Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mesa evicts World War II aviation non-profit from Falcon Field Airport (KFFZ) hangar



On any given day, three to six historic planes sit in an old-time airplane hangar at Mesa's Falcon Field. A Union Jack and a 48-star American flag hang from the ceiling, and black-and-white photographs of young military men and their aircraft adorn the aging walls.

The planes are the same type that the British Royal Air Force cadets used to train for battle in the 1940s. The hangar is the same one used by thousands of those cadets who trained in Mesa during World War II.

The Royal Air Force's presence at Falcon Field is a unique, but often forgotten, sliver of Mesa history. That's why a group of pilots and history aficionados started the Wings of Flight Foundation in 2007. There are multiple non-profits and museums at Falcon Field, but theirs is the only one focused specifically on the history of the British training program.

The non-profit has operated out of half of a city-owned hangar there for about four years, but on March 20, members received an eviction notice. The group had one month to pack up and vacate the property.

"We were kind of blindsided," said Wings of Flight Foundation member Dennis Glauner.

Mesa signed a lease with a local aircraft repair company in early March to take over the entire 20,000-square-foot hangar. Precision Heli-Support is slated to move in to the building in June.

City officials say the new tenant is good for Mesa's economy as it will grow local jobs and spur additional development.

But to the Wings of Flight Foundation, Mesa's decision is an unfair trampling of their rights — and WWII history.

The Wings of Flight Foundation has signed month-to-month leases with the city since it moved into the hangar in June 2013. But since that time, the foundation has asked the city for a long-term lease of their half of the hangar — or the entire thing — to no avail, according to Dan Condon, one of the non-profit's directors.

About a year ago, the city issued an advertisement for the half of the World War II hangar not occupied by the foundation. Four entities, including the Wings of Flight Foundation, submitted applications for the space, according to the city.

The Wings of Flight Foundation told the city it wanted the extra space to start a vintage aircraft restoration business. Condon said they already had a slew of customers interested in the service, but without permanent space, they couldn't accept the work.

Mesa spokesman Steve Wright said Precision Heli-Support's application fell more in line with the city's vision for Falcon Field, which is to expend economic development and job opportunities. The company currently operates out of a business park a few miles from the airport.

Sam Boyle, managing member of Precision Heli-Support, said he was looking to move his company to an airport for convenience, but he needed more room than the half-hangar advertised by the city. The company currently employs about 13 people, but hopes to grow that number in the new space.

He said he asked city staff if he could lease the entire hangar, and they obliged.

Condon said it was inappropriate for the city to offer up the entire hangar when it only advertised half. The foundation members knew they may not be successful in securing the entire building, but they were shocked to learn that they wouldn't have a home at all, he said.

Additionally, Condon accused the city of unfair treatment. There is a second World War II-era hangar at Falcon Field leased to another aviation history group, the Falcon Warbirds. That group does not have an economic development purpose, yet the city offered it a long-term lease, Condon said.

Wright said that on top of job opportunity, the city also chose Precision Heli-Support for its willingness to invest money into restoring the hangar. While the Wings of Flight Foundation also said it would invest in improvements to the hangar, it was less specific in how it planned to do so, he said.

Boyle said his company plans to spend around $400,000 redoing the walls and doors in the hangar, installing LED lighting and demolishing the existing office and restroom space to build new office areas.

"We're making a long-term commitment," he said.

The backlash over Precision Heli-Support's move to Falcon Field was unexpected, Boyle said, but his company looks forward to their new chapter at the airport.

"It's not like we're not sympathetic. On the other hand, what do you do when you have signed a lease and you already are spending lots of money to execute that?" Boyle said.



A 'non-profit act of love'

About 75 people donning red T-shirts crammed into the Mesa City Council Chambers on  Monday to convey their dismay over the city's decision to replace the Wings of Flight Foundation with a business that may not have as much appreciation for the hangar, which was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the midst of an increasingly deadly World War II, Britain found itself in need of additional pilots — but had nowhere to train them in Europe. Under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress allowed British pilots to train on six new air bases in the U.S., including what is now called Falcon Field.

Thousands of cadets lived and trained in Mesa from 1941 to 1945 in two large hangars. The dormitories are now gone, but a fireplace from the cadet lounge still remains as a tribute at the airport.

After the war, the federal government deeded the property to Mesa to use as a municipal airport. Today, it serves as a general aviation reliever airport.

In addition to the Wings of Flight Foundation, Falcon Field is home to other aviation history groups including Falcon Warbirds and the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum.

Three Wings of Flight Foundation supporters spoke to the council, reminding them of Falcon Field's history, and the foundation's work to preserve that history while helping the Mesa community through toy drives, veterans programs and other services.

Pilot Billy Walker spoke fondly of the foundation, noting its annual tribute to the 23 British cadets who died while training at Falcon Field. Each year the foundation does a fly-over at the Mesa cemetery during a ceremony honoring the cadets.

"Why evict them? It makes no sense," asked Walker. "There's is a non-profit act of love."

Kurt Tingey told the council he became involved with the Wings of Flight Foundation through Boy Scouts. He's taken several troops out to Falcon Field to learn about the planes and their history, he said.

"It's more than just a hangar. This is a World War II hangar. This kind of plays into the whole benefit of this," he said.

Vice Mayor David Luna, who represents the area, said he can understand why the foundation wants to remain in that specific hangar, "because of the historic nature." But, "the city is looking at it as a space for economic development," he said.

Boyle said that although he will use the hangar for business purposes, he's also a history buff, and he plans to preserve the history of the hangar by making renovations.

"I saw the potential of doing something for the building and something for us," he said.

An online petition in support of the Wings of Flight Foundation has more than 750 signatures. But Luna said the foundation's exit from the hangar is pretty much a done deal.




'We have no place to go'

Condon said the city asked his group to vacate the hangar by April 22. But they've asked for more time.

There's no way they can get all of their things out of the hangar so quickly, he said, and more importantly, "We have no place to go."

Wright said the city is working with the non-profit to find them another space at Falcon Field.

"The city values all of the tenants out there, whether it's aviation enthusiasts, pilots with private planes, or old warbirds, we want to work with them to keep them out there," Wright said.

But Condon said all that's been offered to the group so far are hangars that are too small to fit all of their planes. He said his team's still hopeful they can convince the city to reconsider its eviction decision.

Kris Van den Bergh, one of the foundation's directors, asked the council to see Wings of Flight as the community asset that it is.

"I think in life there's opportunities to keep history. Sometimes, very few people have the opportunity to make history. I think here — you, us — we have the opportunity to actually make history by keeping history," Van den Bergh said.

Story and video:  http://www.azcentral.com

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