Air Force photo: Greg Allen A CV-22 Osprey with its rotors folded sits in a hangar at Cannon Air Force Base during a hangar clearance test. Ospreys are among the aircraft to be assigned to the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon.
By Tonya Fennell: CNJ staff writer
The final step in a nerve-racking 2 1/2 year effort to keep Cannon Air Force Base from extinction will take place Monday when the base transitions from a fighter wing to a special operations wing.
The Special Operations Command wing puts Cannon in the vanguard of the war on terrorism and will make it larger, not smaller.
“It’s great for us and it will be great for the community,” said Chief Master Sgt. Gary Emery, who is on temporary duty at Cannon helping the base get ready for the changeover. “It’s really going to expand our capability. This gives us a base closer to the West Coast so we can support special operations there.”
The first airmen and aircraft from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., will begin arriving in November.
The Air Force has said the final active-duty population at Cannon is expected to be between 4,400 and 5,600 people, built up over the next six years.
Two years ago, things looked much grimmer.
The Defense Department in May 2005 recommended closing the base, which has been part of the community since 1942. Closure would have eliminated more than 2,700 jobs at the base and cost an additional 2,000 indirect jobs. One study predicted that closing Cannon would mean a $98 million loss to Curry County alone.
In August 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission accepted the Pentagon’s recommendation to send Cannon’s fighter squadrons elsewhere — but stopped short of closing it. Instead, the commission made Cannon an enclave, keeping it open in a much-reduced form while the Defense Department looked for another mission.
Cannon could have shut down if no new mission had been found by the end of 2009, but last summer the Defense Department announced the base would become home to a special operations wing — the nation’s second.
Prayers, letters and phone calls by the dedicated residents of eastern New Mexico paved the way for the new mission at Cannon, according Randy Harris, a prominent leader of a local Cannon lobbyist group, the Committee of Fifty.
“So many people did so many good things,” Harris said. “So many people were focused on one thing — keeping Cannon.”
Harris, who emerged as a leader in the effort to save Cannon from closure, said he is “tickled to death” that the official day for Special Operations to assume ownership of the base has arrived.
“The people of this community and the Committee of Fifty have dedicated themselves to caring for the men and women at Cannon for the past 50 years,” he said, “and we don’t plan on stopping.”
A community rallies
Following the decision on May 13, 2005, to place Cannon on the BRAC closure list business in eastern New Mexico declined and construction projects halted. The real estate industry grew stagnant.
But, as the months passed, officials said business in Clovis was slowly regaining momentum.
Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce President Terry Moberly said new businesses are once again looking at building in Clovis.
“The new special operations mission at Cannon should entice other businesses to come here and look at Clovis,” he said.
During a BRAC regional hearing held in Clovis in June 2005 thousands of people lined the streets, wearing T-shirts and waving signs reading “Keep Cannon.”
Harris said the parade of supporters is one of his favorite memories associated with the BRAC process.
“I am so proud of the patriotic attitude of the people in our area,” he said.
Moberly said residents of Clovis and Portales are fortunate the base was saved.
“It would have been very hard to recover,” he said. “It would have taken years or decades to overcome.”
Federal officials announced in June 2006 Cannon would be home to an Air Force Special Operations Wing.
Cheer spread throughout the High Plains when residents received word of the announcement.
Signs reading “Operation: Kept Cannon” replaced the older “Operation: Keep Cannon” ones. A month later, thousands of residents, young and old, assembled at the Clovis Civic Center to celebrate the new mission.
Harris said that celebration was warranted.
“We did something that has never been done before in history to my knowledge,” he said. “We got our base off the closure list.”
AFSOC officials said the exact timeline for moving aircraft and airmen hinges on several construction projects that are slated to begin in this year. Construction projects will include eight large aircraft hangars, three squadron operations facilities and additional dormitories. Expansions of the main runway and office buildings are also planned.
Support personnel assigned to the 27th Fighter Wing are expected to remain at Cannon under the new command, Cannon officials said.
Cannon spokesperson Lt. Col. Mark Brown, who addressed the Clovis Municipal School Board at a regular meeting Sept. 25, warned against expecting an immediate influx in base population.
“We are on a decline and we will be on a low base population for awhile, down around a few thousand, but on a very gradual basis the Air Force Special Operations Command will be feeding people into Cannon.”
Moberly and Harris said they are excited about Monday’s change of command ceremony.
“This is a day of celebration,” Harris said, “and a day of thanksgiving.”
“We were successful in our effort (to save Cannon),” Moberly said. “Mission accomplished.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
On the move
A timeline for troops and aircraft being moved to Cannon Air Force Base as part of Special Operations mission:
November — First airmen from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron are slated to arrive.
2008 — Air Force Special Operations officials said 42 aircraft will be assigned to Cannon by the end of the year.
2009 — Approximately 538 personnel and 12 MC-130Ws will be assigned to Cannon Air Force Base.
June 2008 — 3rd Special Operations Squadron, which includes approximately 300 airmen, will move to Cannon from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
2010 — AC-130 Gunships from the 16th Special Operations Squadron will move to Cannon.
2011 — CV-22 Ospreys will arrive at Cannon.
Source: AFSOC Public Affairs