Vintage biplane returns to Scottsdale Airport as part of veterans memorial

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When the Stearman PT-17 returned to the runway for a new veteran memorial in Scottsdale, Arizona’s Family was along for the incredible ride.

This particular vintage biplane rolled out on Sept. 11, 1941, and is decked out in its traditional blue and yellow colors. The Stearman was a familiar sight at Scottsdale Airport, taking off from the tarmac back in the ‘40s.

[RELATED: Scottsdale Airport honors WWII vets]

As the flight took us up over the Valley, our wingmen in the Penguin Air and Plumbing News were alongside for flying history lesson. They recorded a rare interview between Arizona’s Family and the Stearman pilot, Steve Ziomek, at 500 feet.

"It's the same plane we used to train pilots at the Scottsdale Airport, which was built in 1942 for the sole purpose of training Army Air Corps pilots," Ziomek explained from the back seat of the noisy cockpit.

Ziomek is chairman of the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial board, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. 

Back then, the Scottsdale Airport was known as Thunderbird Field II, and it was bankrolled by Hollywood money.

It was one of the busiest training centers in the world, taking 5,500 pilots under its wing. Ziomek says about 10 percent of them were women.

"The females were the transport pilots and the males were the fighter pilots," he said.

The sturdy World War II trainer flew low and slow over the Valley. Its average speed is 85 mph.

The ride took us over Fountain Hills, through the Rio Verde and then up and over Bartlett Lake, the sun shining through the clouds onto the shimmering water below.

Ziomek, a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot, loves the feeling of flying the Stearman.

"It's very peaceful, like being Peter Pan," he describes.

[FROM THE ARCHIVES: 96-year-old World War II vet flies vintage biplane (April 9, 2015)]

Scottsdale is the only major city in Arizona without a true veterans memorial, Ziomek said. Rides to the public on the old-time beauty will help pay for one. "This airplane will be the centerpiece of that new veterans memorial," he explained.

Those 45-minute rides will be available for a $400 donation.

After the war, the airport was decommissioned. It then served the aviation program for Arizona's Teachers College. Later, the Seventh-day Adventist world church bought the field to teach their missionary pilots to fly.

The City of Scottsdale bought the historic airport in 1966.

Now the Stearman has come home, landing back where it first took off -- on the Scottsdale runways.

"So, it's our intent of having the Thunderbird II veterans memorial to commemorate the rich history of this field, and to honor all veterans," Ziomek said.

Next month (which starts next week), there is a fundraiser scheduled to celebrate the airport's history. "Swingtime: A 1940s Hangar Party" will commemorate veterans past and present. That event -- which will feature a silent auction, chow line-style dinner, a 22-piece big band and dancing -- is set for Nov. 10, 2017, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.


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