Editor’s Note: In 1990, I had the opportunity to participate in a landscape assessment study for Ft. Vancouver, a Hudson Bay fort that is also home to the oldest operating airfield in the United States (1912, Pearson Airfield, Vancouver, Washington). These early airfields are a rare type of landscape that has seldom survived development pressures. For example, historic Pangborn Field in Wenatchee, Washington is now a large residential subdivision. This article highlights another historically significant airfield under threat. – Duane Dietz, ASLA.
Columbus, New Mexico, is the site of the first air operations by the U.S. Military against foreign military forces following a raid into the U.S. by the army of Pancho Villa in 1916. President Wilson ordered General John J. (Black Jack) Pershing to mobilize a so-called punitive expedition in response to Villa’s sortie in an attempt “capture, kill or disperse” Villa and his men. Pershing ordered the First Aero Squadron, then part of the Aviation Section (Signal Corps) under the command of Capt. Benjamin Foulois, from Ft. Sam Houston to Columbus. The resulting actions marked the first time a U.S. tactical air unit had been deployed and tested in actual combat. Columbus can rightly claim to be the birthplace of American airpower.
A wealth of written and photographic material exists at the Columbus Historical Museum as well as other locations to document these operations. Recent research has located the original site of the First Aero activities. On and off since its original abandonment by the military, the general area has seen aviation usage but now lies derelict, grown up in weeds and brush. Fortunately, no other development has taken place, but the 160-acre site itself is in the hands of private owners, with some 60 acres presently for sale. It is noted that the owner of this smaller tract is on record as desiring that it be preserved for historical purposes.
The overall development plan would be two-pronged: the airfield would be put back into use to serve General Aviation; and a historical “aerodrome” would be recreated with indoor and outdoor exhibits for public involvement as well as scholarly research. This development would complement current efforts to improve the economy of south Luna County, now one of the most economically depressed areas in the state. It would offer some additional jobs, but most of all would it would attract increased tourism and thereby increased local revenues. The use of the title “Aerodrome” references both General Aviation activities and the historical activities.
The State of New Mexico has recently finished the long awaited Visitor Center at Pancho Villa State Park, less than a mile away. While this fine exhibit contains both ground and aerial warfare artifacts, including a replica JN-3 “Jenny” airplane, it is too small to house the entire collection in possession of the park, nor is research space available. Its tie-in to the First Aero Squadron would be a natural. Also, the excellent Pershing-era aviation collection of the Columbus Historical Society would be much better displayed and researched at a facility like the aerodrome. The Society is in the process of expanding their exterior displays to include a replica of Black Jack’s reviewing stand, and the recent acquisition of a railroad caboose expands the railroad collection now housed in the 1902 EP&SW depot.
Historian Richard Dean has recently revised his walking tour of Columbus and added to the number of stations and plaques. Now included are the Army’s first use of motorized vehicles as well as First Aero and their Jennys.Priorities
The first step is to acquire the 160 acres of land now in private hands. It is probable that outright purchases could be made but every effort should be directed at securing the land thru donation or some long-term preservation commitment. Then, a developer must be found to put together the aviation side of the project, and an architect or airport planner to design the facility. The requirements of the historical side could then be blended into the plans and the acquisition of displays and historical aircraft could begin. The time to act is now. Bill Wehner, ASLA, can be reached at Wehner@vtc.net or at (505) 531-7044.