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Posts Tagged ‘Falcon Field’

We have come to Falcon Field, in Mesa, 20 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, in search of my father, Anthony Gerald Ellis.

Dad trained to be a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF) here in 1944 under a scheme started in 1941 to help shore-up the war effort in Europe.

Many young British pilots had perished in The Battle of Britain in 1940.

Falcon Field was one of several airfields in the USA where members of the RAF—in my father’s case, a flight technician–could train in safety, get their wings and return to the war in Europe.

Dad is standing on the far left under the numeral 2 on the fuselage.

The story of Dad’s American odyssey had long been a part of our family mythology.

His almost permanent tan marked him out as someone who had spent many months in the notorious heat of southwestern United States.

I remember looking in awe at the colour photos in the magazine, Arizona Highways, that would arrive monthly all through the fifties.

Tony, as he was called, was “adopted”—as were all the young fliers—by a family in Phoenix for the duration of his stay.

In his case it was the Smith family whose mission was to make him feel at home at weekends and American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas–far from his wife (my mother) and me (a two-year-old) back home in war-weary Britain.

(We would love to locate that family–but their name was Smith! They had a daughter named Polly who might be alive still and remember Tony Ellis.)

Meredith and I and our friend Katie Solon arrive at the museum at 9am and the two volunteer receptionists greet us warmly.

When they hear WHY we have come—to find evidence of my father’s time at Falcon Field–they are immediately interested.

“We need to find Dennis Lemon” they agree, “He’s your man—Dennis knows everything there is to know about Falcon Field and its past.”

A promising start, I am thinking, with a rising feeling of hope and expectancy.

For the next two hours that feeling does not evaporate in the intense heat—already 100 degrees! Rather it grows in strength, thanks to the skills of Mr. Dennis Lemon.

Dennis is a senior docent or tour guide at the air museum–and imparts his encyclopedic knowledge of the airfield and its exhibits with charm, humor and authority–and a light touch. He does not rush.

I explain our mission and he is fully engaged–and promises a visit to the archives before the morning ends.

As we start our tour in the first of the two huge hangars that house the museum, a small plane—an F4F Wildcat–taxis out, its propellers spluttering into life with deafening effect.

Dennis explains that it is owned by the pilot who regularly takes it out occasionally for a “run” .

The noise intensifies as the pilot gives us a wave and goes on his way towards the runway.

We spend the morning here in Mesa fascinated by the range of aviation history on show.

There are flying machines from the First World War so flimsy looking that the thought of taking off in one–let alone sparring with the enemy from the cockpit–gives me the shivers.

At the other end of aviation history there is the sinister presence of a Soviet MIG fighter flown here by a Hungarian pilot and gifted to the museum.

In between, airplanes large and small and middling–lovingly cared for–and in some cases prepared for take-off–by a small army of veterans and enthusiasts dedicated to maintaining and growing this remarkable museum as a living and working reminder of the story of war in the air.

Dennis takes us inside the fuselage of a World War 2 Bomber.

With our friend Katie inside the bomber

It is cramped, claustrophobic and unbearably HOT.

The difficult conditions experienced by bomber crews flying into a combat zones suddenly become vividly clear.

We feel humbled–and relieved to get our feet back on the ground.

Poignantly for me, Dennis points out three small aircraft similar to the ones in which my father would have done his training.

One I recognize from a war photo on a wall at home.

A second was involved in a story he used to tell his impressionable sons about his time at Falcon Field.

One morning he took off with others on a training flight going north in the direction of the Grand Canyon.

At a certain point the pilots were instructed to turn RIGHT (east)–and return to Falcon Field.

Dad’s mantra for life was Don’t rock the boat!-but he always maintained that he ignored the order, turned LEFT and flew over the Grand Canyon!

Dennis has an amused look when I relate the story–but confirms that this is plausible.

Dad could well have done it!

HOORAY!

Consequences? He never admitted what happened AFTER he returned to the airfield….

Perhaps the Powers-that-Be let him off with a reprimand—recognising that a sense of initiative in a young pilot should be encouraged in times of war. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.

At the end of our tour, Dennis shows us the small plane in which a newly-qualified pilot would have celebrated earning his wings.

Not Dad–but looks a lot like him.

I am moved– imagining my father’s sense of pride and achievement as he flew off with his wings on his lapel.

And I feel regret–that I hadn’t questioned him more closely about one of the great adventures of his life.

Now for the archives,” says Dennis and leads us into a nondescript room at the back of the second hangar.

He disappears behind a line of filing cabinets and after a couple of minutes emerges with a pile of cardboard boxes filled with leather-bound notebooks.

We spend the next few minutes examining the files–turning over the pages filled with beautifully-calligraphed names dating back to 1941.

Will we find Dad’?

In the last book– on almost the last page–at the very bottom of the list: THERE HE IS!

A thrilling moment! ELLIS, Anthony G.

He got his wings on April 1st, 1945, age 29 –relatively old for a pilot.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945–which is why he survived when many of the pilots who trained here had KIA after their names: Killed In Action.

Dad had spent 33 weeks at Falcon Field–and developed an enduring attachment to the United States.

I only spent two hours, but it was a joy and a privilege, thanks to Dennis Lemon and the volunteers who keep this museum alive.

The museum is special—full of these gleaming beasts of war, glowing with restored life and looked after lovingly by an army of volunteers.

It was a chastening experience too, spending time close up and personal with them–for this lucky boy born into a war, followed–thanks to the deeds of our fathers and grandfathers–by a long period of relative peace in Europe.

I would recommend a visit–even if you are not on a mission to find your Dad!

P.S. Two days later Meredith and I took off in a small fixed-wing plane–similar to Dad’s–and flew through the Grand Canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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