Note: The name of the airport was changed to the Roswell Air Center. “International” is no longer part of the name.
ROSWELL, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico is no stranger to technological discovery. From the Manhattan Project to Microsoft, the state has been home to exploration and invention that has changed the world.
The KRQE Media Group’s new series “New Mexico Frontiers” takes a closer look at entrepreneurs and enterprise in the Land of Enchantment. In a sneak peak of the series premiering in April 2023, the spotlight is on Roswell for a closer look at the Air Center.
Tarmacs dotted with history
Sitting on a lonely tarmac just miles from the Alien Capitol of the World sits aviation royalty. A fuselage, now stripped of its wings and tail fins, that was once owned by none other than the King of Rock & Roll: Elvis Presley.
Elvis’ plane is just one of dozens of aircraft that now call the Roswell Air Center home. Tarmacs across the 5,000 acre campus are now home to de-commissioned Airbus aircraft, McDonnell Douglas MD-80’s and Boeing 737’s among other aircraft. All of it is a fitting representation of the Air Center’s ties to the past and it’s eye on the future.
World War II era
Three months before the U.S. declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military took control of what would become the Roswell Army Air Field. Later, the site was renamed the Walker Air Force Base.
The initial mission on at the base was to train twin engine pilots. Historians recall some of the aircraft that eventually became commonplace at the air field. “They transitioned into the B-17, B-24 bombers, and then later, that B-29,” said Rob Sherman, Board Member of the Walker Aviation Museum Foundation.
Months after World War II ended, the 509th Composite Group relocated to Roswell. Responsible for the deployment of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Group brought the frontlines of American nuclear weapons into New Mexico’s backyard.
“That put Roswell on the map as an atomic bomb capable bomber base,” Sherman said of the Walker Air Force Base. 12 missile silos would eventually be constructed around Roswell. Each of those silos housed SM-65 Atlas Missiles, the first intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the United States.
“Roswell became a primary target to 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.”
Walker Air Base’s Closure & the Air Center’s rebirth
Walker Air Base eventually closed in June of 1967. With the closure, much of the bustle that the air base brought also left.
It would take decades for the Roswell Air Center to liftoff as a municipal airport. The first order of business? Relocating from its downtown airstrip to where the Center sits now, six miles south of downtown Roswell. In the decades that have followed, city officials have worked to bring new tenants to the site.
“So immediately, we started looking for someone to rent the facilities, all the buildings out here, so we have some revenue coming back in,” said Jennifer Griego, interim director of the Roswell Air Center.
Slowly by surely, aviation giants like Boeing, Airbus, Dean Baldwin and others have brought new business to the air center. That business has been booming over the past decade, thanks to Roswell’s proximity to other military uses, the weather and an eager population. White Sands Missile Range is nearby in Alamogordo. The area also has a temperate climate. And local educational opportunities have leaned into what’s happening at the Air Center.
Today, American Airlines lands three flights at the Roswell Air Center each day from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and the Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX.) The flights are aimed at making regional travel easier for people in southern New Mexico.
Military flights are also part of the picture. “There is an aircraft here every day from some branch of the [armed] service,” said Jenna Lanfor, property manager and contact coordinator for the Roswell Air Center.
Naval fighter pilots of the future can be seen most days at the Air Center, seeking to earn their wings in Beechcraft T-6 Texan II training aircraft. The Air Force also have mainstay aircraft which are constantly touching down at the Air Center for maintenance and training. Those include C-130s, F-16, F-18 and Osprey aircraft, along with Apache and Blackhawk helicopters.
One of the biggest missions of the Air Center continues to be related to braking systems and tire testing. The historic facility has an extra-long 13,000 foot runway.
“Our runway is also smooth, which is not normal,” said Lanfor. “Normally, they want water to go away from the runway, but we have a special runway permission here that we’ve worked hard to keep with the FAA, that allows us to have those clientele come in and make sure that there is some safety going on with their their their planes and aircraft.”
A look toward the future
The Air Center is also becoming a favorite spot for high altitude testing. In October 2012, Felix Baumgartner conducted a freefall from 128,000 feet, a mission that took place around the Air Center. Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace later beat Baumgartner’s record in 2014.
“Instead of going up in a capsule, he actually was testing a suit,” said Lanfor, speaking of Eustace’s mission. “So he was taken up into the stratosphere in just a suit and by a balloon. And then he was dropped.”
At 135,890 feet above the Earth, Eustace reached speed of more than 800 miles per hour, causing his own sonic boom on the way down. Lanfor calls the mission “inspirational.”
Another prominent resident at the Air Center is a company called Sceye. Engineers with the material science company are building the next generation of high speed internet through high altitude platforms with balloons that float at 65,000 feet above the Earth.
Sceye’s research aims to bring “equitable connectivity across rural communities and urban centers.” The company is also seeking to monitor and protect the plant. According to their website, the research Sceye is conducting will be able to detect greenhouse gas emissions “in real time,” making it possible to support “enforceable, accountable climate-friendly policies.”
Out of Portales, Eastern New Mexico University offers aviation maintenance courses linked to the Air Center. Meanwhile, the Walker Air Base Museum is reaching a younger audience through outreach and flight simulators for kids.
“You can pick a [Boeing] KC-135 [Stratotanker,] or you can pick a [Boeing] 747 and land in Istanbul, Turkey, at 9:00 at night in the rain if you wanted to,” said Rob Sherman, describing the flight simulator technology at the museum.
A loftier goal for the Air Center? They eventually want to offer pilot training courses, something Lanfor believes is attainable in the near future, calling it one of her goals.
“It’s imperative 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 the aftermath, Lanfor believes the Air Center is ready for the next generation of aviation research, development and careers.
“This community loves aviation,” Lanfor said. “A lot of people don’t really know that we’re here, but the other airports around us that are very similar to our model are becoming full and so, we are, I think, a diamond in the rough.”
KRQE News 13’s Chad Brummett contributed to this report, which is part of the KRQE Media Group’s new series “New Mexico Frontiers.” The show will premiere on Friday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m. on Fox New Mexico.