Alamogordo, New Mexico: The Friendliest Place On Earth…

…and the discreet setting for Holloman Air Force Base. The location is well known to the UK Reaper aircrew who settle in for up to 6 months of their training at the US Air Force Formal Training Unit (FTU), with 16th  Training Squadron (TRS), and 9th or 29th Attack Squadron (ATKS) of 49th Operations Group (OG). I’ll park the acronyms there, as I just spent far too much time finding out what the last three stand for…

So what does this place have to offer at 4,000ft above sea-level, with terrain and climate almost perfectly mimicking that found in the plains and mountains near Kandahar? Well, it’s a great first toilet stop between El Paso and Phoenix, and it’s also only about three hours south of the setting for Breaking Bad. The End.

At least that’s what crews may think when being driven up from the nearest international airport, just over the state border in Texas. But by the time they leave they will likely have a whole different view, and wish they had actually spent more time visiting the multiple military, technological, and geographical treasures the area has to offer. Instead they would probably tell you how risky it was going to Palm Side Bar (even for karaoke night), but that Jerry’s Lounge was a good laugh and Buffalo Wild Wings had some of the spiciest sauces they knew, and if you counted them there were 23 drive-through options between the apartments and the base gates (and another two inside!).

Let’s start with the base itself. Holloman was set up for the British in 1941 when we saw the empty skies of New Mexico as a perfect place for flying training. Instead it quickly became a training base for the US, after the attack on Pearl Harbour officially turned on their war machine later that year. It opened its gates on 10th June 1942 and has been at the forefront of military development and training ever since.

Post-war, its first assignment was to be the centre for testing and development of pilotless aircraft, guided missiles and other research programmes. For the next 25 years the site launched many missiles including Tiny Tim (the first Army rocket), and multiple V-2s that were imported from the German war efforts, (along with many of the scientists who had worked on them). The weapons ranges associated with the base also gave birth to the atomic age when, on 16th July 1945, the Trinity explosion was set off on White Sands Missile Range, where ground zero is open to the public for one day a year on the first Saturday in April.

On 10th December 1954, Lt Col (Dr.) John P. Stapp received the nickname “The Fastest Man Alive” when he rode a rocketpropelled test sled to a speed of 632 miles per hour on the Holloman High Speed Test Track (HHSTT – oops, sorry). The track is the world’s longest, at 50,188 feet (almost 10 miles), and fastest (approaching Mach 9), and is still used regularly to test weapon and aircraft characteristics at higher speeds as well as rocket propulsion. Then, on 16th August 1960, Captain Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. stepped out of a balloon gondola at 102,800 ft, in an attempt to evaluate techniques of high altitude bailout. That jump broke four world records, which stood until the recent efforts of Felix Baumgartner in October 2012. And on 29th November 1961, Enos, a chimpanzee trained at Holloman Aero-Medical, or ‘HAM’, was the first U.S. specimen launched into orbit. The laboratories played a major part in the space race, and the highly trained animals still remain on the base.

Today the base is home to multinational training for remotely piloted aircraft crews, with the French Air Force graduating their first operators earlier this year on the MQ-9 to join those of the US, UK and Italian air forces. When they set up at Holloman, they joined the German Air Force Tactical Training Centre on their version of the Tornado aircraft. In addition to those, there is now an F-16 FTU moving in to replace the F-22 one that was relocated to Phoenix. No doubt the local population will miss the frequency of the “sound of freedom” (sonic booms) provided by the departing stealthy resident. There is also a squadron that flies drone Phantom QF-4s for testing and targeting.

The near 60,000 acre site is set in the Tularosa Basin with stunning views of the imposing peaks immediately to the north, and the White Sands National monument to the south, which looks and feels like a desert made entirely of icing sugar. It is home to more than 17,000 personnel and their families who can feasibly get to the cultural areas of El Paso, Tucson (home of the aircraft bone yard), Albuquerque, Santa Fe or even Roswell! The snowy slopes of Colorado or the vibrant city of Phoenix are available for a fee of seven hours in a car, or if they can stomach a 10-hour drive, then Vegas, Austin and San Diego are possible for a long weekend. And if they were to take a wrong turn from the middle of nowhere on their way to somewhere, they could easily stumble on the new Virgin Galactic Spaceport America, just three hours west of the basin. However, they are advised to stay clear of any southerly vector for too long unless they want to try their chances with the Cartels across the border!

Of course there is a job to be done once the RAF crews destined for XIII or 39 Sqn get there to start the course, which is surprisingly similar to the way the RAF runs its own conversion courses.  It is also the only place the aircrew get to look around the aircraft they fly! Another major benefit is getting to know the USAF way of life, into which the UK Reaper community is currently still closely knitted, but it also offers the chance to better understand the heritage of this sparse but interesting part of the world. It’s also interesting to discover that at 4,000ft above sea level, you don’t need to do any exercise, as you get tired just walking from the car to the front door!