Kirtland AFB, NM Image 1
    Kirtland AFB, NM Image 2

    Kirtland AFB, NM History

    Kirtland's history from World War Two to today is more interesting and complex than this page can quickly explain. Today Kirtland AFB is the third largest Air Force Base in service, but it started as three private airfields in relatively remote New Mexico, built in the 1930s. The general military buildup before World War Two saw these airfields purchased by the US Army and expanded for maintenance and refueling service. The arrival of the war brought a wave of construction and establishment of Albuquerque Army Air Base, and the base's assignment as a flying school, with primary, basic, and advanced schools. The focus of Albuquerque Army Air Base was on bomber training, the first dedicated bombardier training center in the US Air Corps, mainly B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Actual B-17s and B-24s were in short supply (there being a large war on) and pilots did much of the basic training with outdated bombers, including the medium sized B-18 Bolo and small A-17 fighter-bomber, and in some cases the very out-of-date Model 75 biplane. Bombing practice involved not only day and night range bombing runs, with concrete practice bombs, but also targeting practice and mock runs on local villages and ranches. Bombardier school lasted 12 to 18 weeks; a hit rate of at least 22% was required, and the school had an 88% pass rate. Graduated units shipped immediately to active flight duty.

    Quarters at the new and growing base were very cramped; inadequate housing led to trainees doubling up and cramming into barracks. Facilities were in general short supply, and much of the base operated out of large tents. The base was put up as fast as possible, but tight supplies and explosive growth made base life cramped for many months. Thousands of bombardiers and hundreds of pilots cycled through Albuquerque in the War, notably including Lt. James "Jimmy" Stewart from August to December 1942, in civilian life a famous film actor but in military service at Albuquerque a training pilot for bombardier trainees. Albuquerque AAB was renamed Kirtland in February 1942, after the oldest pilot in Air Corps service, recently deceased,Col. Roy C. Kirtland.

    Other training at Kirtland AAB included glider training (for squad-sized air-landing gliders), and technical training for Women's Army Auxiliary Corps members; a navigation training school was established in 1943, and many related ground support training courses, including radio, ground control, weather forecasting, and other disciplines naturally were developed here as well. In 1945 Kirtland was reassigned to the 2nd Air Force, and converted in 45 days to a B-29 Stratofortress base, and home support base for very heavy bomber units tasked with incendiary attacks on Japan.

    Kirtland was the closest large airbase to "Site Y," the Los Alamos lab of the Manhattan Project, and was the obvious choice for general transport and airlifting materiel, and the prototype A-Bombs. Two B-29s from Kirtland acted as observation planes for the Trinity test, the first atomic bomb explosion. Components of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs were transported by Kirtland cargo planes to their shipping ports; thus, Kirtland was part of the last major attack in World War Two.

    Kirtland was inactivated for less than three months at the War's end, then reactivated as a large air base near several atomic facilities. Kirtland was established as a primary air transport hub for nuclear equipment, materiel, and devices. The base's facilities and security were upgraded and Kirtland has been a primary logistical center for US military nuclear technology since. This mission led naturally to technical support, training, and testing, which also continues to this day, and a very high need for air defense and security, and Kirtland was assigned one of the first jet interceptor units, the 81st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, in 1950.

    Mission bundling this highly secret nuclear mission with a highly secure air base led to an eggs-in-a-basket approach to assignments, and Kirtland began housing the Air Force Special Weapons Center (which changed names over the decades), responsible for weapon development, including the Genie air-to-air atomic rocket. Kirtland units also tested various non-nuclear weapons, including rocket and missile systems, early laser aircraft weapons systems, and much more recently the PHASR rifle-sized less-lethal combat "dazzler." In 1992 Kirtland was activated as the new underground storage facility, housing over 3,000 nuclear warheads for Air Force and Navy weapons. Kirtland AFB continues as one of the most important research and development centers in US armed forces service.