Administrative History
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Figure 16. On October 7, 1984, a man from Dalhart, Texas illegally landed
a single-engine plane near the hospital ruins.
Courtesy of Fort Union National Monument.

Few external human threats to Fort Union appeared as destructive and annoying as low-flying aircraft. Their frequent visits and sonic booms disturbed the visitors as well as the ruins, which developed a few more cracks every time an airplane passed the valley at low altitude. For the dedication ceremony of Fort Union National Monument in 1959, the Park Service invited the New Mexico National Guard to fly its "Top Guns" over the site as the signal for hoisting the American flag. Four F-100 Super Sabre jets zoomed over the monument while three thousand attenders applauded. But nobody realized that aircraft was to pose a major threat to the historic structures in the future.

On November 29, 1963, the first visit Fort Union by airplane occurred. The three-man camera crew of the Columbia Broadcasting System landed their helicopter near the parking lot without advance notice. They were cruising over the region in search of material for a television program, "The Changing Face of America," to be presented on January 12, 1964. No sooner did they emerge from the helicopter than Superintendent Homer Hastings advised them that low-flying and landing on monument land violated the Park Service regulations. Apologizing, the crew members explained that the Santa Fe Trail and Fort Union as seen from the sky were well suited to their purposes. Also, they were low on fuel and concerned about the weight of the film equipment. Accepting this reasonable explanation, Hastings let them finish their job of shooting film. Afterward, park personnel hauled their luggage to the Las Vegas Airport by car so that the helicopter could leave safely. [23]

The Park Service began to realize the destructive impact of low-flying aircraft, particularly military jet on training missions over the ruins. Lightly populated, northern New Mexico served as an ideal area for the United States Air Force pilots to practice low-flying. Their sonic booms led the park staff to speculate on their effects on the historic structures. In 1971, the fort employees' assumptions proved correct that low-flying aircraft damaged the historic buildings. As Superintendent Claude Fernandez reported, "a tremendous sonic boom caused an existing crack on the ruins wall to widen." [24]

Sometimes airplanes even crashed near Fort Union, which, of course, made the Park Service nervous. Any direct hit by a crashing plane could destroy most of the park and turn the ruins into ashes. Just as darkness fell on April 14, 1967, a fire ball noted in the southeastern sky disappeared over the horizon and left a glowing bright light. Soon, the park staff learned that a USAF SR-71 Black Bird, the Air Force's fastest airplane, had crashed between Las Vegas and Fort Union and the crew had parachuted to safety. [25] Although it missed the monument, the fort personnel became convinced that they had to defend their skies too. According to the records, military aircraft caused less trouble for the park in recent decades.

After the military jets reduced their activities in the area, civilian aircraft filled the vacant sky. Their altitude was lower and their moves more capricious. According to the Federal Aviation Administration regulations, planes must maintain an altitude of 500 feet or more above people, structures, and vehicles. But reckless pilots often passed the fort below this safety altitude, trying for a bird's eye view of the old military post. On November 2, 1975, a Californian flew his twin-engine plane just above the ruins. He made two passes at an altitude of only 130 feet. The flight was so low that the park staff could read the plane's number. Five weeks later, another pilot made four passes over the ruins and residential area at an approximate altitude of 200 feet. The Park Service promptly contacted the FAA and provided the agency with the information. [26] The Californian pilot did not escape justice. As soon as the National Park Service filed complaint statements with the FAA, the government tracked him to Orange County, California. In February 1977, after a year of investigation and preparation, the trial began. Superintendent Hopkins and Ranger Paul Shampine testified as government witnesses during the trial. In the end, an administration law judge for the National Transportation and Safety Board found the pilot guilty on two counts of violating the federal regulation code and ordered the suspension of the pilot's license for sixty days. [27] This was Fort Union's first successful case in air defense.

Nevertheless, the Park Service was not so lucky in tracking every pilot who buzzed Fort Union. In the eighties, the number of incidents increased but there were few cases that resulted in court convictions. Facing tougher challenges, the Park Service tried its best to deal with the problem. In 1985, the Park Service and the FAA signed an interagency agreement on joint efforts to prevent low-flying aircraft over national park territories. Two years later, Congress passed a law, the Aircraft Overflight Act, which made low-flying illegal. Under orders from the Southwest Regional Office, Fort Union documented all aircraft overflight problems. [28]

More dangerous than overflights was the landing of planes in the park. Over the years several cases involved aircraft landings inside the monument. They threatened not only the historic buildings but the visitors and employees. Any human error or mechanical malfunction could result in a fatal accident. In addition, an aircraft at high speed and low altitude had little room to maneuver. Once a pilot called the park and asked for permission to land his plane in the park. After the park authorities refused his request, the angry pilot buzzed the ruins.

Some bold and risky flyers landed their planes in the park regardless of the law. At 11:35 a.m. May 6, 1976, a single-engine Cessna 180, with two Santa Fe men on board, approached the monument. They made four circles; each time descending to a lower altitude, only fifty feet on the third run. On the fourth run the plane landed inside the park and parked one hundred feet southwest of the hospital. Quickly arriving at the scene, Superintendent Hopkins and Chief Ranger Hoff issued a citation for operation of an aircraft in a NPS area to the unannounced visitors. Then, the park authority informed the FAA Albuquerque Bureau about the incident. Before the two men visited the ruins, they were forced into the air and out of the monument. [29]

Another illegal aircraft landing occurred more quietly and elusively. Walking to the visitor center in the afternoon of October 7, 1984, off-duty ranger Charles Spearman noticed an airplane parked near the hospital ruins. Upon entering the visitor center, he asked on-duty park technician Carrie Vernon about the plane. Caught by surprise, she recalled that a couple who was touring the park mentioned they had flown in a few minutes ago. It did not occur to her that they had arrived by plane. Ranger Spearman called chief ranger George West at Capulin Mountain National Monument, the only commissioned law enforcement officer in the area. Following instructions, Spearman took several pictures of the plane and brought the pilot to the office. Then he phoned the FAA office in Las Vegas to report the incident. The pilot from Dalhart, Texas, claimed that he thought the plane had landed on land belonging to the Fort Union Land and Grazing Company. While Spearman was on the phone again, the pilot ran back to his plane and took off before he could be further questioned. [30]

After the passage of the Aircraft Overflight Act in 1987, the problem of low-flying and unauthorized landing at the fort eased dramatically. In the last four years, only one helicopter from a television station landed in the park. While enjoying a temporarily peaceful period, the park employees remain vigilant for any threat from above, realizing that external threats are three-dimensional. Fort Union, as well as the Park Service, today continues to hope and work toward eliminating dangers from aircraft.

In comparison with other units in the national park system, Fort Union National Monument seemed to be a safer place. After 36 years in operation, no major disaster caused by human activities or mistakes had occurred. Although the monument constantly faced external threats, their intensity or degree in destruction appeared relatively low. For many years, the park achieved a perfect safety record. The credit for limiting the impact of human threats belonged to Fort Union's geographical isolation, low visitation, and responsible operation.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001