The final step in a nerve-racking 2 1/2 year effort to keep Cannon Air Force Base from extinction will take place Monday when the base transitions from a fighter wing to a special operations wing.
The Special Operations Command wing puts Cannon in the vanguard of the war on terrorism and will make it larger, not smaller.
“It’s great for us and it will be great for the community,” said Chief Master Sgt. Gary Emery, who is on temporary duty at Cannon helping the base get ready for the changeover. “It’s really going to expand our capability. This gives us a base closer to the West Coast so we can support special operations there.”
The first airmen and aircraft from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., will begin arriving in November.
The Air Force has said the final active-duty population at Cannon is expected to be between 4,400 to 5,600 people, built up over the next six years.
Two years ago, things looked much grimmer.
The Defense Department in May 2005 recommended closing the base, which has been part of the community since 1942. Closure would have eliminated more than 2,700 jobs at the base and cost an additional 2,000 indirect jobs. One study predicted that closing Cannon would mean a $98 million loss to Curry County alone.
In August 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission accepted the Pentagon’s recommendation to send Cannon’s fighter squadrons elsewhere — but stopped short of closing it. Instead, the commission made Cannon an enclave, keeping it open in a much-reduced form while the Defense Department looked for another mission.
Cannon could have shut down if no new mission had been found by the end of 2009, but last summer the Defense Department announced the base would become home to a special operations wing — the nation’s second.
Prayers, letters and phone calls by the dedicated residents of eastern New Mexico paved the way for the new mission at Cannon, according Randy Harris, a prominent leader of a local Cannon lobbyist group, the Committee of Fifty.
“So many people did so many good things,” Harris said. “So many people were focused on one thing — keeping Cannon.”
Harris, who emerged as a leader in the effort to save Cannon from closure, said he is “tickled to death” that the official day for Special Operations to assume ownership of the base has arrived.
“The people of this community and the Committee of Fifty have dedicated themselves to caring for the men and women at Cannon for the past 50 years,” he said, “and we don’t plan on stopping.”
Following the decision on May 13, 2005, to place Cannon on the BRAC closure list business in eastern New Mexico declined and construction projects halted. The real estate industry became stagnant.
But, as the months passed, officials said business in Clovis was slowly regaining momentum.
Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce President Terry Moberly said new businesses are once again looking at building in Clovis.
“The new special operations mission at Cannon should entice other businesses to come here and look at Clovis,” he said.
During a BRAC regional hearing held in Clovis in June 2005 thousands of people lined the streets, wearing T-shirts and waving signs reading “Keep Cannon.”
Harris said the parade of supporters is one of his favorite memories associated with the BRAC process.
“I am so proud of the patriotic attitude of the people in our area,” he said.
Moberly said residents of Clovis and Portales are fortunate the base was saved.
“It would have been very hard to recover,” he said. “It would have taken years or decades to overcome.”
Federal officials announced in June 2006 Cannon would be home to an Air Force Special Operations Wing.
Cheer spread throughout the High Plains when residents received word of the announcement.
Signs reading “Operation: Kept Cannon” replaced the older “Operation: Keep Cannon” ones. A month later, thousands of residents, young and old, assembled at the Clovis Civic Center to celebrate the new mission.
Harris said that celebration was warranted.
“We did something that has never been done before in history to my knowledge,” he said. “We got our base off the closure list.”
AFSOC officials said the exact timeline for moving aircraft and airmen hinges on several construction projects that are slated to begin in this year. Construction projects will include eight large aircraft hangars, three squadron operations facilities and additional dormitories.
Expansions of the main runway and office buildings are also planned.
Support personnel assigned to the 27th Fighter Wing are expected to remain at Cannon under the new command, Cannon officials said.
Cannon spokesperson Lt. Col. Mark Brown, who addressed the Clovis Municipal School Board at a regular meeting Sept. 25, warned against expecting an immediate influx in base population.
“We are on a decline and we will be on a low base population for awhile, down around a few thousand, but on a very gradual basis the Air Force Special Operations Command will be feeding people into Cannon.”
Moberly and Harris said they are excited about Monday’s change of command ceremony.
“This is a day of celebration,” Harris said, “and a day of thanksgiving.”
“We were successful in our effort (to save Cannon),” Moberly said. “Mission accomplished.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
• Late 1920s — Portair Field, a civilian passenger facility, was established on the site. Portair, a terminal for early commercial transcontinental flights, flew passengers in the Ford Trimotor “Tin Goose” by day, and used Pullman trains for night travel. In the 1930s Portair was renamed Clovis Municipal Airport.
• January 1943 — A glider detachment was the first military unit to use the facility. The 16th Bombardment Operational Wing, was a training unit for B-24, B-17 and then B-29 heavy bombers.
• April 8, 1943 — The base was renamed Clovis Army Air Field. Flying, bombing, gunnery and photographic reconnaissance classes continued through the end of World War II.
• Mid-1946 — The airfield was placed on reduced operational status and flying activities decreased. The installation was deactivated in May 1947.
• July 1951 — The base was reactivated and assigned to Tactical Air Command. The first unit, the 140th Fighter Bomber Wing, arrived in October. Air National Guard elements from Colorado, Utah and Wyoming made up the 140th, which flew the P-51 “Mustang” fighter. The 140th formally reactivated the airfield on November 15, 1951, as Clovis Air Force Base.
• January 1951 — The 50th Fighter Bomber Wing, another fighter unit, was activated at the base. The F-86 “Sabre” began arriving in early 1953. The 50th Fighter Bomber Wing served at the base until it was transferred overseas in August.
• 1952 — The 140th returned to Air National Guard control.
• November 1953 — Clovis Air Force Base’s second F-86 unit, the 388th Fighter Bomber Wing, was activated. The 388th was sent overseas in October 1954.
• 1955 — The 312th Fighter Bomber Group replaced the 388th, bringing in F-84s before switching to F-86s.
• December 1955 — The base became a major training installation for “Sabre” pilots. The 474th, was transferred to Clovis from Taegu, Korea. The first F-100 “Super-Sabre” arrived in December 1956. The F-100 became the principal aircraft at the base for the next 12 years.
• June 1957 — The base was renamed Cannon Air Force Base in honor of the late General John K. Cannon, a former commander of Tactical Air Command.
• October 1957 — The 312th and 474th Fighter Bomber Groups were redesignated tactical fighter wings. The 832nd Air Division was activated to oversee their activities.
• 1958 — Cannon F-100s and crews deployed to Taiwan during the Formosa Crisis. They also deployed to Turkey the same year.
• 1959 — The 312th was deactivated and replaced at Cannon by the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing. The 27th, another F-100 unit, transferred to Cannon from Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. Succeeding major deployments of Cannon’s F-100s took place during the 1961 Berlin Crisis and the 1962 Cuban Crisis.
Units from Cannon deployed the first F-100 squadron to Thailand in 1962-1963, and Vietnam in 1964. In 1965, other deployments to Thailand and Vietnam followed. The 474th Tactical Fighter Wing moved to Luke AFB in Arizona in September 1965.
• December 1965 — The base’s mission changed to a replacement training unit. The 27th Tactical Fighter Wing became the largest such unit in TAC.
• 1969 — The wing received its first F-111E aircraft and in July 1972 the last operational Air Force F-100s were transferred to the Air National Guard. In mid-1972, the 27th completed conversion to the highly sophisticated F-111D, after ferrying the F-111Es to England. There were three operational fighter squadrons and one training squadron.
The 27th also trained forward air controllers and air liaison officers in AT-33s from 1968 to 1973.
• January 1980 — The 481st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron was deactivated and the 524th Tactical Fighter Squadron was redesignated as the 524th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron. That left the 27th with one training and two operational fighter squadrons.
• Dec. 28, 1988 — Marked the beginning of Cannon’s expansion as a result of decisions made by the Secretary of Defense’s Commission on Base Realignment and Closures.
• April 1, 1990 — The 428th Fighter Training Squadron was reactivated at Cannon Air Force Base as part of the installation’s expanding mission. With the reactivation of the 428th FTS, FB-111 aircraft from Strategic Air Command arrived at Cannon and were converted to F-111Gs. F-111Es replaced Cannon’s squadron of F-111Gs when they were retired.
• June 1, 1992 — Cannon Air Force Base and the 27th Fighter Wing were integrated into Air Combat Command as part of the reorganization of Tactical Air Command and Strategic Air Command. Three squadrons of F-111Fs arrived from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England replacing Cannon’s fleet of F-111Ds in 1993. The 430th Electronic Combat Squadron’s 25 EF-111A Ravens began arriving from the 390th ECS, Mountain Home, Idaho, and the 42nd ECS, RAF Upper Heyford, England in May 1992. The 430th ECS was replaced by the 429th ECS in June 1993.
• September 1995 — The first operational flight of the F-16 lifted off Cannon’s runway. Three fighter squadrons —522 FS, 523 FS, 524 FS — were fully equipped with F-16s by August 1996. Following a period of training, the first operational squadron was ready for combat operations around the world in January 1997. The wing also maintained its EF-111 mission as the only Raven unit in the Air Force.
• June 1998 — The Air Force officially retired the EF-111A. As a result of the retirement, the 429th Electronic Combat Squadron was inactivated June 19, 1998.
• September 1998 — The 428th Fighter Squadron was reactivated at Cannon Air Force Base. The Peace Carvin III squadron was a hybrid United States Air Force/Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 Fighter Squadron manned by Air Force instructor pilots, maintenance and support personnel. With approximately 25 Air Force personnel and 140 Republic of Singapore Air Force personnel, the unit was responsible for continuation training of Singapore personnel in rapid deployment and tactical employment of the F-16 throughout a wide spectrum of missions including air-to-air, joint maritime and precision air-to-ground weapons delivery.
• June 2005 — In its BRAC Recommendations, Department of Defense recommended to close Cannon Air Force Base. As a result, it would distribute the 27th Fighter Wing’s F-16s to several bases nationwide. DoD’s justification for closing Cannon was the Air Force’s overriding strategy to more effectively employ the shrinking Air Force structure by organizing its weapon systems into fewer, larger squadrons and by eliminating excess physical capacity.
The final decision was to realign Cannon Air Force Base by disestablishing the 27th Fighter Wing and distributing its aircraft. The Air Force established an enclave at Cannon Air Force Base to remain open until Dec. 31, 2009 during which time the Secretary of Defense was to seek other newly-identified missions with all military services for possible assignment to Cannon Air Force Base.
• June 2006 — The Department of Defense and a New Mexico congressional delegation announced the decision to relocate the 16th Special Operations Wing to Cannon. The transition is expected to begin immediately and the Special Operations wing will take command Oct. 1, 2007.
• October 2007 — Air Force Special Operations assumes ownership of Cannon Air Force Base. Col. Timothy Leahy becomes the first commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing.