White Sands Missile Range has much to offer visitors

In addition, there are Holloman AFB, Ft. Bliss and McGregor Range

Judy Underwood

(What follows is the second of a two-part series by Judy Underwood, who recently moved from Rye to Timberon, New Mexico.)

The Nike Hercules was originally designed as a surface-to-air missile. Many were deployed around major U.S. cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Carrying 100 pounds of TNT, they were programmed to arm themselves about one mile up and to self-destruct at around 8,000 feet if they missed the target, under the assumption that there were no major cities above 8,000 feet. In the 1970s, there was some experimentation to use the Hercules as a surface-to-surface missile, using mobile launchers. Testing as a surface-to-surface missile required the disabling of the self-destruct mechanism.

Timberon shares its southern border with McGregor Range. The range is fenced and there are warning signs all along the boundary. On February 9, 1976, while Dorothy Hamill was competing in the Winter Olympics, an armed Nike Hercules landed in Timberon. It was the first time a missile had gone "off-post." It blew the windows out of four buildings, including our community center. It converted the lot where it landed into a gravel pit. This lot is now the site for our town dumpster. To see a slideshow of pictures of a Nike Hercules impact, click here.

Not long after the explosion, Ken Bradshaw, who was stationed at Ft. Bliss, was sent to Timberon to collect pieces of the missile which were presented to the departing base commander at his "roast."

White Sands Missile Range

White Sands National Monument, which I wrote about last month, is wholly contained within White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). San Andres National Wildlife Refuge is also contained within WSMR. Unfortunately, this refuge, located in the mountains to the west of White Sands National Monument, is not generally open to the public.

White Sands and Ft. Bliss McGregor Ranges, courtesy Yahoo! maps

WSMR is approximately 40 miles wide by 100 miles long. It is the largest overland range in the country. When combined with the adjacent Ft. Bliss McGregor Range complex, the total area is nearly 5,000 square miles, more than half the size of New Hampshire. The range is so large that it was difficult for personnel to find missiles after test launches. Missile dogs were used to locate parts which had been sprayed with squalene, a shark-liver oil, a scent the dogs were trained to detect.

Most of the land acquired for the ranges was ranch land. Some ranchers were not happy about giving up their land.

WSMR is used by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and NASA

Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic bomb test on July 16, 1945, is at the north end of the range. It is open to visitors twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October.

After World War II, Werner von Braun and his rocket team from Germany developed rockets, particularly the V-2, launching them at WSMR, called White Sands Proving Ground until 1958. There is an excellent chronology of the area on the WSMR website.

NASA operates a complex at WSMR, White Sands Space Harbor which is used as a training facility for shuttle pilots. The space shuttle Columbia landed here only once, in 1982. The fine gypsum sand got into every crevice of the shuttle. The runway is 35,000 feet long and is still available as an emergency landing site.

Rocket exhibit with Nike Hercules on the left

The museum at the WSMR base is open to the public. It is primarily an outdoor museum, with a sampling of rockets covering the history of the rocket program.

Organ Mountains, backdrop to the WSMR base

Holloman Airforce Base

F-22 Raptor, photo courtesy Holloman Air Force Base

Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB) is located on the east side of WSMR. Currently home to six F-22 Raptors, there will be 40, or two squadrons, by November, 2009. Now and then we hear and feel sonic booms over Timberon. HAFB is the western training base for the F-22.

The 2005 commemorative issue of the Alamogordo News recalling events of 60 years earlier

The Heritage Center, a small museum at HAFB, details some important moments in the history of the base, including the space shuttle landing in 1982 and the land speed record of 632 mph set in 1954 by Col. John Paul Stapp on the world's longest, flatest and fastest high-speed track. The track is 10-miles long.

F-117A Nighthawk, the Darth Vader of airplanes

In front of the museum is a display of various fighter planes, including the F-117A Nighthawk, which employs stealth technology.

There are currently 719 German Air Force personnel training at HAFB. Every fall, the Germans sponsor an Octoberfest which is open to the public.

Bataan Memorial Death March

Albert Fairweather completing the Bataan Memorial Death March, 2008
Each year at WSMR, the base hosts the Annual Bataan Death March to honor those who died in WWII in the Phillipines. There is a marathon route and a 15.2 mile route through high desert country near the base.

Over 4,400 military and civilians, including 32 amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, participated in last year's event. Three Bataan survivors also attended.

If you are interested, those in the heavy division run while wearing at least 35 pound packs. In 2009, the 20th year for this event, the Bataan Memorial Death March will be held on March 29th.

The Oryx

The oryx, photo courtesy Albert Fairweather

Between 1969 and 1973, 93 oryx were released into the White Sands Missile range by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, to provide a huntable wildlife population. The National Park Service fenced White Sands National Monument and is still removing oryx. It was determined that the oryx might upset the delicate balance of native plants and animals inside the Monument. In New Mexico, the oryx has few natural predators, none on WSMR. The coyotes and mountain lions cannot control the population. The ranchers don't like the oryx because they compete with the cattle for feed and they go under the fences, doing damage.

Sparky Fairweather displays a successful oryx hunt, photo courtesy Albert Fairweather

Oryx are hunted on and off WSMR and McGregor Range. Off-range hunts are population reduction hunts which can be applied for once a year for a one-month license. On-range hunts have traditionally been "once in a lifetime" for a two-day license. Because of the high demand for hunting oryx and other game, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has a lottery system. The 2009 Rules and Information lists an out-of-state license for oryx as costing $1,622.00, clearly a good revenue generator for the state. Hunting oryx is allowed in the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge from November to April each year. In spite of the fact that there are an estimated 3-4,000 oryx on the two ranges and the nearby public lands, I have not yet seen one.

The legend of gold at Victorio Peak

In 1937, "Doc" Noss was out hunting. When he returned, he claimed that he had found a stash of gold bars in a chamber inside Victorio Peak. After WSMR was formed, Victorio Peak ended up inside the range. There have been numerous expeditions in the 1960s and 1970s to recover the gold, with no success. The TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, did a piece on the legend. John Dean mentioned it during his Watergate testimony, generating additional interest. There is an entertaining history of the legend on the WSMR website written by Jim Eckles, now retired.

Outside WSMR

White Sands, courtesy Google Earth

This shot covers approximately the same area as the beginning map. White Sands National Monument is clearly visible near the center. Notice black slash at the upper center. This area is the Malpais Lava Flow, approximately 5,000 years old, one of the youngest lava flows in the country. The adjacent Valley of Fires Recreation Area serves visitors to the Malpais.

There is a handicap-accessible trail which snakes through the lava flow.

After 5,000 years, some life returns to the Malpais

Sunset across the McGregor Range to mountains in Mexico, from Timberon

Thank you to Albert Fairweather of High Rolls, Ken Bradshaw of Timberon, the Public Affairs Office of White Sands Missile Base, the Public Affairs Office of Ft. Bliss and the Public Affairs Office of Holloman Air Force Base for assistance with this article.

February, 2009