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Who Needs This Sign?

This may look like a helpful sign for motorists coming from the east, but it isn't visible from any major highway. You can see it as you head up the hill from Mesa, Arizona, to Usery Mountain Park.

Here's the story behind the sign, according to Phoenix local Bob Schaller:

Back in the 1950s, a pilot named Charles Merritt was looking for a community service project for his Air Explorers Boy Scout Post. Charlie was quite a character, and I was fortunate to meet him at a local airport one day as he was fueling "Old Betsy," his well-worn Cessna 205 in between jump runs for the skydiving club. Yes, that's right—the Sky-Hi Pioneers Air Explorer Post and Sky Diving Club. I was about 15 at the time.

Charlie had been around. He was a barnstormer back in the 1930s, and I suspect he was one of the first "sport" parachutists in the country. He used to jump out of the plane in front of a grandstand full of people, land in front of the crowd, and have some kid come down out of the stands and stuff the parachute back in its pack. Literally. And then he'd go back up and jump with it again. This man died of old age, but I don't know how he ever made it that far!

As a young pilot at old Roosevelt Field in New York, Charlie told me he had known other pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Wiley Post.
All of this just doesn't fit, if you ever had seen Charlie or a photo of him. He was no "swashbuckler"—not in appearance, anyway. I'll bet he wasn't over 5'4", and he was nearly that same measurement in diameter. But he was Errol Flynn at heart!

Well, he liked kids, and so he became a scout master as he grew older. The Boy Scouts of America was none too keen on having Scouts jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. So when they were on the ground, they were Scouts. The minute they took off in the airplane to climb up a few thousand feet for a parachute jump, the Boy Scouts disavowed all connections with them (until they landed safely back on the ground).

Back to the PHOENIX sign. Charlie decided that transient pilots needed a "navigational aid" to help them find Phoenix. So the Sky-Hi Pioneers humped the rocks into place to form the sign on the side of a mountain 40 miles east of the city. They whitewashed it and maintained it for quite a few years, I believe. I don't know who does it now. In these days of VOR/DME radio navigation, and now GPS, such a marker is of little value perhaps. But I smile every time I see it, because it reminds me of Charlie Merritt, who, though long dead now, is still one of the most interesting people I've ever met.

The most interesting thing about Charles Merritt? Keep in mind all the things he'd done: flying old airplanes, jumping out of them with kid-packed parachutes... He wouldn't drive a car! He said driving with all the crazies out there wasn't safe. He lived in Phoenix, worked in Tucson, and flew "Old Betsy" back and forth every day. For ground transport, he relied on his wife and daughter if he couldn't get there by plane. Go figure.
Bob Schaller
Phoenix, Arizona
October 18, 2003

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