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Kirtland Air Force Base Guide

Base History

Kirtland Air Force Base’s beginnings stem from three private airfields of 1928-1939 and are similar to that of other installations choosing to adapt existing runways and hangars for military use. In 1928, Frank G. Speakman and William L. Franklin, two Santa Fe railroad employees, had inaugurated a private venture for an airport. Working with the town of Albuquerque, they graded two runways on East Mesa with one approximately 5,300 feet long and the other just under 4,000 feet. Albuquerque Airport was wholly a private venture, irrespective of the town’s involvement. Immediately following construction of the airport, other individuals and promoters became interested in Albuquerque as a crossroads location for southwestern air traffic. James G. Oxnard, a New York entrepreneur, bought Franklin’s interest in Albuquerque Airport, expanding the facility toward the end of 1928.
As the decade closed, two airlines initiated competitive passenger, mail and cargo service between the Midwest and California, positioning Albuquerque as an important transcontinental airfield. Shortly after beginning activities, one of the companies, Western Air Express, decided to build its own airport on the West Mesa. This airport became known as Albuquerque Airport—while the former Albuquerque Airport on the East Mesa took on the name Oxnard Field, continuing as a private venture.

As of late 1939, Army and Navy pilots began using Oxnard Field for refueling and maintenance for a variety of military flights. Later that same year, the Army Air Corps leased 2,000 acres neighboring Albuquerque Airport, four miles west of Oxnard Field. The Army eventually condemned the Oxnard Field property for military use, with subsequent transfer to the federal government. Construction of Albuquerque Army Air Base began in January 1941 and was completed in August 1941. Albuquerque Army Air Bases’ first commander, Colonel Frank D. Hackett, arrived in March 1941 and the following month the base received its first military aircraft. On April 1, 1941, a lone B-18 bomber, piloted by Lieutenant Sid Young, landed on the north-south runway. With the assignment of five pilots to the aircraft, the day marked the official opening of Albuquerque Army Air Base.
The summer of 1941 saw the arrival of the first troop train, loaded with 500 base support personnel, as well as arrival of the 19th Bombardment Group under the command of Lt. Col. Eugene L. Eubank. Business on the new airfield really began to boom with the arrival of 2,195 pilot, bombardier and navigator trainees for the new B-17 “Flying Fortress.” The 19th BG was moved out shortly thereafter for duty in the Philippines and South Pacific, where many crew members were decorated for bravery. Even in the absence of the 19th BG, activity at the base increased. Just a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first class for bombardiers began with the establishment of the Army’s first wartime advanced flying school.
In February of 1942, Albuquerque Army Air Base was renamed Kirtland Army Air Field in honor of Col. Roy C. Kirtland, one of the Army’s earliest aviation pioneers. In 1911, Lt. Kirtland set up and supervised the building of the first Army Aviation School in College Park Maryland. Kirtland was a staunch advocate of safer and better aircraft for military aviation. He later became the first Commandant of Langley Field Virginia.
Meanwhile, in 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces established a training depot for aircraft support and logistics to the east of Kirtland Field, near the original private airport, Oxnard Field. The depot later became known as Sandia Base. With the completion of the ground crew training program in 1943, Sandia Base was used as a convalescent center for wounded aircrew members, and then as a storage and dismantling facility for war-weary and surplus aircraft as the war ended. Over 2,000 such planes were stripped and melted down, reclaiming some 10 million pounds of aluminum alone.

The war years at Kirtland continued to be filled with distinguished records of training entire flight crews for the B-17 and B-24 bombers and the base’s three schools — advanced flying, bombardier training and the multi-engine school — operated at full capacity. In February 1945, Kirtland Field was also engaged in training combat crews for the B-29. This was the “Super Fortress” which eventually brought an end to the hostilities with Japan by dropping the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The need for extensive flight support and test facilities became apparent and during September 1945, the development, engineering and assembly branches of the Z Division of Los Alamos Laboratory were moved to Sandia Base. The unit was the predecessor of Sandia Corporation, which was organized in 1949. It became and remains (as Sandia National Laboratories) the largest associate unit at Kirtland AFB. It has consistently been involved with development and testing of special weapons and more recently, with research and development of energy sources and systems.
In February 1946, Kirtland was placed under the Air Materiel Command and its flying training activities ceased. Its new job entailed flight test activities for the Manhattan Engineering District, the wartime organization that produced the atomic bomb. The new role for Kirtland was to develop proper aircraft modifications for weapons delivery and to determine ballistic characteristics for these weapons of the future — nuclear weapons.
Kirtland’s role in the testing and evaluation of these special weapons increased in 1947, as the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. At that time, Kirtland Army Air Field, with a population of 972 military and civilian personnel, became Kirtland Air Force Base. Most of the weapon proving was conducted on a 46,000-acre tract in the Manzano Mountains, on the southern part of Kirtland AFB, including Forest Service lands withdrawn for testing purposes. Artillery emplacements were set up; observation stations were built; fragmentation areas were prepared; and two 248’foot oak towers were erected near the Starfire Optical Range. The establishment of such activities at Kirtland was considered ideal because of its proximity to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and to Sandia Base, where the Department of Defense had established the Armed Forces Special Weapons Command to direct military employment of the new weapons to be built.
Other nuclear-related units were formed at Sandia Base and Kirtland AFB as the west side was redesignated in 1948. The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project operated Sandia Base and provided support to the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and military (^top of section)
departments in matters concerning nuclear weapons, nuclear effects and testing. In December 1949, Kirtland AFB became headquarters for the newly created Special Weapons Command. The nucleus of this organization was composed of the pioneering Air Force agencies, which had located here to determine future employment of nuclear weapons. The command became the Air Force Special Weapons Center on April 1, 1952, and was a unit of the Air Research and Development Command.
The late 1940s and 1950s were expansion years as both Kirtland AFB and Sandia played increasing roles in the nation’s defense efforts. New buildings, hangars and the east-west runway (now owned by the city of Albuquerque) resulted.
During that period, air defense, weather and atomic test squadrons operated from Kirtland AFB, and people from both bases took part in the 12 nuclear test series conducted in Nevada and the Pacific. Special Weapons Center pilots flew through nuclear clouds to determine radiation hazards, and its engineers launched sounding rockets to study the effects of high altitude nuclear explosions and to investigate the upper atmosphere in preparation for future space missions.
In 1958, efforts were underway between the United States and Soviet Union to agree on a moratorium for atmospheric nuclear testing. The anticipated limitations on determining weapons effects inspired efforts by the Special Weapons Center and Sandia Corporation to develop methods of simulating nuclear effects with non-nuclear techniques. In 1962, Kirtland AFB and Sandia personnel participated in Operation DOMINIC, a series of atmospheric and subsurface tests in the Pacific. They were the last such tests conducted before the existing Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed with the Soviet Union in late 1962, prohibiting testing in the atmosphere, in space and under water.
In the wake of the full-scale tests and signing of the test ban treaty, the Air Force Weapons Laboratory was created from elements of the Special Weapons Center. The Weapons Laboratory built facilities during the 1960s to simulate nuclear effects such as transient radiation, x-rays and electromagnetic pulse. To study the latter, the Trestle, the largest simulation facility ever built, was completed on the east side of Kirtland AFB during the late 1970s.
Kirtland AFB is really the story of three bases, since the merger in 1971 of Kirtland, Manzano and Sandia Bases, which brought the three installations together under one command. Sandia Base was originally created in 1942 as an Air Corps training site for aircraft maintenance people. By late 1943, however, Sandia was in a caretaker status. A year and a half later, the Manhattan Engineering District created the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project at Sandia Base to coordinate military nuclear activities.
Armed Forces Special Weapons Command also constructed two operational sites. One of these sites was known as Site Able, located in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, just east of Sandia Base. On February 22, 1952, Site Able was renamed Manzano Base, and operated by the Air Force.

The Special Weapons Center took over management of Air Force Systems Command’s test and evaluation facilities at Holloman AFB near Alamogordo, New Mexico, during the summer of 1970. Just one year later on July 1, 1971, Kirtland merged with Manzano and Sandia Base, its neighbors to the east, creating a sprawling military complex known as Kirtland Air Force Base.
Twelve months after the merger, Kirtland AFB became home to one of the country’s most important industrial management units when the Air Force Contract Management Division (a component of Air Force Systems Command) moved to the base from Los Angeles.
Early in 1974, the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center was organized at Kirtland AFB to direct and oversee operational testing of emerging aircraft and systems.
Due to budget restrictions and reorganization, the Special Weapons Center was disestablished during 1976. Its responsibilities as Kirtland AFB’s landlord’ were transferred to Contract Management Division, and a new support organization, the 4900th Air Base Wing, was created to discharge those responsibilities.
In 1976, as these organizational changes were being made, the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service moved its 1550th Aircrew Training and Test Wing (later becoming the 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing) to Kirtland AFB from Hill AFB, Utah. That unit’s helicopter and fixed wing training brought regular flight operations to Kirtland AFB in addition to the usual support provided for transient military aircraft.
On July 1, 1977, the base once again changed hands as the 1606th Air Base Wing was created when Military Airlift Command took over responsibility for operating Kirtland AFB from Air Force Systems Command.
Kirtland AFB became the hub of Air Force space technology when the Air Force Space Technology Center was activated October 1, 1982.
In June 1990, the Air Force Contract Management Division was deactivated as a result of the Defense Management review. And, in December 1990, the Air Force Space Technology Center and Weapons Laboratory consolidated to become Phillips Laboratory, and later, the Air Force Research Laboratory.
On October 1, 1991, the 1606th Air Base Wing and 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing merged into one “super” wing called the 542nd Crew Training Wing.
On January 1, 1993, the base again changed hands as the newly formed Air Force Materiel Command acquired Kirtland AFB from Air Mobility Command. The 377th Air Base Wing was reactivated to become the base’s host organization.
On March 31, 2006, the Nuclear Weapons Center was created and became the parent organization at Kirtland AFB. The 498th Armament Systems Wing was also created to be the maintenance arm of the NWC, while the 377th ABW remained the host support unit on base.

Kirtland AFB is the third largest installation in Air Force Materiel Command and sixth largest in the Air Force. The base occupies 51,558 acres and employs over 23,000 people, including more than 4,200 active duty and 1,000 Guard, plus 3,200 part-time Reserve personnel. Kirtland AFB’s economic impact for 2000 on the City of Albuquerque was over $2.7 billion.
The missions of Kirtland AFB fall into four major categories: world-class munitions maintenance; readiness and training; research, development and testing; and base operating support to more than 100 federal government and private sector associates.
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