New Mexico’s wide-open spaces proved perfect for pilot training — and the U.S. military took full advantage of that, with its bases here playing key roles in the state’s economic development as well as national defense.
Kirtland Air Force Base
What started out as two runways bulldozed through the brush of Albuquerque’s east mesa in 1928 has evolved into today’s Kirtland Air Force Base, a 51,558-acre facility employing about 23,000 people.
Though first used to train World War II air crews, especially bombardiers for B-17, B-24 and B-29 heavy bombers, it has become the home of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear weapons research, military satellite development and dozens of other futuristic technologies.
In the early years, there were three adjacent bases — Kirtland, Sandia and Manzano.
When Los Alamos Laboratory, which developed and built the atomic bombs that helped end the war, found itself in need of space and test ranges, Sandia Base in Albuquerque became the solution.
Adjacent Manzano Base conducted atomic weapons research, development and testing. Both bases expanded throughout the late 1940s and ’50s, and were merged into Kirtland Air Force Base in 1971.
In December 1949, Kirtland Air Force Base was named headquarters for the newly created Special Weapons Command, with responsibility for nuclear weapons testing. Further reorganization in 1952 made Kirtland the Special Weapons Center under the Research and Development Command.
To centralize control of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons management, the Nuclear Weapons Center was created at Kirtland on March 31, 2006. The 498th Armament Systems Wing also was created as the center’s maintenance development arm.
Kirtland’s future came into question in 1995 when then-Defense Secretary William Perry — searching for ways to curb the U.S. military’s burgeoning budget — recommended to the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission that Kirtland be “realigned,” a move that would have cost the base 6,850 military jobs.
Armed with a favorable Government Accounting Office report that showed the realignment wouldn’t save the Pentagon any money, Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Steve Schiff, R-N.M., persuaded the BRAC to spare Kirtland.
A task force of military retirees and local businessmen, formed in 1995 to defend Kirtland, has evolved into today’s Kirtland Partnership Committee, which continues to tout the importance of Kirtland and its tenants to the nation’s defense and the city’s economic well-being.
Today, Kirtland is the sixth-largest Air Force installation in the world.
The base is home to more than 75 federal government and 384 private-sector associate units, including the 150th Wing of the New Mexico Air National Guard, the 58th Special Operations Wing, the Space and Development Test Wing, the Air Force Inspection Agency, two directorates of the Air Force Research Laboratories, the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center and the Air Force Safety Center.
It is also the home of Sandia National Laboratories, which employs about 8,500 workers.
In a major 2008 shakeup of its plans regarding fifth-generation fighters, the Pentagon decided to accelerate the retirement of 249 fourth-generation fighters and all 21 of the New Mexico Air National Guard’s former 150th Fighter Wing’s F-16s were redistributed to other Air National Guard units, leaving the wing looking for a new mission.
In September 2009, National Guard officials announced that the 150th would merge with the Air Force’s 58th Special Operations Wing, which, like the 150th, is based at Kirtland.
The 58th, which flies transport planes and helicopters, trains about 2,200 military personnel a year in special operations and combat search-andrescue missions.
The merger is under way.
Cannon Air Force Base
Cannon Air Force Base had its start in the mid-1920s as Portair Field, an airstrip established for early commercial flights.
In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, the Army Air Corps took over the airfield and renamed it Clovis Army Air Base. The first military unit to use the facility was an Army glider detachment, but the base soon shifted to training pilots and crews for B-24, B-17 and B-29 heavy bombers — a mission that lasted through the end of World War II. The installation was deactivated in May 1947, but reactivated four years later as Clovis Air Force Base during the Korean War. When fighter jets were introduced, the base became a major training installation for F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre pilots.
On June 8, 1957, the base was renamed Cannon Air Force Base in honor of the late Gen. John K. Cannon, a former commander of the Tactical Air Command.
In 1958, the Cannonbased 27th Tactical Fighter Wing was deployed throughout Southeast Asia and flew thousands of missions in Vietnam.
Though Cannon was recommended for closure in 2005, it received a reprieve and became home to the 16th Special Operations Wing, since renamed the 27th Special Operations Wing.
The 27th flies various versions of the massive C-130 tanker/airlift aircraft, MH-53 Pave Low rescue and transport helicopter and the new CV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft designed to have the vertical takeoff capabilities of a helicopter and the fast cruising capabilities of a turboprop airplane.
Holloman Air Force Base
Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Alamogordo was a quiet town of about 4,000 residents with an economy based on ranching, timber and the railroad.
Within a year of Japan’s devastating strike in Hawaii, B-17 bombers were roaring over the Tularosa Basin and an Army Air Forces training base had emerged from the high desert west of town. It was the first incarnation of what would become Holloman Air Force Base.
Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range soon became Alamogordo Army Air Field and encompassed land later set aside as part of White Sands Missile Range — a huge swath 65 miles north to south and 30 miles east to west.
During World War II, roughly 20 bomber groups, flying B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators and B-29 Super Fortresses, rotated through the airfield before deploying to the European or Pacific theaters.
Though kept a tightly guarded secret at the time, the atomic age was born July 16, 1945, at the northern edge of the range when the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site. World War II was brought to an end weeks later on Aug. 15 after U.S. aircraft dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At war’s end, the base was tasked with a new mission — supporting V-2 rocket tests at its recently formed neighbor, White Sands Proving Ground.
In 1948, the base was renamed Holloman Air Force Base, in honor of Col. George Holloman, a pioneer in guided missile development.
Missile testing became the base’s forte for more than two decades; then, in 1968, the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing and its F-4s arrived to assume host duties. The unit transitioned to the F-15 Eagle in the 1970s.
In 1992, Holloman became home to the F-117A Nighthawk, a formerly secret weapon that was the world’s first aircraft to employ stealth technology.
The stealth fighters made a name for themselves during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as the only U.S. or coalition aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad.
When the Air Force retired the angular black stealths in 2008, Holloman received two squadrons of the latest advanced fighter jet — the F-22A Raptor. But two years later, in July 2010, the Air Force announced that Holloman’s two squadrons of F-22s would be replaced by four squadrons of older F-16 Fighting Falcons. Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida is slated to receive one squadron of F-22, and Holloman’s remaining F-22s are being distributed to other active F-22 bases.
White Sands Missile Range
Established July 9, 1945, the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range became America’s largest military overland test range, with an early mission of developing the new rocket and missile technologies emerging from WWII, especially the German V-2.
The missile range now tests products for the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, other government agencies, U.S. allies and private industry.
Trinity Site, where the world’s first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, is near the range’s northern boundary.
For decades, White Sands was the premier testing site for an array of munitions, ranging from small missiles to smart bombs.
White Sands also maintained an alternate Space Shuttle landing site, which was used only once: The Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, landed at White Sands on March 30, 1982.
Walker Air Force Base
Though Roswell once housed the sprawling Walker Air Force Base, the city became best known for its role in the “Roswell UFO Incident.”
The U.S. Army Air Forces established the Roswell Army Air Field in 1941 as a flight training and bombardier school. It also housed a prisoner of war camp during World War II, and prison labor built many of its host city’s parks.
In summer 1947 — as control of the Roswell installation was preparing to shift from the U.S. Army Air Forces to the U.S. Air Force that would be formed in September — military officials there found themselves at the center of the Roswell UFO controversy.
There were reports that an alien spacecraft — and its diminutive occupants — crashed on a ranch northwest of the city.
On July 8, 1947, base officials issued a news release stating that personnel from the 509th Bombardment Group had recovered a crashed “flying disc.” Hours later, higher-up Army officials said they had recovered a weather balloon — not a flying saucer.
Allegations of a cover-up persist to this day, and the controversy has spawned a UFO museum and annual UFO festival in Roswell.
During its 20 years as an Air Force base, Walker hosted fighter and bomber wings, and became the largest Strategic Air Command base in the United States.
When the base was closed in 1967, Roswell — then with a population of about 35,000 — lost an estimated 5,000 military personnel and another 5,000 support personnel almost overnight.
Though the loss temporarily devastated Roswell’s economy, local leaders found other uses for the base, and several companies now operate there.
It took Roswell more than a decade to return to its mid-1960s population. New Mexico’s military bases by the numbers
Kirtland Air Force Base
Host Unit: 377th Air Base Wing
Mission: To support nuclear operations, organize, train and equip expeditionary forces, and provide installation operation and support to more than 100 mission partners and the base community.
Area: 51,558 acres
Personnel: 4,520 military; 16,457 civilian/contractor
Estimated annual economic impact: $7.8 billion
Cannon Air Force Base
Host Unit: 27th Special Operations Wing
Mission: To provide insertion, extraction and resupply of special operations forces; air refueling of special operations rotary wing and tilt-rotor aircraft; and precision fire support.
Area: 4,500 acres
Personnel: 3,585 military; 1,253 civilian/contractor
Estimated annual economic impact: $478.4 million
Holloman Air Force Base
Host Unit: 49th Wing
Mission: To provide combat-ready F-22 Raptors and train MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle pilots and sensor operators. However, the base is in the process of transferring its F-22s to other bases and replacing them with two F-16 Fighting Falcon squadrons. The wing also delivers Air Transportable Clinics and Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resources, and hosts the German Air Force Flying Training Center.
Area: 59,743 acres
Personnel: 4,241 military; 1,613 civilian/contractor
Estimated annual economic impact: $201.6 million
White Sands Missile Range (Army)
Host Unit: U.S. Army Developmental Test Command
Mission: To provide Army, Navy, Air Force, DoD and other customers with high-quality services for experimentation, test, research, assessment, development and training in support of the nation at war.
Area: 2.2 million acres
Personnel: 850 military; 3,210 civilian/contractor
Estimated annual economic impact: $650 million