Kirtland Air Force Base began as an Army Air Corps training field near Albuquerque. With World War II on the horizon, construction of an Army Air Base began in January 1941, and by summer the first major occupants of the new base began to arrive.
First designated Albuquerque Army Air Base, the new base became Kirtland Army Air Field in 1942 in honor of pioneer Army aviator Col. Roy C. Kirtland, who was instrumental in the forming of the Army’s aviation service. Kirtland died in May 1941 after his recall to active duty.
During World War II, personnel at Kirtland Field trained aircrew members for duty on the Army Air Forces’ B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers, which saw action in all theaters of the war. For most of World War II, the base’s major training schools — including bombardier, multi-engine transition and combat crew training — operated at full capacity.
Kirtland Army Air Field was placed on standby basis after the war awaiting a new mission. In 1946, Army Air Forces leadership assigned the base to the Air Materiel Command.
The base’s mission after World War II centered on flight test and support activities related to weapons development. Kirtland’s role increased in 1947 as the Army Air Forces became the independent U.S. Air Force. Kirtland Army Air Field officially became Kirtland Air Force Base on Jan. 13, 1948. In 1949, Kirtland was named headquarters for a new Air Force major command, the Special Weapons Command. However, the major command status of the organization was short-lived as the Air Force evolved to face the realities of the Cold War.
The command became the Air Force Special Weapons Center in 1952.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Kirtland was also headquarters for regional air defense operations, which covered the southwestern United States. From a control center on Kirtland, Air Defense Command personnel could launch fighters stationed at Kirtland or other regional air bases.
To reduce the management costs of multiple bases near Albuquerque, DOD officials merged the adjacent Sandia and Manzano bases with Kirtland. The Air Force Special Weapons Center took charge of the vastly expanded Kirtland complex and oversaw the base until changes in national priorities led to the center’s inactivation in 1976. The Air Force Contract Management Division of Air Force Systems Command, which had moved from Los Angeles, in 1972, became the Kirtland Air Force Base host for a brief period.
In 1977, to fill the void left at the base by inactivation of the Air Force Special Weapons Center, the 1606th Air Base Wing activated as the base host when Military Airlift Command took responsibility for operating Kirtland. Military Airlift Command leadership moved the 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing to Kirtland from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to be the training center for the command’s search and rescue personnel.
Through several reorganizations and reassignment to Air Education and Training Command, today’s 58th Special Operations Wing continues the training of specialized combat aircrew members at Kirtland. The expanded Kirtland pararescue training campus continues to produce elite warriors whose skills ensure “that others may live.”
After a major reorganization of the U.S. Air Force, the newly formed Air Force Materiel Command took over management of Kirtland AFB on Jan. 1, 1993. Air Force Materiel Command leadership reactivated the combat-decorated 377th Air Base Wing to serve as base host.
Soon thereafter, in summer 1993, the Air Force Inspection Agency and the Air Force Safety Agency moved their operations to a new complex on Kirtland because their longtime home station, Norton Air Force Base, California, was scheduled to close.
Air Force leadership returned the heritage of the Air Force Special Weapons Center to Kirtland. In 2006, it activated the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center and its subordinate 498th Nuclear Systems Wing to oversee the Air Force’s nuclear acquisition and sustainment mission. The 377th Air Base Wing was reassigned to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center to remain the base host.
In December 2014, the Air Force announced plans to realign the 377th Air Base Wing under Air Force Global Strike Command and to restructure the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center to improve the effectiveness of and support for the Air Force’s Nuclear Enterprise.