Arizona has a rich history with Aviation. From Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earheart to being home to hundreds of military airfields during World War II. This month’s focus airport served the latter. Many Phoenix-area pilots have heard of Gila Bend. Nearly all valley students have landed there. What isn’t so well known is that the Gila Bend area was instrumental in training pilots during World War II and was home to several airfields supporting the effort.
Gila Bend’s history dates back to before the war. Even before the railroad in the 1870’s. It dates back to early explorers and settlers looking for a place to rest their weary bodies. The area is steeped in history. Father Kino, Juan Batista de Anza and Kit Carson are just a few of the early figures who laid their heads down in Gila Bend. The lore of the Old West still lies in Gila Bend, complete with a railroad story and Apache Raids. These are the kinds of things movies are made about! Even the late Burt Reynolds was filmed in Gila Bend, though it actually had nothing to do with a Spaghetti Western.
Shifting attention back to aviation, World War II created a massive demand for trained pilots. Arizona’s perpetually wonderful weather and desolate landscape allowed for nearly unlimited options for the military. All over the state, airfields popped up and were used to teach navigation, basic piloting and gunnery. While many of the Army Air Force fields were poorly documented for public consumption, there were no less than seven fields in the Gila Bend area. Most were multi-runway facilities optimized for the tailwheel aircraft of the time. Today, most of these airfields are mere aberrations on the landscape; barely visible. Some have succumbed to development and some have simply become overgrown.
The current Gila Bend Municipal Airport does not appear to be connected to any of the many wartime fields. AirNav indicates the airport was opened in 1966. The single asphalt runway is in good condition and is used by a variety of GA and military aircraft regularly. Runway 4/22 is 5200’ x 75’. While no instrument procedures are in place for this airport, a VORTAC is located on the field. The field is lighted and has a PAPI. Like many Arizona runways, E63 has shrubs and brush surrounding the runway, so deviations from the asphalt may be costly. Though FAA records show that E63 has only four based aircraft, the airport’s importance to training valley-area pilots is evidenced by the massive 36,000 annual operations! Though rather remote and having a sleepy appearance, remaining vigilant on UNICOM 122.8 while in the vicinity is a must.
Something else to remain cautious of is the nearby Gila Bend Air Force Aux Field, KGXF. This field and associated Class D airspace lies almost exactly five miles South. Plan to contact the tower on 127.75 and request an airspace transition prior to arrival. The many farms in the area also host low-level crop-dusting flights and vigilance is necessary to see and avoid these aircraft. Once safely on the ground and tied down on the transient ramp, call for an Uber, a Lyft or a taxi for a ride into town. City center is located approximately 3 miles Southwest of the airport if a stretch of the legs is called for.
Once in town, there are several noteworthy things to do. Gila Bend is home to approximately 1900 residents. According to the quirky welcome sign, there are also “5 old crabs” to watch out for. The Best Western Space Age Lodge is a favorite among travelers. Clean and modern rooms, as well as the Outer Limits restaurant await a weary pilot. Mexican and American fare is available at reasonable prices.
Another remarkable spot to visit is the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. Admittedly, this isn’t within the town limits being approximately 12 miles West of town, but it can be accessed by Uber or Lyft and has some remarkably well-preserved petroglyphs carved into the large boulders. There is a $2 day use fee for the site.
Gila Bend has a visitor center and museum in the middle of town. The museum is home to over 2000 artifacts reaching back into the original Papago people (known today as the Tohono O'odham). There is also a somber reminder of the 9/11 attack with a memorial and remnant of the World Trade Center towers on display. In February, the Butterfield Stage Days and Rodeo sets the town into celebration mode with parties, games and fun for the whole family.
After experiencing what Gila Bend has to offer, head back to the airport. 100LL is available self-serve for $3.95 at the time of this writing. Listen for traffic in the pattern, head home and update your logbook with this unique Arizona airport.