|At 7:30 a.m., I head out the door to meet the other two members of my party, coffee in hand. The air is cool this morning in Albuquerque, on the edge of being crisp. The sky is a cloudless, New Mexico blue. It is a good day to fly.
As the coffee lifts the morning fog from my brain, we pull into a quiet, deserted airport, park the car, and prepare our Bonanza for flight. We plan to go about as far south as one can without crossing state or national boundaries. Our destination: Santa Teresa, a small community in the southeast corner of New Mexico, seven miles from the Mexican Border.
Santa Teresa has become the international port-of-entry for New Mexico. It has increased the job market of the local area and is building itself into a business hub for the trade industry. The town has just started to shed its status as the small, unincorporated, agricultural community that it had been since the 1800swhen it competed with Hatch as the "Chile Growing Capital of the World."
Unless one is into trade, Santa Teresa has few lures for travelers, with one major exception: the internationally recognized War Eagles Air Museum at the International Doña Ana County Airport. It is our featured attraction for the day.
Up in the plane, we finish our hearty breakfast burritos (with green) and follow the Rio Grande at a steady 180 knots. We ride smoothly and keep a steady elevation of 8500 feet. Without a plane or bird in sight, we appear to be the only airborne beings this morning.
Once past Las Cruces40 highway miles from our destinationwe begin our descent. Below, I-25 is littered with various crops, including wineries, that take advantage of the river valley land. Entering Doña Ana County, the barren, desert landscape has given way to a patchwork of houses and farms.
Arriving at Santa Teresa, we bank right to approach the east/west runway, come in calmly, and taxi directly in front of the War Eagles Air Museum.
The War Eagles Air Museum is a large, two story brick building connected to a large white hangar. Founded in 1989 by John and Betty MacGuire of El Paso, it is dedicated to restoring and exhibiting historic aircraft from the World War II and Korean Conflict eras. The MacGuires were already aircraft collectors when they set up the privately owned nonprofit museum with fourteen planes. Today there are 30 planes altogether22 of which are in flying condition.
The War Eagles Air Museum attracts many war veterans and curious pilots, but its unique atmosphere of big band music and historic displays would interest any history buff. Housed in the 64,000 square foot hangar, the planes are arranged so that all the planes but one sit on the ground, alongside 14 classic automobiles and five military vehicles. All the planes are in gem condition, renovated there at the airport by maintenance personnel.
The first person you're likely to meet at the museum is Bob Magruder, the admissions and gift shop manager. Like all museum personnel we met, he was friendlybut quiet until asked historical flight-related questions. At that point, his eyes kindled with the memories and excitement of what those warbirds can do, and he opened up with tales of bygone days. Magruder explained that the museum attracts much international attentionentertaining visitors from 80 different countriesand it is currently being featured in Warbirds International, a London based publication.
Entering the museum, one first passes through the gift shop, which offers T-shirts, posters, and other historic memorabilia. The shop also houses the museum's first display case: A collection of bomber gear and bomb tags from World War II. The tags were pulled before each bombing and marked with the date and target destination.
Rumor has it that a few years ago, a German veteran entered the museum andas he was reading the tagshe noticed a particular date. He brought it to the attention of the museum staff, and told them that either the date or place had to be wrong. The tag was marked for Berlin, but on the tag's listed date, Berlin had not been bombed.
A museum staffer revealed that Berlin was not attacked that day because of poor visibility. On the return flight, the crew noticed an airfield outside the city and bombed it instead. The German veteran did remember the airstrip being destroyed that day
The staffer conceded to the German that the bomb must have been tagged when it was still destined for Berlin. Before long, the two vets were reminiscing about shared hardships in a war during which they each soluted a different flag.
From the gift shop, two large doors lead to a spacious hangar which is often bathed in diffuse sunlight. In the massive space, one's eyes first alight on The Friendly Ghost, the only flyable TF-51 two-seated trainer left in the world. Nearby stands its fighting compatriot, a P-51D Mustang (The museum is currently working on the restoration of a second P-51).
The arrangement of the planes and the displays in the hangar makes it impossible to move just one of the planes, and the insurance required to keep them legally flying is quite expensive. So it is only personal satisfaction which motivates the museum to keep them in flying condition. The knowledge that these once dominant birds of prey could still alight is its own reward.
Each plane is given a small information plate. The German Fieseler-Storch FI-156 plate conjures images of the alps and a stealthy Hitler taking off from his mountain hideout with less than 100 feet of runway. This contrasts with the light hearted image of the Cotton Clipper Cutie, a bright pink Cessna 140A which won the Powder Puff Derby in 1954. Back then, it was flown by two current museum volunteers, Ruth Deerman and Ruby Hays, former WASPs (Womens Airforce Service Pilots).
Along the eastern wall are old posters and pictures of warbirds, bombers and pin-up girls (an essential piloting accessory). There is also a large panel of photographs dedicated to the WASPs: daring women who chose to defy the societal norms and become pilots. Although WASPs never saw combat, they contributed in reconnaissance missions worldwide.
Upstairs, a balcony houses the new library. Beyond the library is the lounge with plenty of tables, a few couches and a small kitchen. It is available for parties, conferences and other functions. The entire northern wall is glass, so one can watch aircraft take off and land. Directly below the windows is one of the museum's outside display planes: a Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 PFM Fishbed F. It was restored a few years ago, and the names of the maintenance crew are written in Cyrillicas the Russians would have done to identify their pilot and crew.
The Doña Ana County Airport at Santa Teresa is more concisely and commonly known as the Santa Teresa Airport. There, Tom Humphries is the Director of Operations and Maintenance. Humphries, who flew F-4s in Vietnam, arrived in Santa Teresa from Grants around the time of the airport's inception in 1979. Back then, there were a half-dozen buildings; today there are 21, and plans continue for more expansion.
Two new T-hangars were built two years ago, each able to hold up to 18 planescompleting the five hangars the airport has right now. Two more T-hangars of the same size are in the surveying stage of construction. Twelve new corporate hangars of 5,000 square feet are being planned. Plans for a future crosswind runway are also being developed. Currently 175 planes hang their wheel chocks at the Santa Teresa airport, which also houses Genes Flight School, Nord Aviation, Inc., Sky Dive El Paso, and Fly for Fun, USA.
A customs clearing house since 1993, Santa Teresa, New Mexico recently finished its official Border Crossing Patrol Station. At $10 million dollars, this new border station crosses into Chihuahua, Mexico and is designed for rapid and efficient handling of international trade. It is a new port design which will hopefully be a model for future border station facilities.
In front of Humphries office is a large yellow circle. Pilots who fly into the U.S. must first give U.S. Customs an hours notice. Once the pilot reaches Santa Teresa, he/she is required to remain within the yellow circle until cleared for U.S. entry. The airports popularity has grown because clearing customs is quicker than in El Paso, and fuel is less expensive.
The airport itself sees mostly high value, low volume jet carriers, along with the "antique warbirds" which visit the museum. Businesses keep their jets here because property tax is less in New Mexico than Texas. Additional traffic comes for the horse racing at the Sunland Park Racetrack. Finally, the Chihuahua Cattle Growers (Union Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua) operation lies two miles east of the port-of-entry. This is the site for one of the most modern and efficient international border cattle crossings in North America.
Santa Teresas National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Weather Station gives weather information to El Paso and the surrounding area. Consequently, Santa Teresa airport has accurate weather reports. Sitting at 3,930 MSL, Santa Teresa sees little but sunshine. Temperatures for the entire county average 43 degrees in the winter and 78 degrees in the summer.
Workers at the airport tell of a summer heat that can be exhaustingsometimes reaching above a hundred degrees. On the light side, Terry Nord, President of Nord Aviation, Inc. used to fly to Alaska during the summer to transport salmon. Upon his return, he would leave his DC-3 open to air out. On the hot days, pilots, area employees and passersby bathed in the smell at even the furthest corners of the airport.
After an enjoyable day which wasnt nearly as hot as it could have been, we took off and circled the airport once to take a final glance before leaving the remote airport and the birds from days past behind us.