Saving an Historic Landscape
By William Wehner
The First Aero Squadron Aerodrome
It sure isn’t much to look at now… less than a square mile of Chihuahua scrub. Stunted mesquite, prickly pear, a scattering of rabbit brush and creosote, a few tufts of gramma… fit only for the occasional rattler and jack.
There are few traces of what had taken place here in the last 90 or so years. There’s a scattering of old boundary markers; foundations of a couple of small buildings; and some places where the desert has yet to retake what used to be busy runways.
In 1916, before anyone ever thought that someday airplanes might need runways, Captain Benjamin Foulois’ First Aero Squadron moved onto what was then just a relatively open sand/gravel desert, unloaded their new FWD trucks and set up what they called an aerodrome. They pitched canvas hangars next to canvas living quarters, then moved canvas airplanes into them. They dodged coon-tail rattlers, ate sand in their beans, cursed their wood-and-wire monsters and coaxed them into the air from time to time only to have the Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” aircraft balk at the dry and the heat and the wind. Their mission was to assist the army of Gen Black Jack Pershing (and Lt. George Patton)1 catch and punish one Francisco “Pancho” Villa for his raid on Columbus, New Mexico in the early morning of March 9th.
What they actually accomplished was the preparation of the fledgling Army Air Service to fight in WWI. The Punitive Expedition saw the birth of American Airpower, and the aerodrome at Columbus was its cradle2.
In the years that followed, the aerodrome witnessed one of the first transcontinental flights followed by a small boom in local aviation activity. While the Village of Columbus waxed and waned, use of the airstrip grew. The Civil Aeronautics Agency elected to make the field a major reliever on the El Paso-San Diego route. At least one emergency landing here by a four-engine airliner made national headlines. The Columbus Airport, as the aerodrome had become known, was depicted on aeronautical charts as an FAA field, although by 1967 it was reclassified as a restricted, or “private” airport. A landing field at Columbus was attractive for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its proximity to the International Border—just 2 ½ miles away. A small group of pilots based near there became known as the “Columbus Air Force” in the late 70s. They were eventually forced to cease their late night, low level forays across the border by Federal Drug Enforcement officers, and the use of the airport by anyone became cause for suspicion.
The aerodrome of the First Aero Squadron had become a place where history was made, over and over again.3
The Money Equation
The First Aero Squadron’s landing field is barely remembered beyond South Luna County, New Mexico, yet it is without parallel as a historic landscape. It could easily be classed along side Dayton’s Hoffman Meadow; and certainly with places like Opa Locka, Florida (a hugely busy general aviation airport that was an original locale for the Curtiss Flying School); or with Akron Fulton Airport; Tampa’s Drew Field- the list goes on. However, no matter how important historically, if the money is not in the offing history will go unsaved.
Most preservationists have learned early that no money equals no history. The search for start-up funds is especially important when one must purchase as site before there can be any thought of restoration. The eternal question in historic preservation seem to be: “…where is the money going to come from?” The sad fact is: history cannot be saved with out investment of time, of energy, and especially money. In order to bring back the aerodrome both financial methods and sources had to be found.
Columbus is arguably the poorest village in the poorest county in one of the nation’s poorest states. It was obvious from the start that support- moral as well as financial- had to come from the “outside.”4
Asking “Who Benefits?”
Although the old airport is just outside of the village proper, it is included in the Columbus Historic District landmarked by the National Trust. By 2005 it was becoming apparent to a few locals that a major developer would either gobble the site, or cause its historic value as an airfield to be lost. This author developed a short monograph, partially based on research by historian Richard Dean, in which a modest plan was proposed for the restoration of the aerodrome complete with a museum and memorial. Additionally, it was proposed that the field could be returned to operational status with the potential of actually being partially self-supporting. Beyond that was the very real possibility that a restored, operating aerodrome could be a major tourist attraction for this impoverished area.
As every serious reader of novels in the crime genre knows, there is a principle in the investigation of murder that says, to find a culprit, ask the question: “who benefits?” The same applies to historic intervention; that is, who will benefit most from an historic save? The most obvious answer is, the local community, but it is equally obvious that no money was about to come out of the village or for that matter the county. It was necessary to look hard at the secondary beneficiaries. For a couple of decades, community leaders as well as the historically minded such as the aforementioned Mr. Dean were saying, in effect, “We need to do something.” The problem was that no one ever identified what that “something” was, or who was going to step up to the challenge. No one investigated the key question- who would benefit most? If support was not going to come from government or local historical interests, then where?
Reaching out to the Aviation Community
It was recognized early that an appeal to local history buffs for money to support an effort to save the field would be agonizingly limited. Local experience ruled out going to the political arena. Who else might be interested? A majority of those locals wanting to see the field saved were pilots. OK, someone said, let’s try there…
In 2006, a few locals led by the five member Village Historic Preservation Commission and supported by a few village trustees and a number of local airpark residents, held an organizational meeting aimed primarily at the aviation community in southern New Mexico. This soon proved to be a sound strategy; support has come from some historical quarters, but the bulk of interest initially came from flight enthusiasts, and those folks nationally remain the biggest single support group. Following that early meeting, a 501(c)(3) foundation was formed, structured with a nine member board of trustees (mostly local) and a 12+ member advisory board. This latter is composed of various aviation luminaries whose primary responsibility is to open financial and publicity doors for the foundation. General membership is open to the public for an annual $20, and donations are encouraged 5. A pilot-to-pilot nationwide recruiting campaign was launched and two major players were enlisted to take leadership roles as a part of the Advisory Board. The first of these players was the late Jim Greenwood, a former FAA Assistant Administrator, Learjet executive, author and expert on the First Aero Squadron. Greenwood had been interested in the aerodrome for a number of years and seemed a natural to lead the Advisory group.
The second individual was Peter Westacott, internationally known aviation and marine artist whose painting of aviation activities of First Aero now graces the office of the Air Force Chief of Staff in the Pentagon. Westacott offered to donate a number of prints to be used as fundraisers, then in September 2009, led an entourage of aviation icons to Columbus where he spent the better part of a day signing and embossing prints for donors.
The First Aero Foundation, as it was called, identified several major goals, not the least of which was to memorialize the intrepid airmen themselves. A part of those goals involved the creation of an interactive museum devoted to the period from the Punitive Expedition through the “golden age” of aviation—roughly 1910-1939. Another not insubstantial goal was restoring the functional airfield to at least partial private use.
Saving the Aerodrome
A sixty acre parcel of the historic site had come to market about the time that the First Aero Squadron Foundation was being formed. The foundation trustees determined that purchase of that parcel would lend legitimacy to the project and should be the first major step to be taken by the group. The asking price was $60,000—considerably more than was available from the membership, especially at the rate of $20 per year. It was becoming obvious that some action had to be taken—a lengthy delay might mean loss of the parcel forever in spite of its historic importance.
Various strategies were considered. At one point, Gene Valdes, the foundation president, and this author met with the most prominent regional developer to ask that his group purchase the 60 acres and hold them for the foundation. The developer agreed to make an offer on the property, after stating categorically that he would not tolerate an operational airport near his developments. Unfortunately for the foundation, the developer withdrew from negotiations after tendering a low-ball offer that was refused by the owner
After the listing ran out in early 2009, and with the advice of the listing agent, the group decided to contact the owner personally to negotiate for the property. Unspoken but nonetheless at the heart of the negotiation was, how in what had come to be a lousy economy, do you raise 60 grand?
At the same time a few members of the foundation agreed to lend up to $35,000 for the purchase. The price was ultimately set at $50,000, with the owner agreeing to carry a note for the $15,000 balance. The terms involved a land contract and very favorable interest terms. 6
As this is written, the final signatures are being affixed to the proper documents. The creation of strategies is an ongoing process, however, since this acquisition is only a first in a series of steps to bring the First Aero mission to fruition. Most involve fund raising, of course, without losing sight of the ultimate goals of the foundation.
A Few guides to Success
For the First Aero Squadron Foundation, the process described above is only a beginning. To achieve their eventual goals several millions of dollars must be raised, the rest of the historic site purchased and buildings erected and staffed. A long road ahead, and the journey barely started. Given the amount of interest generated so far it would seem likely that the group is headed for success, although to what degree (and how soon) remains conjecture.
At the start of the project, the group identified exactly the physical aspects of the project and set long-term goals. No time limits were set, the emphasis was to be on quality of performance rather than speed. Given that the ultimate beneficiary of any project of this sort is the public at large, the next step was to identify the group or groups likely to support the project based on the benefit to themselves.
The plan of action was not limited to the scope of the organizing group. Outside help was actively recruited. Organizers were advised to ask for support- everyone knows at least 10 people that can be asked to join the effort. Not all of them will, but among those who do join, a surprising number will actually be flattered to be asked.
All contacts were (and still are) regular and personal. The First Aero Foundation publishes a quarterly newsletter, each with a handwritten note added before mailing. Yes, this is terribly time consuming, but even a single personal sentence keeps members directly involved. The prevailing attitude has to be, “we are in this thing together and we are going to succeed together.”
- Benjamin “Benny” Foulois was to command the Army Air Corps in the mid-30s. Patton you know about.
- First Aero was also the first Army unit to mechanize their own transportation. While the major mode of transport was by rail, the squadron had their workshops were installed on trucks, and the aircraft were dismantled to racks on other trucks. Arrival at a destination meant rolling vehicles off flat cars instead of unloading boxcars piecemeal. When they finished unloading in Columbus, by the way, the Quartermaster immediately commandeered all their trucks and drivers.
- For a modern look at the Punitive Expedition see Eileen Welsome’s The General and the Jaguar.
- Interestingly, if one Googles “historic airports”, the search proves mostly fruitless.
- Please download and submit a Membership Application.
- Three years at zero percent followed by two years at 4%.
About The Author: Bill Wehner sold his landscape design/build practice in Iowa in 2002. He served on the Davenport Historic Preservation Commission and as president of the Historic Village of East Davenport Association. He and wife Mary accidentally got into historic preservation contracting first as a hobby, then as an important source of income. He has appeared on Public TV’s About Your House with Bob Yapp, and has served as president of the Iowa Nursery and Landscape Association.
He is a licensed, instrument-rated pilot who has been flying since the ‘60’s. He and Mary now live in a hangar/apartment in a Columbus airpark.