Tucson became my home from 1999 to 2008, but I had been a resident in the Old Pueblo when I was just a babe. Dad (Major E. B. Feathers at the time) was stationed at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. I was 2 years old when we moved there. I remember photos of my mother, sister and me in sundresses and sandals in front of a house with a large shaded porch, cacti and sand.
Little did I know that I would one day return to Tucson as an adult. When I was just getting started in life, I had an early encounter with the desert by falling into an Opuntia (prickly pear). Mom recalled she was pulling needles out of my arms and legs for a month.
In 1925, Tucson’s City Council purchased 1,280 acres of land southeast of town to relocate the city’s municipal airport. Unknown at that time this new site would become the nucleus of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Six years earlier Tucson had the proud distinction of opening the first municipal-owned airport in the nation. Located four miles south of the city on Nogales Highway, the present day location of the Rodeo Grounds, the 82.64 acres was designated Tucson Municipal Flying Field after several name changes. Following years of stalled negotiations with the War Department, city planners elected to purchase the larger site and transfer airport operations in hopes that the military would reconsider establishing an aviation branch in Tucson.
Construction at the new site was completed in late 1927, and on September 23 of the same year, Charles Lindbergh, who months earlier crossed the Atlantic in the “Spirit of St. Louis”, formally dedicated the site in honor of Lieutenants Samuel H. Davis and Oscar Monthan, two Tucson aviators whom died in separate plane crashes after World War I. The city shared another proud moment with the opening; Davis-Monthan Field immediately became the largest municipal-owned airport in the nation.
Military presence at the new Davis-Monthan Field began October 6, 1927 when Staff Sergeant Dewey Simpson transferred the military aircraft refueling and service operations from the old municipal airport. He also brought something very unique with him, a log book that was signed by the field’s patrons. Early aviation greats such as Foulois, Arnold, Spaatz, Vandenberg, Earhart, and Doolittle took the liberty of signing the registry as a record of service. (Currently the Registry is on display at DM’s Base Operations). With only two military personnel assigned to the field, negotiations between the War Department and Tucson would remain at a stand-still until 1940.
My Dad was stationed at Davis Monthan AFB in 1947. He had just rejoined the USAF after it formed from the Army Air Corps after WWII ended. Dad flew B-29s in the Air Force. Davis Monthan AFB began its revival after the war as a location for the successful Super Fortress (B-29 Bomber). The very dry air provided an ideal location to store the Superfortress, and other air craft accumulated during the 2nd World War in the desert.
In another amazing connection with Tucson, the daughter of Dad’s co-pilot was instrumental in locating the Z-49–the B-29 my father and her father had flown 35 missions over Tokyo from their base in Saipan. It was found in an aircraft graveyard in the desert. The Z-49 was restored and is now on exhibition at March AFB in California:
The B-29 was dubbed the Three Feathers, originally complete with three nudes on clouds following the pilots’ tradition of painting sexy women on the nose of their aircraft. The Three Feathers had a prestigious life. Read its history here.
Dad talked about flying in the desert. The pilots rose very early to beat the heat, and then cruised above the desert with a view that stretched for hundreds of miles. He recalled the heat and the electricity on the metal and how it gave them all a huge bolt of energy whenever they touched metal on a very hot, crackling dry day.
We soon left for Los Angeles where Dad studied meteorology, a fateful study which later sent him to Fletcher’s Ice Island T-3, a floating iceberg in the Baltic Sea. He was part of a global study, for his team it specifically encompassed ice flows in the arctic. I was 14 when Dad was featured in Time Magazine after being attacked by a polar bear on T-3. Now in 2016, my first book (Threshold) includes a polar bear–in Carla Conners’ nightmare. I think all this qualifies as the circularity of a life’s path.