression.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Then some things don't change because that sounds like the same kind of political arguments we're hearing today.

>> It's eerie. The same arguments are still with us. A century later almost on the same terms, except that the agencies are now flipped positions. They're fully committed, they have been for several decades, to a philosophy of restoring fire. The policies have been in place; it's just proved very difficult. I think in a sense they thought initially it was just a case of reversing what had gone on, that if taking fire out was the problem, put fire back in and the problem will correct itself but a lot of things have changed.

>> Larry Lemmons:
In the 1930s, the 10 a.m. policy was implemented, can you tell us about that?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The 10 a.m. policy is really the climax to America's fire suppression program. It's a very interesting story. What had happened was that many of the areas near or even at the 1910 fires were hit again by large fires. Forest service found itself unable to cope with the fires. It convened a group of experts to debate what it should do. Very interesting discussion. They said one thing; we just give up and walk away. One guy said, the land is in worse shape now than when we took control of it. Let's leave it. Another group said we haven't been fully committed. We didn't put the full force of the government in our political will behind it. Another group said there ought to be some middle ground but everyone agreed there was no middle ground, the way they'd framed the debate. And that discussion gets compounded with other things and goes to the chief forester's desk. Now part of the backdrop here is the Civilian Conservation Corps, the new deal's commitment to conservation, they have all the resources they could want. They effectively have a civilian army in place, lots of money, lots of political support to go after fire. It lands on the desk of the chief forester, who had been the number two in the northern Rockies during the big blowup. He had written a couple of months after the 1910 fire that their lesson was that they were wholly controllable. It could have been prevented if they had had enough men, enough trails, enough telephone line. But now he's got it, he has all that stuff and in a sense he decides he is going to re-fight the 1910 fires and this time putting the full force of the government behind it. That became the 10 a.m. policy, the goal to control every fire by 10:00 the morning following its report.

>> Larry Lemmons:
So the late '60s, '70s, that old policy was out. Was that when the modern era of forest management began?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The old debate returns. And in this case it's flipped. And what flipped it? Partly economics, diminishing returns. We're beginning to see ecological consequences for removing fire or attempting to remove fire. It is not a neutral position. It does not put the landscape on hold until you decide what you want to do, that is a living landscape, it continues to change, interact, evolve in lots of ways. We found out that all those early forecasts about it being overrun by diseases and insects and becoming huge firetraps all prove true. The wilderness act passed in 1964, what are we doing sending in bulldozers and air tankers, a whole armed force to fight fires that were naturally caused in an area that's dedicated to the perpetuation of natural causes. That forces philosophical rethinking of the issue and the whole thing starts gelling. Park Services were first and then the other agencies that followed. And that's been around a long time. The park service has been longer under this policy than it was under the 10 a.m. policy.

>> Larry Lemmons:
We've been a long time under this policy, why haven't we seen better results?

>> Stephen Pyne:
That's a great question. That's the core question right now for fire agencies. The belief again was partly that we could just reverse it, that fire is a kind of ecological pixie dust, that we sprinkle it out there and it makes everything good. It doesn't. Fire acts on whatever is out there. It synthesizes its surroundings. If you've got a messed up landscape, you've got messed up fires from our perspective. We've had a number of disastrous fires. I mean, it's not free, it's not cheap. It's potentially dangerous. You've got to have good reasons for doing it.

>> Larry Lemmons:
What are our options?

>> Stephen Pyne:
I think basically there are four options. You can leave it alone, trust in nature. We've learned that if you let fires loiter on the landscape, some go looking for trouble and in the end that's very expensive and dangerous. You can try to suppress fire. We have found that doesn't work by itself. It's like a declaration of martial law, it's good for temporary insurrection, but you can't manage the landscape with that. You can try to do the burning yourself. Say it's going to happen, we'll do it. We have learned as I suggested that's trickier than we thought. There are much more complicated, particularly fire that's going to be removed, putting it back is very difficult. The fourth option is trying to change the character of the landscape so that whatever fire, wildfire, controlled fire, whatever, it has properties that support our general goals. But it's not just those forests are not just blocks of hydrocarbon, they are living systems. It's not just a case of slashing and burning your way. I think the lesson is none of these work by itself.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Thank you Dr. Pyne for speaking with us.

>> Stephen Pyne:
Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Tomorrow night, we'll take a close look at the politics behind forest management and the fighting of wildfires. Before the U.S. had entered World War II, an airstrip in the east valley became a training ground for Royal Air Force pilots. There, in the hot desert sun, the British quickly replaced the pilots killed by the Luftwaffe in the battle of Britain. The airstrip in Mesa became known as Falcon Field. Every year former cadets return to honor their fallen comrades. Producer Larry Lemmons and Videographer Scot Olson bring us tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Bill McCash:
I am privileged to be here and to address all of you attending this annual memorial service in honor and to pay homage to our 23 Royal Air Force comrades who died here. At the same time, I ask you not to forget the five Americans who served and died with them.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Every year at this cemetery in Mesa, former British pilots return to remember the men who died while training at Falcon Field during World War II. It's a unique ceremony celebrating the bond between the United States and Great Britain in war and peace.

>> Bill McCash:
We who were involved in this scheme will never frankly forget what you did for us.

>> Edward Murrow:
This is Edward Murrow speaking from London. There were more German planes over the course of Britain today than any time before the war began.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Before the United States had entered the war, the British were desperate to train new pilots. What the United States did for Britain was to participate in the entire air-training scheme.

>> Bill McCash:
We didn't have the weather, we didn't have the air bases, we didn't have the gasoline for it and the general came across just after the battle of Britain and offered places at the American schools. And the idea came up that a British school with British instructors run by American instructors with supervision. It was important that we got pilots from every source we possibly could because the death toll was pretty high in the early days as you can imagine.

>> Larry Lemmons:
One of the new schools, Falcon Field, was established in Mesa and flying operations began in 1941. Today, Falcon Field airport is home for nearly a thousand aircraft and multiple businesses. At Falcon Field Park, very little remains of the site where the RAF cadets lived and trained. A swimming pool served as an initiation ritual.

>> Bill McCash:
When you did your first solo, into the pool you went, uniform and all. Yes, indeed it was a great thing.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A hearth still stands, although the building around it does not, where cadets relaxed and talked about their daily challenges. The old hangers are still at the field, while the area around them has changed. And activity in the park today is more likely to be play rather than work. For surviving pilots, however, the place still evokes memories.

>> Ken Beeby:
We came down by train to Chicago and changed to come to Phoenix on the railroad. It was air conditioned with evaporative cooling. However, we arrived in the Mesa station in August of 1942, and when those doors opened on the train, it was like walking into a wall of fire. And there were two Mesa school buses parked outside that had been there for a couple of hours. And we all had our RAF uniform on about half an inch thick wool. By the time we got to Falcon Field, 6 miles away, we had all lost 10 pounds.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The recruits were trained primarily on the Stearman and the A-T 86. Although some of the young pilots had never driven a car, they were nevertheless expected to fly.

>> Jack May:
I was taxiing rather too fast in and I put on the brakes and up went the tail and down went the nose and it had to sit there and wait until they brought the tail back down. Having done quite a bit of damage.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Most of the aircraft maintenance was done at night and frequently by women who played a large role in Falcon Field success.

>> Tom Austin:
We were invited over to the state teachers college in Tempe for some formal dances, etc., and we met some very pleasant young ladies over there, which eventually we used to go out on a Saturday afternoon in the desert for a weenie roast. We remember once that we were out there enjoying our weenie roast when we saw in the distance, there must have been about six chaps who were at least 6'6". The girl said don't start trouble. I gather that they were part of a football team. Anyway, in actual fact, we met them and we finished off the best of friends.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A testament to his training at Falcon Field, Tom Austin eventually became a highly decorated pilot during the war. Ultimately the result of training at Falcon Field was to create not only a bond between the young pilots that has endured to this day, but also a connection between the British men and the Mesa community.

>> Tom Austin:
I can't speak highly enough how they accepted us. When we actually arrived on the first Saturday we were allowed out we had exactly 200 cars came through the main gate to request us to join them for the weekend.

>> Larry Lemmons:
That Anglo -American relationship continues to this day reflected in the annual ceremony honoring the fallen pilots. On this day in this cemetery, the pilots have in a way come home. For there will always be a small but significant piece of British history in the heart of the City of Mesa.

>> Michael Grant:
Next Monday on "Horizon" we'll have a special Memorial Day edition.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Over the years, environmentalists and politicians have blamed each other for the poor condition of our national forests. But out of the ashes of Arizona's worst forest fire, drew an effort by politicians and environmentalists alike, to focus on what's best for our forests and prevention of catastrophic fires. That's Tuesday on Horizon.

>> Michael Grant:
Thanks very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good one.

Fire Management History


  • A conversation with one of the world's pre-eminent fire historians, Stephen Pyne.


View Transcript
Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, we begin a four-part series on the danger of wildfire. Tonight, how big fires have changed the way we fight them. A conversation with one of the world's preeminent fire historians, Stephen Pyne. And how an airfield in Mesa helped change the course of the Second World War in tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Underwriter:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening, I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. The Rodeo-Chedeski fire three summers ago and the earlier Dude fire rapidly indicated the extraordinary danger and massive destruction large wildfires could inflict. Part of the problem has been the various methods of forest management that have prevailed over the last century. In the first of a four-part series on the problem of wildfires, we look at the history of forest management and how that has contributed to the way we fight wildfires today.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For millions of years, long needle pines like the ponderosa have dominated the landscape in Arizona's higher elevations forming what is today the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. But during the last two centuries, a series of man-made circumstances significantly reduce the number of wildfires that occur naturally in this environment bringing about some very negative changes. Researcher Wally Covington has been studying forests and the dynamics for almost three decades.

>> Wally Covington:
Forests this dense are unusual in the history of Ponderosa pines. Before settlement there were only about 20 to 30 trees per acre on these areas. Most of the trees were these big yellow bark pines you see here, typically ranging from 180 to maybe 500-plus years old in age. The forests were very open and park-like. Frequent fires held pine populations in check, so grasses and wild flowers could flourish as well as trees. But shortly after the fire extinguishing, a tremendous population eruption began of Ponderosa pine trees. You see these behind me; there are almost 1200 trees per acre.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For early settlers in place like Flagstaff, timber was a valuable resource and essential to the area's growth and prosperity. The goal was to maximize the harvest of wood. Wildfires were considered wasteful and importance to the forest not understood.

>> Wally Covington:
When you read the early plans, early foresters encouraged overgrazing because they thought fire was a big threat to the forest. That overgrazing removed the grasses and wildflowers that allowed fires to sweep across the landscape.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Researchers are able to gauge the historical behavior of wildfire by examining cross-sections of old growth trees which indicates not only the age of the tree but also how often fires occurred.

>> Wally Covington:
These little arrows that you see here represents a fire scar. This particular tree has a center date of 1692. You see steady fire scars up to 1876. Then when the livestock showed up that's what stopped fires originally. After the frequent fires were disrupted there was nothing to control pine seedling establishment.

>> Paul Atkinson:
As the number of trees in the forest multiplies, the competition for water and nutrients becomes more intense. There is an increase in the mortality of old growth trees, which weaken and become more susceptible to drought and attack by insects like the bark beetle. Spaces between the large trees have dead vegetation and smaller, younger trees create fire ladders that effectively fuel a very different and devastating kind of fire.

>> Wally Covington:
Instead of fires burning through surface vegetation, which was the natural fire region, we see fires getting up in the canopies of the old growth trees. And the fires are getting bigger and bigger.

>> Paul Atkinson:
According to forest service records, between 1910, and 1930, the over abundance of trees in combination with drought conditions, high winds and dry vegetation resulted in a series of catastrophic wildfires in a number of states including Arizona. Consequently, an official policy of fire suppression began to evolve over decades that followed.

>> Bruce Greco:
During the 40s and 50s, when we started to prevent fires, a very specific direction in fire policy to suppress fires. We utilized throughout the forest service, particularly on public land. During the same time, we had a very active, very prolific regeneration in the forest.

>> Wally Covington:
The main duty of public land managers was to protect the forest, they thought they were protecting them from the fire. In fact, they were delaying fires.

>> Bruce Greco:
In the 50s and 60s, even into the '70s, we were very successful in most cases of suppressing fire. The vegetation in the forest just continued to grow and become established. During that period of time, here northern Arizona forests, many of these forests we could easily harvest 150 million board feet a year and still have wood fiber growing more rapidly than what was harvested. In the management of the forest we were not keeping up with the growth. Even by harvesting the timber at that time.

>> Paul Atkinson:
During the 70s and 80s, the environmental became a powerful force. Legislation was enacted that allowed the public to take on a significant role in natural resource management. And as people began to take a greater interest in environmental quality issues, activists began to challenge many of the traditional practices in the public forests.

>> Wally Covington:
A wood production industry concentrated on big old growth trees. A tremendous amount of money was made of course out of harvesting those old growth trees. By the 1960s and 70s, the old growth trees, those older yellow bark trees were becoming rarer and rarer. There was such a concern about over-cutting of forests locally as well as in Arizona, that a lot of environmental activist groups worked to try to eliminate the wood product industries, especially that section that used the large, old trees.

>> Sandy Bahr:
When the Sierra Club in particular and environmentalists really engaged in forest planning activities, looking at timber sales, really starting the beginning of the 1980s and over time, the involvement has increased, we have 5\% or less of our old growth forests left in the southwest. So if it's going to involve old growth logging, you can bet that people are going to be very interested and very concerned.

>> Bruce Greco:
When we got to the mid-80s, a lot of litigation, other reasons that the timber industry basically went away. Because we don't have the timber industry available or tools available to harvest the timber and thin these out, we have had to change the policy and the tactics, if you will, how we manage a forest and how we protect it from wildfire.

>> Paul Atkinson:
The debate continues as to whether or not commercial logging can play a role in sound forest management. In the early days of the 21st century, most agree that Arizona's pine forests will require considerable help if restored to health and catastrophic fire is to be avoided.

>> Sandy Bahr:
What I hope we'll happen is a more thin forest around communities where they have taken out the smaller trees, done some prescribed burning. Beyond that, we want a more natural system to come back.

>> Bruce Greco:
The challenge we have is to physically reduce the amount of fuel that's going to contribute to wildfire, to feeding that monster. We need to make sure that in that process the public involves all interests, all agencies together to move forward. We have to move very quickly to do that. Our landscape in Arizona is at extreme risk.

>> Wally Covington:
We basically have room along the Magellan Rim through Flagstaff for about four Rodeo-Chedeski sites. In practical human terms, it's a permanent loss. So we owe it to not just to ourselves and the rest of nature to restore forest health.

>> Michael Grant:
One of the world's most respected wildfire authorities, ASU Regents' professor and author, Stephen Pyne, is working this month in Australia. Before he left, Larry Lemmons visited with Dr. Pyne at his home in Glendale to learn more about the history of forest management.

>> Larry Lemmons:
I suppose before fire management policies there wasn't much to do about a wildfire but to get out of its way. You're saying that's not true.

>> Stephen Pyne:
People have lots of ways to live with wildfire. And it certainly could be a threat and they would often have to flee. But they could take protective measures, depending on your economy there are different things you can do. Traditionally the best protection you make is to fire proof, or partially fireproof the landscape around. The easiest way to do that is to do the burning yourself. They would have a cleared area, if in grass or flammables, they would burn it early in the season. Or heavy grazing around a farm site or whatever, to protect themselves. They would also rely very heavily on back firing, that is if a large fire was threatening them, they could go to some predetermined site and burn out from there.

>> Larry Lemmons:
At the turn of the century about 1910, was that the beginning of management?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The federal fire story actually begins in 1886, when the U.S. Cavalry took over the Yellowstone National Park. They were greeted by fires when they rode in, and they spent that summer putting out 60 fires. That was the beginning of organized fire fighting by the federal government. They saw it as a whole problem of controlling trespass and vandalism. The civilian agencies had not been empowered to do it. The cavalry literally rode in to the rescue. And they were immediately plunged into fire fighting. That established what is essentially a paramilitary model of fire fighting that we have with us today. So eventually a civilian agency took over but with much of the same elan, if you will. In 1910, however, the agency is barely out of its nest. The very charismatic founder is fired for insubordination by Taft earlier in the year and they were hit that summer with an immense number of fires. The great 1910 fires. Probably 5 million acres burned in the national forests throughout the west. The main center was in the northern Rockies, 3 million acres burned, essentially in a day, day and a half. What became known as the big blow-up. 78 firefighters were killed. Six different incidents but all in the same afternoon in August of 1910. That traumatized the agency. They went into debt to $1 million to pay for the cost for that, which established our whole system of deficit payment for fire fighting, unlimited money during the fire fighting. The next three chiefs of the forest service were all personally on the fire line in 1910. They carried that to their grave. They would never allow that to happen again. In the middle of all this, there's a public controversy boiling out of the west, particularly in California, which says the whole thing is a mistake. We should be emulating the Indians. The Indian way of forest management, which was through what they called light burning. Right in the middle of the whole fire fight there's an attack essentially on the fundamental policy. That skewed the debate, sort of a with us or against us attitude that evolved. It became politicized. The secretary of the interior was in favor of light burning so it's part of the politics between government agencies, it gets polarized, it gets politicized and the forest service commits with ever increasing rigor to a policy of full fire suppression.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Then some things don't change because that sounds like the same kind of political arguments we're hearing today.

>> It's eerie. The same arguments are still with us. A century later almost on the same terms, except that the agencies are now flipped positions. They're fully committed, they have been for several decades, to a philosophy of restoring fire. The policies have been in place; it's just proved very difficult. I think in a sense they thought initially it was just a case of reversing what had gone on, that if taking fire out was the problem, put fire back in and the problem will correct itself but a lot of things have changed.

>> Larry Lemmons:
In the 1930s, the 10 a.m. policy was implemented, can you tell us about that?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The 10 a.m. policy is really the climax to America's fire suppression program. It's a very interesting story. What had happened was that many of the areas near or even at the 1910 fires were hit again by large fires. Forest service found itself unable to cope with the fires. It convened a group of experts to debate what it should do. Very interesting discussion. They said one thing; we just give up and walk away. One guy said, the land is in worse shape now than when we took control of it. Let's leave it. Another group said we haven't been fully committed. We didn't put the full force of the government in our political will behind it. Another group said there ought to be some middle ground but everyone agreed there was no middle ground, the way they'd framed the debate. And that discussion gets compounded with other things and goes to the chief forester's desk. Now part of the backdrop here is the Civilian Conservation Corps, the new deal's commitment to conservation, they have all the resources they could want. They effectively have a civilian army in place, lots of money, lots of political support to go after fire. It lands on the desk of the chief forester, who had been the number two in the northern Rockies during the big blowup. He had written a couple of months after the 1910 fire that their lesson was that they were wholly controllable. It could have been prevented if they had had enough men, enough trails, enough telephone line. But now he's got it, he has all that stuff and in a sense he decides he is going to re-fight the 1910 fires and this time putting the full force of the government behind it. That became the 10 a.m. policy, the goal to control every fire by 10:00 the morning following its report.

>> Larry Lemmons:
So the late '60s, '70s, that old policy was out. Was that when the modern era of forest management began?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The old debate returns. And in this case it's flipped. And what flipped it? Partly economics, diminishing returns. We're beginning to see ecological consequences for removing fire or attempting to remove fire. It is not a neutral position. It does not put the landscape on hold until you decide what you want to do, that is a living landscape, it continues to change, interact, evolve in lots of ways. We found out that all those early forecasts about it being overrun by diseases and insects and becoming huge firetraps all prove true. The wilderness act passed in 1964, what are we doing sending in bulldozers and air tankers, a whole armed force to fight fires that were naturally caused in an area that's dedicated to the perpetuation of natural causes. That forces philosophical rethinking of the issue and the whole thing starts gelling. Park Services were first and then the other agencies that followed. And that's been around a long time. The park service has been longer under this policy than it was under the 10 a.m. policy.

>> Larry Lemmons:
We've been a long time under this policy, why haven't we seen better results?

>> Stephen Pyne:
That's a great question. That's the core question right now for fire agencies. The belief again was partly that we could just reverse it, that fire is a kind of ecological pixie dust, that we sprinkle it out there and it makes everything good. It doesn't. Fire acts on whatever is out there. It synthesizes its surroundings. If you've got a messed up landscape, you've got messed up fires from our perspective. We've had a number of disastrous fires. I mean, it's not free, it's not cheap. It's potentially dangerous. You've got to have good reasons for doing it.

>> Larry Lemmons:
What are our options?

>> Stephen Pyne:
I think basically there are four options. You can leave it alone, trust in nature. We've learned that if you let fires loiter on the landscape, some go looking for trouble and in the end that's very expensive and dangerous. You can try to suppress fire. We have found that doesn't work by itself. It's like a declaration of martial law, it's good for temporary insurrection, but you can't manage the landscape with that. You can try to do the burning yourself. Say it's going to happen, we'll do it. We have learned as I suggested that's trickier than we thought. There are much more complicated, particularly fire that's going to be removed, putting it back is very difficult. The fourth option is trying to change the character of the landscape so that whatever fire, wildfire, controlled fire, whatever, it has properties that support our general goals. But it's not just those forests are not just blocks of hydrocarbon, they are living systems. It's not just a case of slashing and burning your way. I think the lesson is none of these work by itself.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Thank you Dr. Pyne for speaking with us.

>> Stephen Pyne:
Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Tomorrow night, we'll take a close look at the politics behind forest management and the fighting of wildfires. Before the U.S. had entered World War II, an airstrip in the east valley became a training ground for Royal Air Force pilots. There, in the hot desert sun, the British quickly replaced the pilots killed by the Luftwaffe in the battle of Britain. The airstrip in Mesa became known as Falcon Field. Every year former cadets return to honor their fallen comrades. Producer Larry Lemmons and Videographer Scot Olson bring us tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Bill McCash:
I am privileged to be here and to address all of you attending this annual memorial service in honor and to pay homage to our 23 Royal Air Force comrades who died here. At the same time, I ask you not to forget the five Americans who served and died with them.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Every year at this cemetery in Mesa, former British pilots return to remember the men who died while training at Falcon Field during World War II. It's a unique ceremony celebrating the bond between the United States and Great Britain in war and peace.

>> Bill McCash:
We who were involved in this scheme will never frankly forget what you did for us.

>> Edward Murrow:
This is Edward Murrow speaking from London. There were more German planes over the course of Britain today than any time before the war began.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Before the United States had entered the war, the British were desperate to train new pilots. What the United States did for Britain was to participate in the entire air-training scheme.

>> Bill McCash:
We didn't have the weather, we didn't have the air bases, we didn't have the gasoline for it and the general came across just after the battle of Britain and offered places at the American schools. And the idea came up that a British school with British instructors run by American instructors with supervision. It was important that we got pilots from every source we possibly could because the death toll was pretty high in the early days as you can imagine.

>> Larry Lemmons:
One of the new schools, Falcon Field, was established in Mesa and flying operations began in 1941. Today, Falcon Field airport is home for nearly a thousand aircraft and multiple businesses. At Falcon Field Park, very little remains of the site where the RAF cadets lived and trained. A swimming pool served as an initiation ritual.

>> Bill McCash:
When you did your first solo, into the pool you went, uniform and all. Yes, indeed it was a great thing.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A hearth still stands, although the building around it does not, where cadets relaxed and talked about their daily challenges. The old hangers are still at the field, while the area around them has changed. And activity in the park today is more likely to be play rather than work. For surviving pilots, however, the place still evokes memories.

>> Ken Beeby:
We came down by train to Chicago and changed to come to Phoenix on the railroad. It was air conditioned with evaporative cooling. However, we arrived in the Mesa station in August of 1942, and when those doors opened on the train, it was like walking into a wall of fire. And there were two Mesa school buses parked outside that had been there for a couple of hours. And we all had our RAF uniform on about half an inch thick wool. By the time we got to Falcon Field, 6 miles away, we had all lost 10 pounds.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The recruits were trained primarily on the Stearman and the A-T 86. Although some of the young pilots had never driven a car, they were nevertheless expected to fly.

>> Jack May:
I was taxiing rather too fast in and I put on the brakes and up went the tail and down went the nose and it had to sit there and wait until they brought the tail back down. Having done quite a bit of damage.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Most of the aircraft maintenance was done at night and frequently by women who played a large role in Falcon Field success.

>> Tom Austin:
We were invited over to the state teachers college in Tempe for some formal dances, etc., and we met some very pleasant young ladies over there, which eventually we used to go out on a Saturday afternoon in the desert for a weenie roast. We remember once that we were out there enjoying our weenie roast when we saw in the distance, there must have been about six chaps who were at least 6'6". The girl said don't start trouble. I gather that they were part of a football team. Anyway, in actual fact, we met them and we finished off the best of friends.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A testament to his training at Falcon Field, Tom Austin eventually became a highly decorated pilot during the war. Ultimately the result of training at Falcon Field was to create not only a bond between the young pilots that has endured to this day, but also a connection between the British men and the Mesa community.

>> Tom Austin:
I can't speak highly enough how they accepted us. When we actually arrived on the first Saturday we were allowed out we had exactly 200 cars came through the main gate to request us to join them for the weekend.

>> Larry Lemmons:
That Anglo -American relationship continues to this day reflected in the annual ceremony honoring the fallen pilots. On this day in this cemetery, the pilots have in a way come home. For there will always be a small but significant piece of British history in the heart of the City of Mesa.

>> Michael Grant:
Next Monday on "Horizon" we'll have a special Memorial Day edition.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Over the years, environmentalists and politicians have blamed each other for the poor condition of our national forests. But out of the ashes of Arizona's worst forest fire, drew an effort by politicians and environmentalists alike, to focus on what's best for our forests and prevention of catastrophic fires. That's Tuesday on Horizon.

>> Michael Grant:
Thanks very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good one.

Fire! Part one of four


  • We begin a four-part series on the danger of wildfire. Tonight, how big fires have changed the way we fight them.


View Transcript
Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, we begin a four-part series on the danger of wildfire. Tonight, how big fires have changed the way we fight them. A conversation with one of the world's preeminent fire historians, Stephen Pyne. And how an airfield in Mesa helped change the course of the Second World War in tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Underwriter:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening, I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. The Rodeo-Chedeski fire three summers ago and the earlier Dude fire rapidly indicated the extraordinary danger and massive destruction large wildfires could inflict. Part of the problem has been the various methods of forest management that have prevailed over the last century. In the first of a four-part series on the problem of wildfires, we look at the history of forest management and how that has contributed to the way we fight wildfires today.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For millions of years, long needle pines like the ponderosa have dominated the landscape in Arizona's higher elevations forming what is today the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. But during the last two centuries, a series of man-made circumstances significantly reduce the number of wildfires that occur naturally in this environment bringing about some very negative changes. Researcher Wally Covington has been studying forests and the dynamics for almost three decades.

>> Wally Covington:
Forests this dense are unusual in the history of Ponderosa pines. Before settlement there were only about 20 to 30 trees per acre on these areas. Most of the trees were these big yellow bark pines you see here, typically ranging from 180 to maybe 500-plus years old in age. The forests were very open and park-like. Frequent fires held pine populations in check, so grasses and wild flowers could flourish as well as trees. But shortly after the fire extinguishing, a tremendous population eruption began of Ponderosa pine trees. You see these behind me; there are almost 1200 trees per acre.

>> Paul Atkinson:
For early settlers in place like Flagstaff, timber was a valuable resource and essential to the area's growth and prosperity. The goal was to maximize the harvest of wood. Wildfires were considered wasteful and importance to the forest not understood.

>> Wally Covington:
When you read the early plans, early foresters encouraged overgrazing because they thought fire was a big threat to the forest. That overgrazing removed the grasses and wildflowers that allowed fires to sweep across the landscape.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Researchers are able to gauge the historical behavior of wildfire by examining cross-sections of old growth trees which indicates not only the age of the tree but also how often fires occurred.

>> Wally Covington:
These little arrows that you see here represents a fire scar. This particular tree has a center date of 1692. You see steady fire scars up to 1876. Then when the livestock showed up that's what stopped fires originally. After the frequent fires were disrupted there was nothing to control pine seedling establishment.

>> Paul Atkinson:
As the number of trees in the forest multiplies, the competition for water and nutrients becomes more intense. There is an increase in the mortality of old growth trees, which weaken and become more susceptible to drought and attack by insects like the bark beetle. Spaces between the large trees have dead vegetation and smaller, younger trees create fire ladders that effectively fuel a very different and devastating kind of fire.

>> Wally Covington:
Instead of fires burning through surface vegetation, which was the natural fire region, we see fires getting up in the canopies of the old growth trees. And the fires are getting bigger and bigger.

>> Paul Atkinson:
According to forest service records, between 1910, and 1930, the over abundance of trees in combination with drought conditions, high winds and dry vegetation resulted in a series of catastrophic wildfires in a number of states including Arizona. Consequently, an official policy of fire suppression began to evolve over decades that followed.

>> Bruce Greco:
During the 40s and 50s, when we started to prevent fires, a very specific direction in fire policy to suppress fires. We utilized throughout the forest service, particularly on public land. During the same time, we had a very active, very prolific regeneration in the forest.

>> Wally Covington:
The main duty of public land managers was to protect the forest, they thought they were protecting them from the fire. In fact, they were delaying fires.

>> Bruce Greco:
In the 50s and 60s, even into the '70s, we were very successful in most cases of suppressing fire. The vegetation in the forest just continued to grow and become established. During that period of time, here northern Arizona forests, many of these forests we could easily harvest 150 million board feet a year and still have wood fiber growing more rapidly than what was harvested. In the management of the forest we were not keeping up with the growth. Even by harvesting the timber at that time.

>> Paul Atkinson:
During the 70s and 80s, the environmental became a powerful force. Legislation was enacted that allowed the public to take on a significant role in natural resource management. And as people began to take a greater interest in environmental quality issues, activists began to challenge many of the traditional practices in the public forests.

>> Wally Covington:
A wood production industry concentrated on big old growth trees. A tremendous amount of money was made of course out of harvesting those old growth trees. By the 1960s and 70s, the old growth trees, those older yellow bark trees were becoming rarer and rarer. There was such a concern about over-cutting of forests locally as well as in Arizona, that a lot of environmental activist groups worked to try to eliminate the wood product industries, especially that section that used the large, old trees.

>> Sandy Bahr:
When the Sierra Club in particular and environmentalists really engaged in forest planning activities, looking at timber sales, really starting the beginning of the 1980s and over time, the involvement has increased, we have 5\% or less of our old growth forests left in the southwest. So if it's going to involve old growth logging, you can bet that people are going to be very interested and very concerned.

>> Bruce Greco:
When we got to the mid-80s, a lot of litigation, other reasons that the timber industry basically went away. Because we don't have the timber industry available or tools available to harvest the timber and thin these out, we have had to change the policy and the tactics, if you will, how we manage a forest and how we protect it from wildfire.

>> Paul Atkinson:
The debate continues as to whether or not commercial logging can play a role in sound forest management. In the early days of the 21st century, most agree that Arizona's pine forests will require considerable help if restored to health and catastrophic fire is to be avoided.

>> Sandy Bahr:
What I hope we'll happen is a more thin forest around communities where they have taken out the smaller trees, done some prescribed burning. Beyond that, we want a more natural system to come back.

>> Bruce Greco:
The challenge we have is to physically reduce the amount of fuel that's going to contribute to wildfire, to feeding that monster. We need to make sure that in that process the public involves all interests, all agencies together to move forward. We have to move very quickly to do that. Our landscape in Arizona is at extreme risk.

>> Wally Covington:
We basically have room along the Magellan Rim through Flagstaff for about four Rodeo-Chedeski sites. In practical human terms, it's a permanent loss. So we owe it to not just to ourselves and the rest of nature to restore forest health.

>> Michael Grant:
One of the world's most respected wildfire authorities, ASU Regents' professor and author, Stephen Pyne, is working this month in Australia. Before he left, Larry Lemmons visited with Dr. Pyne at his home in Glendale to learn more about the history of forest management.

>> Larry Lemmons:
I suppose before fire management policies there wasn't much to do about a wildfire but to get out of its way. You're saying that's not true.

>> Stephen Pyne:
People have lots of ways to live with wildfire. And it certainly could be a threat and they would often have to flee. But they could take protective measures, depending on your economy there are different things you can do. Traditionally the best protection you make is to fire proof, or partially fireproof the landscape around. The easiest way to do that is to do the burning yourself. They would have a cleared area, if in grass or flammables, they would burn it early in the season. Or heavy grazing around a farm site or whatever, to protect themselves. They would also rely very heavily on back firing, that is if a large fire was threatening them, they could go to some predetermined site and burn out from there.

>> Larry Lemmons:
At the turn of the century about 1910, was that the beginning of management?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The federal fire story actually begins in 1886, when the U.S. Cavalry took over the Yellowstone National Park. They were greeted by fires when they rode in, and they spent that summer putting out 60 fires. That was the beginning of organized fire fighting by the federal government. They saw it as a whole problem of controlling trespass and vandalism. The civilian agencies had not been empowered to do it. The cavalry literally rode in to the rescue. And they were immediately plunged into fire fighting. That established what is essentially a paramilitary model of fire fighting that we have with us today. So eventually a civilian agency took over but with much of the same elan, if you will. In 1910, however, the agency is barely out of its nest. The very charismatic founder is fired for insubordination by Taft earlier in the year and they were hit that summer with an immense number of fires. The great 1910 fires. Probably 5 million acres burned in the national forests throughout the west. The main center was in the northern Rockies, 3 million acres burned, essentially in a day, day and a half. What became known as the big blow-up. 78 firefighters were killed. Six different incidents but all in the same afternoon in August of 1910. That traumatized the agency. They went into debt to $1 million to pay for the cost for that, which established our whole system of deficit payment for fire fighting, unlimited money during the fire fighting. The next three chiefs of the forest service were all personally on the fire line in 1910. They carried that to their grave. They would never allow that to happen again. In the middle of all this, there's a public controversy boiling out of the west, particularly in California, which says the whole thing is a mistake. We should be emulating the Indians. The Indian way of forest management, which was through what they called light burning. Right in the middle of the whole fire fight there's an attack essentially on the fundamental policy. That skewed the debate, sort of a with us or against us attitude that evolved. It became politicized. The secretary of the interior was in favor of light burning so it's part of the politics between government agencies, it gets polarized, it gets politicized and the forest service commits with ever increasing rigor to a policy of full fire suppression.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Then some things don't change because that sounds like the same kind of political arguments we're hearing today.

>> It's eerie. The same arguments are still with us. A century later almost on the same terms, except that the agencies are now flipped positions. They're fully committed, they have been for several decades, to a philosophy of restoring fire. The policies have been in place; it's just proved very difficult. I think in a sense they thought initially it was just a case of reversing what had gone on, that if taking fire out was the problem, put fire back in and the problem will correct itself but a lot of things have changed.

>> Larry Lemmons:
In the 1930s, the 10 a.m. policy was implemented, can you tell us about that?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The 10 a.m. policy is really the climax to America's fire suppression program. It's a very interesting story. What had happened was that many of the areas near or even at the 1910 fires were hit again by large fires. Forest service found itself unable to cope with the fires. It convened a group of experts to debate what it should do. Very interesting discussion. They said one thing; we just give up and walk away. One guy said, the land is in worse shape now than when we took control of it. Let's leave it. Another group said we haven't been fully committed. We didn't put the full force of the government in our political will behind it. Another group said there ought to be some middle ground but everyone agreed there was no middle ground, the way they'd framed the debate. And that discussion gets compounded with other things and goes to the chief forester's desk. Now part of the backdrop here is the Civilian Conservation Corps, the new deal's commitment to conservation, they have all the resources they could want. They effectively have a civilian army in place, lots of money, lots of political support to go after fire. It lands on the desk of the chief forester, who had been the number two in the northern Rockies during the big blowup. He had written a couple of months after the 1910 fire that their lesson was that they were wholly controllable. It could have been prevented if they had had enough men, enough trails, enough telephone line. But now he's got it, he has all that stuff and in a sense he decides he is going to re-fight the 1910 fires and this time putting the full force of the government behind it. That became the 10 a.m. policy, the goal to control every fire by 10:00 the morning following its report.

>> Larry Lemmons:
So the late '60s, '70s, that old policy was out. Was that when the modern era of forest management began?

>> Stephen Pyne:
The old debate returns. And in this case it's flipped. And what flipped it? Partly economics, diminishing returns. We're beginning to see ecological consequences for removing fire or attempting to remove fire. It is not a neutral position. It does not put the landscape on hold until you decide what you want to do, that is a living landscape, it continues to change, interact, evolve in lots of ways. We found out that all those early forecasts about it being overrun by diseases and insects and becoming huge firetraps all prove true. The wilderness act passed in 1964, what are we doing sending in bulldozers and air tankers, a whole armed force to fight fires that were naturally caused in an area that's dedicated to the perpetuation of natural causes. That forces philosophical rethinking of the issue and the whole thing starts gelling. Park Services were first and then the other agencies that followed. And that's been around a long time. The park service has been longer under this policy than it was under the 10 a.m. policy.

>> Larry Lemmons:
We've been a long time under this policy, why haven't we seen better results?

>> Stephen Pyne:
That's a great question. That's the core question right now for fire agencies. The belief again was partly that we could just reverse it, that fire is a kind of ecological pixie dust, that we sprinkle it out there and it makes everything good. It doesn't. Fire acts on whatever is out there. It synthesizes its surroundings. If you've got a messed up landscape, you've got messed up fires from our perspective. We've had a number of disastrous fires. I mean, it's not free, it's not cheap. It's potentially dangerous. You've got to have good reasons for doing it.

>> Larry Lemmons:
What are our options?

>> Stephen Pyne:
I think basically there are four options. You can leave it alone, trust in nature. We've learned that if you let fires loiter on the landscape, some go looking for trouble and in the end that's very expensive and dangerous. You can try to suppress fire. We have found that doesn't work by itself. It's like a declaration of martial law, it's good for temporary insurrection, but you can't manage the landscape with that. You can try to do the burning yourself. Say it's going to happen, we'll do it. We have learned as I suggested that's trickier than we thought. There are much more complicated, particularly fire that's going to be removed, putting it back is very difficult. The fourth option is trying to change the character of the landscape so that whatever fire, wildfire, controlled fire, whatever, it has properties that support our general goals. But it's not just those forests are not just blocks of hydrocarbon, they are living systems. It's not just a case of slashing and burning your way. I think the lesson is none of these work by itself.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Thank you Dr. Pyne for speaking with us.

>> Stephen Pyne:
Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Tomorrow night, we'll take a close look at the politics behind forest management and the fighting of wildfires. Before the U.S. had entered World War II, an airstrip in the east valley became a training ground for Royal Air Force pilots. There, in the hot desert sun, the British quickly replaced the pilots killed by the Luftwaffe in the battle of Britain. The airstrip in Mesa became known as Falcon Field. Every year former cadets return to honor their fallen comrades. Producer Larry Lemmons and Videographer Scot Olson bring us tonight's Arizona Story.

>> Bill McCash:
I am privileged to be here and to address all of you attending this annual memorial service in honor and to pay homage to our 23 Royal Air Force comrades who died here. At the same time, I ask you not to forget the five Americans who served and died with them.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Every year at this cemetery in Mesa, former British pilots return to remember the men who died while training at Falcon Field during World War II. It's a unique ceremony celebrating the bond between the United States and Great Britain in war and peace.

>> Bill McCash:
We who were involved in this scheme will never frankly forget what you did for us.

>> Edward Murrow:
This is Edward Murrow speaking from London. There were more German planes over the course of Britain today than any time before the war began.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Before the United States had entered the war, the British were desperate to train new pilots. What the United States did for Britain was to participate in the entire air-training scheme.

>> Bill McCash:
We didn't have the weather, we didn't have the air bases, we didn't have the gasoline for it and the general came across just after the battle of Britain and offered places at the American schools. And the idea came up that a British school with British instructors run by American instructors with supervision. It was important that we got pilots from every source we possibly could because the death toll was pretty high in the early days as you can imagine.

>> Larry Lemmons:
One of the new schools, Falcon Field, was established in Mesa and flying operations began in 1941. Today, Falcon Field airport is home for nearly a thousand aircraft and multiple businesses. At Falcon Field Park, very little remains of the site where the RAF cadets lived and trained. A swimming pool served as an initiation ritual.

>> Bill McCash:
When you did your first solo, into the pool you went, uniform and all. Yes, indeed it was a great thing.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A hearth still stands, although the building around it does not, where cadets relaxed and talked about their daily challenges. The old hangers are still at the field, while the area around them has changed. And activity in the park today is more likely to be play rather than work. For surviving pilots, however, the place still evokes memories.

>> Ken Beeby:
We came down by train to Chicago and changed to come to Phoenix on the railroad. It was air conditioned with evaporative cooling. However, we arrived in the Mesa station in August of 1942, and when those doors opened on the train, it was like walking into a wall of fire. And there were two Mesa school buses parked outside that had been there for a couple of hours. And we all had our RAF uniform on about half an inch thick wool. By the time we got to Falcon Field, 6 miles away, we had all lost 10 pounds.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The recruits were trained primarily on the Stearman and the A-T 86. Although some of the young pilots had never driven a car, they were nevertheless expected to fly.

>> Jack May:
I was taxiing rather too fast in and I put on the brakes and up went the tail and down went the nose and it had to sit there and wait until they brought the tail back down. Having done quite a bit of damage.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Most of the aircraft maintenance was done at night and frequently by women who played a large role in Falcon Field success.

>> Tom Austin:
We were invited over to the state teachers college in Tempe for some formal dances, etc., and we met some very pleasant young ladies over there, which eventually we used to go out on a Saturday afternoon in the desert for a weenie roast. We remember once that we were out there enjoying our weenie roast when we saw in the distance, there must have been about six chaps who were at least 6'6". The girl said don't start trouble. I gather that they were part of a football team. Anyway, in actual fact, we met them and we finished off the best of friends.

>> Larry Lemmons:
A testament to his training at Falcon Field, Tom Austin eventually became a highly decorated pilot during the war. Ultimately the result of training at Falcon Field was to create not only a bond between the young pilots that has endured to this day, but also a connection between the British men and the Mesa community.

>> Tom Austin:
I can't speak highly enough how they accepted us. When we actually arrived on the first Saturday we were allowed out we had exactly 200 cars came through the main gate to request us to join them for the weekend.

>> Larry Lemmons:
That Anglo -American relationship continues to this day reflected in the annual ceremony honoring the fallen pilots. On this day in this cemetery, the pilots have in a way come home. For there will always be a small but significant piece of British history in the heart of the City of Mesa.

>> Michael Grant:
Next Monday on "Horizon" we'll have a special Memorial Day edition.

>> Paul Atkinson:
Over the years, environmentalists and politicians have blamed each other for the poor condition of our national forests. But out of the ashes of Arizona's worst forest fire, drew an effort by politicians and environmentalists alike, to focus on what's best for our forests and prevention of catastrophic fires. That's Tuesday on Horizon.

>> Michael Grant:
Thanks very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good one.


What's on?

Content Partner:

  About KAET Contact Support Legal Follow Us  
  About Eight
Mission/Impact
History
Site Map
Pressroom
Contact Us
Sign up for e-news
Pledge to Eight
Donate Monthly
Volunteer
Other ways to support
FCC Public Files
Privacy Policy
Facebook
Twitter
YouTube
Google+
Pinterest
 

Need help accessing? Contact disabilityaccess@asu.edu

Eight is a member-supported service of Arizona State University    Copyright Arizona Board of Regents