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The Origins of Kirtland Air Force Base

Portrait of U.S. Air Force senior officer.

Col. Roy C. Kirtland, for whom Kirtland Field (later Kirtland Air Force Base) was named. U.S. Air Force photo.

Aerial photo of Kirtland Field, N.M. in 1943.

Overhead photograph of Kirtland Field, N.M., 1943. U.S. Air Force photo.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

Eighty years ago this week, the U.S. Army Air Corps officially named a military aircraft depot just southeast of downtown Albuquerque as “Albuquerque Army Air Base.” The depot had been used as an “Airway Station” and maintenance facility since late 1939, for aircraft being sent to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease Act to aid in its efforts to fight Germany in World War II. However, with America’s involvement in the war growing ever more likely as the conflict grew to encompass both Europe and the Pacific Rim, the Air Corps had much bigger plans for the 2,000-acre station. In honor of Kirtland Air Force Base’s 80th birthday, this article explores the base’s origins.

The establishment of the Albuquerque Army Air Base, and later the adjacent Sandia Base during the war, represented numerous socio-economic trends during this period in history. These included the early years of Albuquerque’s aviation industry; the growth and evolution of the military landscape in the American West in the early 20th century; the employment and economic stimulus programs of the New Deal during the Great Depression; and the buildup of America’s industrial war machine in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military on Dec. 7, 1941. The base was located within Albuquerque’s first aviation cradle on the East Mesa where the first airport had been built by Frank Speakman and William Franklin in 1928. Some of the early buildings from that period remain in use at Kirtland, including Buildings 20344, 20348 and 20600.

Military installations had long been seen by civic boosters in the American West as important economic anchors for a community, but they became particularly desirable after the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 led to an explosion of these facilities across the country. Western politicians and business leaders in states such as California and Texas became particularly adept at securing funding and permission to build these facilities in their states. New Mexico was generally left out of these discussions until the Great Depression struck in October 1929. Although the state received a relatively sizeable share of federal stimulus and employment aid during the advent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, it wasn’t until Clyde Tingley, a brash, blustering politician who served as Albuquerque’s city commissioner, became governor in 1935 that the spigot of public works money in New Mexico turned on full-blast.

Tingley’s charisma enabled him to cultivate strong relationships with federal bureaucrats and New Mexico’s business leaders. He leveraged these connections into the construction of a municipal airport under the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s, while promoting the establishment of a military installation within the city. Fortunately, Albert D. Smith, the regional manager in Albuquerque for Transcontinental and Western Air, happened to be close friends with Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the head of the Army Air Corps. Smith and Arnold provided Tingley with contacts in Washington, D.C. that he and Albuquerque’s business community could lobby for an air base.

With the outbreak of a second global war a distinct probability by this time, in 1938, President Roosevelt ordered the buildup of America’s military forces from peacetime limits imposed earlier in the decade. The following year, he ordered an increase in Air Corps assets from 2,320 planes to 6,000. The Air Corps did not possess the base infrastructure to support these numbers, and began drawing up a list of locations that became known as the “54 Base Plan” by 1940. With an air depot station already established next to its municipal airport, Albuquerque was placed on the list, and in October 1940, Albert Smith, now serving as a captain in the Air Corps, was assigned as the liaison officer for the establishment of a brand new installation to provide training for bombardiers. Construction began on Jan. 7, 1941, followed quickly by support personnel, and on April 5, 1941, the Army Air Corps made it New Mexico’s first dedicated military air base. A few months later, on Feb. 25, 1942, the base was renamed “Kirtland Field,” after military aviation pioneer Col. Roy C. Kirtland.