By Gabriel Monte and Tonya Fennell: Freedom New Mexico
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — More than one hundred airmen stood at attention Monday to witness the change of command at Cannon Air Force Base as Air Force Special Operations Command assumed ownership of the base.
During the short ceremony, Col. Scott West, 27th Fighter Wing commander, relinquished command of the base to Col. Tim Leahy as Cannon was also officially designated the 27th Special Operations Wing.
“This is an historic day. We have a new lease on life,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said. “The Special Operations Wing is going to be very much in demand with all the involvements we have in the world.”
The Pentagon recommended two years ago Cannon be closed, but instead it got a new special operations wing, the nation’s second.
That puts Cannon in the vanguard of the war on terrorism and eventually will make the base larger.
“I’m here to reassure you the history does not end today,” said the commander of Air Force Special Operations, Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley.
“It will carry on in new chapters.”
Wooley also talked about the importance of gaining the Melrose Bombing Range for special operations training.
“We are most excited about the Melrose Bombing Range,” Wooley said. “We consider it the crown jewel.”
The early-morning event also included Base personnel and invited dignitaries touring the lineup of new aircraft coming to Cannon.
Over the next few years the former F-16 base will get new aircraft, including the MC-130W Combat Spear, the remotely controlled MQ1 Predator, CV-22 tiltrotor Ospreys and AC-130 gunships.
According to AFSOC officials, approximately 12 MC-130Ws will be assigned to Cannon by 2009.
The Air Force has said the final active-duty population at Cannon is expected to be between 4,400 and 5,600 people and about 100 aircraft will be built up over the next six years.
The mission also includes several major construction projects at Cannon, including an MC-130 flight simulator facility, alterations to existing hangars to accommodate C-130s, a modern fuel storage and distribution system and a consolidated airmen’s center.
“We are committed to doing what’s needed to fully stand up this Special Operations Wing,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. “These airmen deserve the best bases, training capabilities and communities, and I know that they will have that at Cannon.”
Following the change of command ceremony, members of the delegation and local elected officials renewed their commitment to provide AFSOC with the resources to fully support the new 27th Special Operations Wing.
“We’re looking forward to becoming friends,” Clovis Mayor David Lansford said. “But the hard work will continue as we adapt to the growth. We will meet the needs of the people as they come in.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report