A collection of aviation and military-themed memorabilia has seemingly vanished into thin air after it was removed from an old building at Scottsdale Airport to make way for construction of a new business center.
The new business center opened in November 2018, complete with the outdoor Thunderbird Field II Veterans’ Memorial that includes a real Stearman PT-17 biplane hanging from a shade overhang and a digital display honoring Arizona’s veterans and detailing the airport’s military history.
That exhibit does not contain any of the old photos, artifacts and models that graced the old terminal, though.
That collection has gone missing.
It includes photos, information boards and other items that detailed Scottsdale Airport’s origin as a World War II-era training airfield and some of the famous aviators who lived in Arizona, including Joe Foss, Barry Goldwater and members of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, said Scottsdale historian Joan Fudala.
Fudala said the display was originally set up in the early 2000s in anticipation of the possible opening of a branch of the Pima Air & Space Museum at Scottsdale Airport.
The Thunderbird II Veterans Memorial nonprofit organization has been hard at work over the past year attempting to locate the missing items to no avail.
According to the Thunderbird II organization, the memorabilia was relocated for storage at the Little Red Schoolhouse, which houses the Scottsdale Historical Museum, Thunderbird II Vice Chairman Art Buck said.
But the items had to be moved after a flood in late 2017 – caused by a faulty water heater – damaged historical artifacts and archives in the building.
However, what items were actually stored at the museum is unclear.
According to a statement provided by Scottsdale Historical Society, the society was contacted about 10 years ago to store some large display boards from the airport. The boards were stored in the basement.
“Only the boards were brought to the Museum and other materials that had been in the wall display cases with the boards were apparently placed in a different location unknown to the Society,” according to the statement.
The statement said there was no contract of loan or donation provided with the items, which did not qualify as archival material because they had been produced about 30 years ago.
The statement said the boards likely would have been used as references to create a display on the airport’s history.
“The Society has a substantial collection of photographs, including some that were included on the boards as well as others that had not been displayed. The Society has few, if any, artifacts about the early period of the airport.”
These conflicting stories highlight the trouble interested parties have had in determining the whereabouts of the items.
“Everything, I’m told, went to the Little Red Schoolhouse,” Thunderbird II Chairman Steve Ziomek said. “And then when the floods came, it was all moved out everywhere; I think it was piecemealed out to many of the fire stations.”
Buck followed that lead and attempted to track the materials down at an old Scottsdale Fire Department storage facility near the Airport.
“I went through there with a couple of their guys and we didn’t find anything that looks even remotely like what we think we’re looking for,” Buck said.
Buck also spoke with a captain from the Fire Station #9, which is located off the runway of the airport, who thought the items had been stored there in the past but had since been moved.
That’s where the trail ran cold, Buck said.
The mystery is complicated by the fact that the organization is not even sure exactly what is missing.
“We don’t really know what we don’t have; We just know that there was a lot of materials, displays and exhibits, photographs and things on the wall and in some cases in the old terminal building, and they were relocated,” Buck said, adding:
“They’ve been moved around. Everybody at the city and the airport and the fire department has said ‘I heard about those or I saw them, they were here, but then they were moved.’”
Ziomek said that Fudala was able to provide some old photographs of the displays to his organization that shows many of the materials that are missing.
Councilman Guy Phillips, who sits on the Thunderbird II Board of Directors, has been trying to help the organization track down the items, but he said answers were hard to come by.
Another complicating factor is that it is unclear who owns or is responsible for the objects that were on display in the old terminal building.
Phillips questioned whether they were under the purview of Scottsdale Arts, an outside organization contracted by the city to manage the city’s collection of public art.
Scottsdale Tourism and Events Director Karen Churchard confirmed that Scottsdale Arts was not in charge of the memorabilia in question.
Churchard said “I researched it and actually it was not a piece of public art.”
Buck said that he believes the items were under the ownership of Scottsdale Airport.
However, a spokesperson for Scottsdale Airport did not have much more information to offer.
The spokesperson said that “all airport staff knows is that about two years ago the art folks were contacted, who we believe handed the items over to the Historical Society when the old terminal building was being demolished. We don’t have any more information about the display pieces and the department has not seen them since.”
Fudala speculated that some of the artifacts that had been on display may have been returned to their original owners who had donated them for display. However, she was not involved in creating the displays and said that is only a guess.
The Thunderbird II organization will continue to attempt to solve it.
“I’ve always felt like the detective who gets there right after somebody left,” Buck said.