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Even tiny Las Vegas, New Mexico has an airport, one that was once famous when Charles Lindbergh took to the skies! Read about his visit to our Tiny Vegas:
Field of Dreams
80 years ago this month, a young man sat on the edge of dusty forever. His airplane’s wheels dug into dry prairie. He didn’t know the grass would soon lift from the earth and rage across the Great Plains in the clouds of fury and death that marked the Dust Bowl. You can see this man against an interior wall in the Las Vegas Railway Depot, his handsome face covered in aviator’s goggles, encased in framed glass. Two men stand behind the fuselage. They hug one another, dark intertwined shadows against the drought-scarred land.
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce leased the parcel beneath this plane one year before, plunked down earnest money for a 40-acre pasture. They drove out herds of thin cattle, a small handful of poor squatters, and declared the parched earth an airfield.
A local booster club gathered their men, carried buckets of thick white paint and heavy boar’s hair brushes to the pasture. They followed Herbert Hoover’s strict orders to label their space, painted “Las Vegas” on the hills, a careful circle around the airfield, on the evaporated land so that future aircraft would know they would be welcomed with home-cooked meals, a stuffed cotton bed.
The paint dried quickly in the New Mexican sun. The men looked at their creation and added an arrow so that wayward pilots could find the landing strip, even though one was not yet smoothed into the crusty surface.
The residents of Las Vegas patted each other on the back. Not many cities in the Southwest sported an official runway, a place of potential international commerce. Men visited the spot, sometimes taking wives sporting reed-woven picnic baskets filled with green chile stew and tortillas. No planes touched down, not then, not yet, but the city people knew it would soon happen. They added gates at both ends of the field for fuel trucks, and a tall wind sock made of tight white canvas.
The budding airfield caught the eye of Transcontinental Air Transport. TAT sent a courier to northeast New Mexico with an important letter. Las Vegas may
be one of our official stops, the letter read. Your town may be famous, a place where weary travelers stop on coast-to-coast journeys. We’re sending our president, the letter continued. Expect a visit from Charles Lindbergh on October 23rd.
Thousands of Las Vegans packed the airfield. Children carried tiny American flags sewn onto rigid sticks. Women wore their Sunday best and gently pressed fancy combs of glazed horn into their hair. The sun shot patterns of long-legged men across the soil as the people held handkerchiefs to their noses. A deafening cheer broke the wind’s howl when Lindbergh landed in a black plume of exhaust.
This moment echoes forever in the Depot’s waiting room. The hugging men speak for Las Vegas, for a future not yet realized, not yet understood, a future desperately wanted. The TAT didn’t share that hug. They choose Clovis as their official stop. Las Vegas didn’t stop leaning into the prairie wind. The City caught Lindbergh’s passion for flight, and eleven years later – after depression, after a decade of sifting dust – opened the airfield to regular traffic.
The first major construction at the Las Vegas Municipal Airport began on April 1, 1941 under the supervision of the Army Corp of Engineers, and in the summer of 1942, city officials opened the field with a solemn celebration intended to echo the gravitas of war. The first airport facilities included a communications station, a rotating beacon, a small brick building for Continental Air Lines, and a hangar for New Mexico Highlands University.
During World War II, the Navy used our airfield for pilot training. New Mexico Highlands University sent students to its hangar – then a classroom and workshop – training aircraft mechanics for defense work. After the war, the aircraft mechanics program branched out, with the university offering a two-year airport operators’ course until government support for the program ended after the Korean War.
Today the Las Vegas Municipal Airport consists of two asphalt paved runways, with an average of 13 airplanes served per day during summer’s warm vacations and six per day in the depths of winter.
Lindbergh never visited Las Vegas again. But somehow he still lives here, on the edge of the grasslands, just behind the train tracks, on a quiet wall only travelers see. His face is hidden in shadowbox glare, and his adventurous spirit radiates, flies past the perceptual boundaries of time and space, lands in the hearts of all Las Vegas’ people.