The History of Kirtland Air Force Base

Base History
Part 1:
Kirtland’s lineage is deeply intertwined with the history of aviation in Albuquerque.  In early 1928, Frank G. Speakman and William L. Franklin, two employees of the Santa Fe Railroad, acquired a lease of 140 acres southeast of downtown Albuquerque, to build an airport on a large flat expanse known as the East Mesa.  Although the airfield was privately run, in an effort to boost local aviation development, City Commissioner Clyde L. Tingley loaned them city equipment to perform construction and runway grading, and Albuquerque’s first airport saw initial flights begin to land there in May 1928.  In August of that year, New York air promoter James G. Oxnard arrived in Albuquerque.  Impressed with the facility and the city’s potential to become a significant southwestern air hub, he bought out Franklin’s interest in the airport.  The facility soon expanded to 480 acres and came to be called Oxnard Field.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Oxnard Field, ca. late 1930s
As aviation activity expanded in the area and the economic distress of the Great Depression persisted through the 1930s, Tingley—who served as Governor of New Mexico from 1935-1938—and the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce lobbied heavily for federal investment in public works projects and federal facilities.  The City Council was particularly keen on constructing a dedicated municipal airport and a military installation in a single, consolidated airfield complex that would also accommodate federal airmail routes and applied for a grant from the Works Progress Administration to construct the airport.  Construction began on an 888-acre site located approximately five miles to the west of Oxnard Field in February 1937, and completed in March 1939.
Concurrently with the opening of the airport, Army Air Corps General Henry “Hap” Arnold visited the city.  He suggested that the presence of an Air National Guard unit and an aviation cadet training program would be the easiest route towards procuring the air base.  Arnold happened to be close friends with Major (later Brigadier General) Albert D. Smith, a former Air Corps pilot who had accomplished the first military transcontinental flight in December 1918.  Smith was working in Albuquerque at the time as the local manager for Transcontinental and Western Air and had participated in a citizen’s committee dedicated to bringing a new air base to the city.  Smith and local leaders within the business community acted quickly, resulting in a lease for 2,000 acres, located adjacent to the municipal airport complex, to the War Department for use as an airway depot station for maintenance and refueling purposes.
Tensions in Europe during the mid-late 1930s and the opening of World War II in September 1939 accelerated preparations by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Department for the expected entry of the United States into the conflict.  This necessitated a rapid expansion of military air assets and facilities dedicated to training pilots and aircrews for combat.  The airway depot at Albuquerque was placed on a list of proposed sites, and in October 1940, Albert Smith rejoined the Air Corps as a liaison officer to oversee the preparations for transitioning the base to an active duty installation.  Construction of training and support facilities began on January 7, 1941, and Major Newton Laughinghouse took over as the temporary commander for the base starting on March 5.  Lt Colonel (later Colonel) Frank D. Hackett arrived on March 18 to assume control as the first permanent commander of what became Albuquerque Army Air Base (AAB) on April 5, 1941, under the Air Corps Western Training Center, later Western Flying Training Command. 


                                                                                                                                                                  Colonel Roy C. Kirtland                                                                                                                                               Kirtland Field during World War II


                                                                                                                                                                          Bombardment instruction at Kirtland Field


                                                                                                                             Maj Albert D. Smith, liaison officer who oversaw                                                                                        Col Frank D. Hackett, Albuquerque AAB’s
                                                                                                                                                                                       the initial development of Albuquerque Army Air                                                                                                    first permanent commander.
                                                                                                                                                                                                       Base, later Kirtland Field.


The 19th Bombardment Group (BG) arrived from March Field, California on June 7, 1941 to begin training for their eventual deployment to the Pacific Theater.  Support for the 19 BG during their time at Albuquerque AAB built the foundation for the base infrastructure, installation support, and administration that formed the heart of its advanced flying, bombardier training, and multi-engine schoolhouses for B-17 and B-24 aircrews during World War II.  Training activity soon came to encompass the airfield and several bombing ranges west and southwest of Albuquerque, including an area of 2,450 square miles between the village of Los Lunas and the Rio Puerco.


On February 25, 1942, Albuquerque AAB was re-named Kirtland Field, in honor of Colonel Roy C. Kirtland, at the recommendation of General Arnold.  A pioneer in early military aviation, Kirtland was one of first pilots trained by Wilbur and Orville Wright, piloted the first aircraft from which a machine gun had been fired in 1912, and had been an early mentor for General Arnold.  During his career, Kirtland served as a flight instructor, organized aviation mechanic regiments, commanded the Third Regiment in France during World War I, acted as an inspector of aviation activities and Air Service rest camps, and commanded aviation depots.  He capped off his career as the commander of Langley Field, Virginia and the Commandant of the Air Corps Tactical School before retiring in 1938.  He returned to active duty three years later and was serving at Moffett Field, California when he died of a heart attack on May 2, 1941. 

Kirtland Field’s bombardier training was its most significant function during the war, and the training squadrons ultimately produced over 5,700 graduates by 1945.  In February of that year, B-29 training began at Kirtland as well.  Among its more notable instructors was Lt. Jimmy Stewart, who put his Hollywood acting career on hold to serve in the Air Corps, and was assigned to Kirtland in late 1942.  The base also housed smaller training programs at various times dedicated to aviation mechanics, glider pilot ground training, and air navigation, all supported by approximately 2,500 military and civilian personnel.
Kirtland Field wasn’t the only military activity going on in the immediate area.  In February 1942, the Army condemned 1100 acres east of Kirtland that included Oxnard Field.  Following the transfer of Oxnard Field to the Army on 12 May, the Army converted the property into the Albuquerque Air Depot Training Station, as aircraft repair and maintenance school.  The station operated through October 1943.   A few months later, it became the Army Air Forces Convalescent Center, whose medical facilities were located just north of Kirtland, on the campus of the former Sandia School for Girls.  During this period, it became known colloquially as “Sandia Base” due to this association.  After the war ended, the base was converted into an aircraft disposal station for the War Assets Administration.  The installation was formally named “Sandia Base” sometime between July and October 1945.


Postcard for Kirtland Field, World War II.


Kirtland also played a significant role in supporting the research and development of atomic weapons by the Manhattan Project.  Centered in Los Alamos, New Mexico, nuclear researchers led by Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer, Project scientists and engineers employed airfield and aircraft maintenance facilities at Kirtland and the Oxnard complex to support ordnance and test loading on to special “Silverplate” aircraft assigned to the 509th Composite Group from Wendover Army Air Base, Utah.  Concurrently, an atomic weapons research and development facility known as “Z Division” was formed at Sandia Base to support these activities for future use.  Following the release of atomic bombs on Japan and the conclusion of World War II, these activities were reorganized at administrative, storage, and laboratory facilities at Sandia Base, which underwent rapid expansion through the rest of the 1940s and the establishment of the Sandia Corporation (later, Sandia Laboratories), Kirtland’s longest-serving mission partner.
Part 2:
Cold War Era
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union through the next four decades played a profound role in the development of Albuquerque’s military landscape.  The creation of the US Air Force as a separate branch of service in 1947 led to the redesignation of Kirtland Field as Kirtland Air Force Base on January 1, 1948, while Sandia Base was placed under the authority of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, a cooperative program between the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Kirtland became the home of Air Force Special Weapons Command in December 1949 to provide operational synchronicity with the Special Weapons Project for nuclear weapons development.  This included the construction of an operational area in the Manzano Mountains, east of Sandia Base.  The command was renamed the Air Force Special Weapons Center on April 1, 1952 and assigned to Air Research and Development Command (later, Air Force Systems Command).  That same year, on February 22, the Manzano site was formally activated as Manzano Base, with Sandia providing installation support.  Later in the decade, the 150th Fighter Group of the New Mexico Air National Guard was activated at Kirtland on 1 July 1957.
During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Sandia Corporation participated in several nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific Ocean and Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas, Nevada, culminating in Operation DOMINIC from April-November 1962.  Kirtland AFB supported these tests through several different test and support organizations, such as the 4950th Test Group (Nuclear), which included the support of nuclear-capable jet interceptor and bomber squadrons, as well as weather units.  The Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent enactment of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty led to the creation of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland AFB on May 1, 1963, for the purpose of simulating nuclear effects such as transient radiation, x-rays, and electromagnetic pulse actions.  Tests of electromagnetic effects were later conducted at one of Kirtland’s most iconic features, the Trestle, completed in 1979.  Meanwhile, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project was reorganized as the Defense Atomic Support Agency in 1959 and designated Headquarters, Sandia Base as the installation host, while the Air Force Special Weapons Center became a test support base for missile development.

A CV-22 assigned to the 71st Special Operations Squadron in flight Dec. 28. U.S. Air Force Photo by John Cochran.
Pararescue field training at Kirtland AFB, 2018.
A CV-22 for the 58th Special Operations Wing conducts a training flight.
Part 3:
Kirtland in the 21st Century
As the new millennium dawned, Kirtland AFB stood poised to remain a vital piece of the Albuquerque landscape and the nation’s cutting-edge defense research and development industry.  Upon activation, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center briefly became the parent organization for Kirtland AFB from March 31, 2006 to October 1, 2015, after which Kirtland AFB came under the authority of 20th Air Force and Air Force Global Strike Command.  While assigned to the AFNWC, the 377 ABW continued its host responsibilities for Kirtland AFB. The New Mexico Air National Guard’s 150th Fighter Group compiled a distinguished record of service through the decades, growing into a Fighter Wing before changing missions and undergoing a Total Force Integration with the 58 SOW, becoming the 150th Special Operations Wing on December 1, 2013. 
North side of Kirtland AFB, 2002.
The dawn of the Global War on Terror following the attacks of September 11, 2001 ushered in a new era of increased security and operations tempo to Kirtland AFB.  Military and civilian members who worked and trained at Kirtland AFB have served on countless deployments, in some cases giving their lives in service to the country.
PA sergeant killed in Iraq > Kirtland Air Force Base > Article Display
Delawareans who have died since Sept. 11 honored on memorial wall
Maj Steven Plumhoff
SSgt Christopher Frost, 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, 4 May 1983-3 Mar 2008
SSgt Travis Griffin, 377th Security Forces Squadron, 21 Jan 1980-Apr 3, 2008
Maj Steven Plumhoff, 58th Special Operations Wing, 11 Mar 1970-23 Nov 2003
L-R: SrA Jason Cunningham and SSgt Anissa Shero.  SrA Cunningham, a native of Carlsbad, New Mexico, completed pararesecue training at Kirtland AFB, and was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross for providing life-saving medical treatment during the Battle of Takur Ghar, Afghanistan.  SSgt Shero trained as an MC-130H loadmaster with the 58 SOW at Kirtland, and is the first female Airman to lose her life in combat operations during the Global War on Terror.
Part 4:
Kirtland Air Force Base Today
Sunrise on Kirtland Air Force Base
Sunrise on Kirtland Air Force Base, 2019.
Since 1993, the 377 ABW has continued its distinguished record of service, compiling four Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards in that time. During this period, Kirtland Air Force Base has continually adapted to a fluid geopolitical landscape – from the base realignment and closures of the post-Cold War years, through the Global War on Terror of the 2000s-2010s. It supports training for the “quiet professionals” who perform special operations and personnel recovery at the tip of the spear, and critical defense organizations such as the Air Force Safety Center, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, and the Defense Nuclear Weapons School.  
Senior Airman Rocquisha Locke inoculates Airman 1st Class Kadienne Simons during an Individual Medical Readiness activity May 24
Man operates cargo loading vehicle
Military members render funeral honors to a deceased veteran.
photo of dog and Air Force service member
man operates computer keyboard
From left, Hailee Esquibel, William Maness and Holland McCord feel a compact fluorescent light bulb April 20 during an Earth Day event at the Youth Center.  U.S. Air Force Photo by Elizabeth Martinez
The 377th Air Base Wing continues to provide dedicated nuclear enterprise readiness and installation support to Kirtland AFB and the members of Team Kirtland.
Air Force Safety Center and Air Force Inspection Agency.
Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center.
$2.5B in contracts at Kirtland awarded to modernize nukes
Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.
Defense Nuclear Weapons School.


The 377 ABW works to adapt its operations within an uncertain global landscape where threats within the military “gray zones” of space, informational, and cyberwarfare, and the growing specter of further nuclear proliferation, have begun to emerge as primary national defense concerns. Locally, it has focused on issues such as environmental stewardship, energy sustainability, and infrastructure needs for a growing base and its tenants, along with the recent challenge of executing the mission under the cloud of a viral pandemic that took place from 2020-2021. Through innovation and engagement of the energies and dedication of its Airmen, the 377 ABW and Kirtland AFB will continue to serve as a beacon for dynamic military operations in the 21st century.

Don E. Alberts and Allan E. Putnam, “A History of Kirtland Air Force Base, 1928-1982,”
Albuquerque, NM: Kirtland Air Force Base, 1985.
Charles D. Beibel, Making the Most of It: Public Works in Albuquerque During the Great
Depression, 1929-1942, Albuquerque, NM: The Albuquerque Museum, 1986.
Robert F. Futrell, “Development of AAF Base Facilities in the United States, 1939-1945,” USAF
Historical Office, 1951.
“Kirtland Air Force Base History” archive files, 377th Air Base Wing History Office.
Kirtland Air Force Base Newspaper Collections, 377th Air Base Wing History Office.
Periodic Histories of the 1606th Air Base Wing, 542d Crew Training Wing, 377th Air Base Wing,
and Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.



                                                                                                                 The Research Trestle, ca. 1980s.                                                                                                                                           Air Force Weapons Lab opens, May 1, 1963
The 1970s proved to be another period of momentous change.  Following assessments for base consolidation begun in 1968 and an executive order from President Richard Nixon in 1970, Sandia, Manzano, and Kirtland were combined into a single entity, Kirtland Air Force Base on July 1, 1971.  The arrival of the Air Force Contract Management Division to Kirtland in 1972 portended their assumption of control of the base as the installation host in 1976, the same year that the Air Force Special Weapons Center inactivated following a decline in strategic nuclear test readiness requirements.  The Air Force Test and Evaluation Center, now the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, activated in 1974 to oversee testing of new Air Force weapons systems.
Further changes took place through the decade as the US military drew down in the wake of the end of its involvement in the Vietnam War.  The 4900th Air Base Wing, which had operated on Kirtland since 1955, inactivated and host installation duties were assumed by the 1606th Air Base Wing under Military Airlift Command, including security responsibilities for the Manzano Weapons Storage Complex.  The year prior, the 1550th Aircrew Training and Test (later, Combat Crew Training) Wing arrived from Hill AFB, Utah, for the purpose of training special operations and personnel recovery aircrews, as well as pararescue jumper qualification.  The AFWL’s Starfire Optical Range was constructed in 1971 to support directed energy research and testing, a function it continues to serve to this day.


Starfire Optical Range.

Plant 1 of the Manzano Weapons Storage Complex.


The end of the Cold War, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989-1990, resulted in further base realignments and consolidations.  The Air Force Weapons Laboratory and Space Technology Center combined in December 1990 to become Phillips Laboratories, then merged into the Air Force Research Laboratories organization in October 1997 to operate the Space Vehicles and Directed Energy Directorates.  As mentioned previously, the 1606 ABW and 1550 CCTW combined on October 1, 1991 to form the 542d Crew Training Wing (CTW), a “super-wing” that consolidated installation and nuclear surety support, special operations and personnel recovery aircrew qualification, and pararescue/combat rescue officer training under a single organization. 
Oversight of the base passed from Military Airlift Command to Air Force Materiel Command during the same period, before the 377 ABW activated to serve as installation host.  The 542 CTW continued its training mission until it was re-designated as the 58th Special Operations Wing on April 1, 1994.  Both aircrew and pararescue training continue at Kirtland AFB to this day, under the 58 SOW and 351st Special Warfare Training Squadron, respectively.  Kirtland also experienced a brief period of tension in 1995 when it was identified for closure under that year’s Base Realignment and Closure committee, but efforts by a coalition of Albuquerque business and political leaders, the New Mexico state delegation, and Kirtland AFB organizational leaders, managed to stave off the deactivation.