Pilotage: Sleepy Carlsbad begins to stir

September 1, 2009

Approaching Cavern City Air Terminal in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for the first time you’d think you’d happened on the Center for Crosswind

Training and Avoidance. The sprawling Southeastern New Mexico airport has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to runways—eight of them. If you want to practice crosswind landings, you should find whatever component you desire by lining up on either 3/21, 14R/32L, 8/26, or 14L/32R. If you want to avoid a crosswind landing, you’ll surely find that Carlsbad offers right-down-the-runway relief.

Why so many runways? Same reason we have so many airports in Florida with multiple runways—they were Army Air Corps training bases in World War II. Young bombardiers were posted to Carlsbad Army Air Field to learn how to operate the super-secret high-altitude Norden bombsight, which played a major role in the Allied victory. However, Carlsbad’s runway layout is odd, at least to this Floridian. We’re used to a triangular runway configuration at our ex-WWII military training bases. Looking northeast, Carlsbad’s runway layout looks like the number 4 hiding beneath a shelf.

I’ve passed through Carlsbad twice, just stopping to gas up and get lunch, and on each of my visits I ended up spending several hours on the ground waiting out the weather—icy clouds in December, summer thunderstorms in June. It gave me time to look around the place and, frankly, there wasn’t much going on. The generous physical size of the airport is in stark contrast to activity. The first time I saw one airplane land, a New Mexico Airline Caravan. Same thing the second visit—one arrival.

One of the comments posted on AirNav’s online listing for CNM says it all: “This is a pretty sleepy airport/FBO. We did get our airport rental car, and the lineman stayed after closing to see it through, which was nice, but the feel of the place is that time has left the airport behind.”

“It’s quiet,” agrees Carlsbad native Larry Pardue, “but it hasn’t always been this sleepy.” Postwar, the airport offered a full range of services for local pilots as well as transportation access essential to the growth and prosperity of a town that is 165 highway miles from El Paso, the nearest city. The area is rich in potash, oil and gas wells dot the land, agriculture is an important industry, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park 27 miles to the southwest is a popular international tourist destination.

Pardue and his father, who was a bombardier in the war, learned to fly in Carlsbad in the mid-1960s. But the longtime FBO owner sold the business just before a downturn in general aviation, and the new owner began shedding services. The hours shrunk, fuel prices climbed—and, says Pardue, “people stopped coming.”

The RV–6 that Pardue built a decade ago is one of about 30 aircraft based at the field, according to airport manager George West. The based fleet includes another RV but, says West, the local EAA chapter is inactive. Flight training is no longer available.

To a transient pilot interested only in cheap gas and a full stomach before hurrying on, Carlsbad and airports like it seem sad places. Considering the distances separating the few small towns scattered about the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico and west Texas, you’d think airports such as Carlsbad would be thriving centers of local transportation and commerce. But its day appears to have come and gone.

It would be a mistake, however, to depart Carlsbad with the impression that it’s just another small-town airport in decline, a fading relic of a happier, more prosperous past. There’s a fresh new breeze at the field in the form of Chandler Aviation, which recently took over FBO operations and has built a new facility with all the essentials including clean restrooms, flight planning room, can’t-help-but-snooze couches in the lobby (I can confirm that), and a loaner car.

Owner Doug Chandler, who is in the oil business, owns four aircraft including a Robinson R44 helicopter and a Pilatus PC–12 turboprop. He claims that one reason he bought the FBO two years ago is because he had trouble getting his aircraft fueled. He has since installed a self-service fuel facility.

“We want to make this a nice place for aviators to come in, relax, and kick back a bit,” he says. “If you’ve got time to run around town, we have some things to see here. Good food, too.”

Pardue for one thinks Carlsbad is a great place to be a pilot. “It’s fantastic to fly here,” he says. “There’s no traffic, and the weather tends to be real good. It’s just great to be able to go out, hop in your airplane, and go where you want to go.”

According to Pardue there’s plenty of great local sightseeing to enjoy from an airplane, especially over the geologically significant Guadalupe Mountains. Pardue says he searches for cave openings in the mountains, and also takes scientists on survey flights to monitor sinkhole activity in the area.

Pardue is pleased with the changes taking place at the airport. “It’s better now,” he says. “The hours are longer and fuel is cheaper.”

Chandler has plans to further revive flying activity at the airport. He says he is buying a Diamond DA20 and will offer flight training, possibly to an international clientele. “We have a real good training facility here,” he says. “You can always land into the wind, or practice crosswinds.”

Mark R. Twombly enjoys flying in the clean, clear air and wide-open spaces out West. E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.