The Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum
By Steve Owen
It all started with Charles Lindbergh – the face of American aviation progress after 1927. A new airline was proposed in 1928 to enhance passenger service and win profitable airmail contracts across the country. With a northern-plains airmail route just established from the East to San Francisco, a more practical all-season central airway was sought between New York and Los Angeles.
By combining daytime flights with nighttime express rail service, the new airline, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), would cross the nation from coast to coast in just 48 hours. TAT joined with both the Pennsylvania and the Santa Fe railroads to provide a seamless plane-train travel experience that would combine luxury and speed. It was Charles Lindbergh, the famed Lone Eagle, who as the line’s technical advisor, surveyed the daytime flight segment options. He then selected the best new route, considering new airport and route beacon sites, and the stations and schedules of the partner railroads. Lindbergh also chose the stout Ford Tri-Motor for TAT as the best compromise of safety and efficiency – if not speed.
Established in mid-1929, TAT’s Midcontinent Airway across New Mexico has served airmail, military, commercial and general aviation for 85 years, with minor realignments as aircraft, navigation, and in-flight technologies advanced. Abandoned beacon sites still exist along the airway, and several historic crash sites also mark this corridor. A 1929 TAT Tri-Motor crash on Mount Taylor led to a 2009 aviation archaeology project by the US Forest Service, and that sparked the idea of an airway history museum.
This historic TAT route is a key focus of the new Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum at Grants-Milan Airport (GNT) beside I-40 and Route 66. This interpretive site recreates the Los Angles-Amarillo Airway Beacon 62, located just to the south on San Rafael Mesa in the Zuni Mountains. Nearby is also LA-A Site 61, high on the Continental Divide, where a restored generator shed still stands.
Here at Grants, Cibola County Historical Society tells the story of the region’s beacons and airfields, the planes that flew the route (sometimes with tragic results), the visionaries who made night flying possible, and the many behind the scenes who built and maintained this lighted air highway across the West. This “air highway” of beacon lights, emergency fields, and radio/weather stations served growing air traffic until the 1960’s. Today, countless flights still pass along the route that Lindbergh pioneered for TAT.
Phase One opened in 2012 with a restored airway beacon tower and a generator shed with beacon and history exhibits, as well as a memorial to the victims of the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor crash on Mt. Taylor. Volunteers staff the museum on Saturdays, and there are also signs and brochures for ‘walking tours’ at any time. Inside the GNT terminal building are restrooms as well as a small airways history display that invites airport visitors “out back” to the main museum compound.
Phase Two is ongoing, to restore the abandoned 1953 CAA Flight Service Station, where a new roof was completed over the winter. Most of this building will become museum space, and it now has several temporary aviation exhibits.
Grants-Milan Airport (GNT) is a small but friendly airfield, with 7172 feet of runway, self-serve jet and aviation fuel, AWOS and a shuttle car – as well as this growing aviation history museum. It’s a quiet stopover in a scenic and historic area – or just a quick pit stop – for those who choose to fly the Lindbergh Airway!