At the center of research, development and careers at Roswell International Air Center
ROSWELL, NM (KRQE) – New Mexico is no stranger to technological discovery. From the Manhattan Project to Microsoft, the state has been home to explorations and inventions that have changed the world.
KRQE Media Group’s new series “New Mexico Frontiers” takes a look at entrepreneurs and businesses in the Land of Enchantment. In a preview for the series, set to premiere in April 2023, the spotlight is on Roswell for an up-close look at the International Air Center.
Asphalts sprinkled with history
Sitting on a lonely stretch of tarmac just a few miles from the Alien Capitol of the world is the king of aviation. A fuselage, now minus the wings and tail fins, once owned by the King of Rock & Roll: Elvis Presley.
Elvis’ plane is just one of dozens of planes that call Roswell International Air Center home today. The tarmac across the 5,000-acre campus now includes decommissioned Airbus jetliners, McDonnell Douglas MD-80s and Boeing 737s. All of this is an apt representation of the Air Center’s ties to the past and to the future.
Second World War period
Three months before the US declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US military took control of what would become Roswell Army Air Field. The site was later renamed Walker Air Force Base.
The initial mission was to train twin-engine pilots at the base. Historians remember some of the aircraft that became common in the airfield. “They moved on to the B-17, the B-24 bombers, and then the B-29,” said Walker Aviation Museum Foundation Board Member Rob Sherman.
A month after the end of World War II, the 509th Composite Group relocated to Roswell. Responsible for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Group brought the front lines of American nuclear weapons to New Mexico’s backyard.
“That put Roswell on the map as an atomic bomb base,” Sherman said of Walker Air Force Base. 12 missile silos would eventually be built around Roswell. Each of these silos housed SM-65 Atlas missiles, the first intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the United States.
“Roswell became a prime target for any adversary, such as Russia,” Sherman said. “I think that’s why Goddard High School, when it was built in the late 1960s, was underground.”
The closing of Walker Air Base and the rebirth of the Air Center
Walker Air Base finally closed in June 1967. With the closure, much of the buzz that the air base had brought went away.
It would take decades for the Roswell International Air Center to be established as a municipal airport. First order of business? Relocating the Center from its downtown airstrip to its current location, six miles south of downtown Roswell. In the following decades, city officials have worked to bring new tenants to the site.
“So right away, we started looking for somebody to lease the facility, all the buildings here, so we get some revenue back,” said Jennifer Griego, interim director of the Roswell Air Center.
Slowly, Boeing, Airbus, Dean Baldwin and other aviation giants have brought new business to the air center. That business has boomed in the past decade, thanks to Roswell’s proximity to other military uses, the weather and an enthusiastic population. White Sands Missile Range is located nearby in Alamogordo. The area also has a warm climate. And on-site educational opportunities have become a focus of what’s happening at the Air Center.
It’s happening now
American Airlines currently operates three flights daily from Roswell International Air Center to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX).
Military flights are also part of the picture. “Every day there is a plane here from one of the branches [armed] service,” said Jenna Lanfor, property manager and communications coordinator for Roswell International Air Center.
Future naval fighter pilots can be seen most days at the Air Center trying to earn their wings in Beechcraft T-6 Texan II aircraft. The Air Force also has major support aircraft at the Air Center that are constantly touching down for maintenance and training. These include C-130, F-16, F-18 and Osprey aircraft, along with Apache and Blackhawk helicopters.
One of the Air Center’s biggest missions continues to be related to brake systems and tire testing. The historic facility has a 13,000 meter long track.
“Our track is also soft, which is not normal,” Lanfor said. “Normally they want the water off the runway, but we have a special runway permit here that we’ve worked hard to maintain with the FAA that allows us to go in with those customers and make sure there’s some safety with their planes and their planes.”
Looking to the future
The Air Center is also becoming a favorite location for high-altitude testing. In October 2012, Felix Baumgartner free-falled from 128,000 feet, a mission that took place around the Air Center. Google senior vice president Alan Eustace later surpassed Baumgartner’s record in 2014.
“Instead of going up in a capsule, he was testing a suit,” Lanfor said, speaking of Eustace’s mission. “So he was taken to the stratosphere in a suit and a balloon. And then they threw it.”
At 135,890 feet above the ground, Eustace reached speeds of more than 800 kilometers per hour, producing its own sonic boom on the way down. Lanfor called the mission “inspiring”.
Another prominent resident of the Air Center is a company called Sceye. Engineers at the materials science company are building the next generation of high-speed internet via high-altitude platforms, balloons floating 65,000 feet above the Earth.
Sceye’s research aims to bring about “equitable connectivity in rural communities and urban areas.” The company also wants to control and protect the plant. According to their website, Scey’s ongoing research will enable the detection of greenhouse gas emissions in “real time”, making it possible to support “enforceable and responsible policies”.
Out of Portales, Eastern New Mexico University provides aircraft maintenance related to the air center. Meanwhile, the Walker Air Base Museum is reaching out to a younger audience through outreach and flight simulators for kids.
“You can choose A [Boeing] KC-135 [Stratotanker,] or you can choose one [Boeing] 747 and land in Istanbul, Turkey, at 9 o’clock at night in the rain if you want,” said Rob Sherman, describing the museum’s flight simulator technology.
Aim higher for Air Center? They want to eventually offer pilot training courses, which Lanfor believes can be achieved in the near future, as one of his goals.
“It’s a must for us,” Lanfor said. “And if the military comes out here and trains, why aren’t we doing this?”
As the world continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the aviation industry faces numerous challenges in its wake, Lanfor believes the International Air Center is poised for the next generation of aviation research, development and careers.
“This community loves aviation,” Lanfor said. “A lot of people don’t know we’re here, but other airports in our area that are very similar to our model are filling up, so I think we’re a diamond in the rough.”
KRQE News 13’s Chad Brummett contributed to this report, which is part of KRQE Media Group’s new “Borders of New Mexico” series. The show premieres Friday, April 14th at 6:30pm on Fox New Mexico.