Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ships of the Desert

Years ago, Vernon and I were flying a small Cessna across Southeastern New Mexico.  I'm not even sure why we were there, but anytime you find yourself in a small Cessna, it is mostly for pleasure.  Small 4-seater single-engine planes are slow, impractical, crowded, and fantastic fun.  If you are already a pilot, you know what I am talking about.  If you aren't, don't find out!  Flying is as addictive as heroin--but it costs more.

Somewhere around Roswell, Vernon said, "Hey, you want to see something interesting?"

Of course I did.  Vernon has been flying in New Mexico for much longer that I--he has probably forgotten to log more hours of flight time than I have in total.  So Vernon took the yoke, made a small turn and after a few minutes put the Cessna into a steep banking turn.  The ground, a few thousand feet below, filled my side window as we slowly circled a Nazi battleship.

Actually, there was a fleet of them in the desert, where they had been quietly resting since the end of World War II.  During the war, they had suffered, showing considerable evidence of having been bombed repeatedly from the air. 

The desert southwest is a wonderful place to fly.  We have well over 350 flying days a year.  This is why the military built bomber training bases all over New Mexico.  The flood of student pilots had to have something to practice its bombing on, so the military plowed targets into the ground, or created large berms of sand.  Either way, the lines were then whitewashed.  The most common target was a giant bullseye with a swastika in the middle, while others were ships, docks, and the outlines of cities.  Some of the swastikas were done backwards (but not all).

These kinds of manmade formations are called geoglyphs, and they are not that much different from the famous Nasca Lines of Peru.  While the Peruvian lines are up to slightly over a mile in length, the  largest New Mexico geoglyphs--a bullseye--is 1800 feet wide.  Some of the ships are 800 feet long and 200 feet wide.  In total, there are dozens of them outside of Roswell, Albuquerque, Clovis, and Deming.

If you fly low enough, you can still see the bomb damage around the targets.  While real bombs were rarely dropped, even the 100 pound sand bags, with small marker charges, left a visible crater.  The student pilots bombed the targets from 1942 until 1945.  When the war was over, the targets were allowed to simply weather and slowly start to disappear back into the desert.

Every year, the blowing sand, the rains, and the winter frost slowly work at removing evidence of the targets.  The whitewash and paint are long gone and from the air, it is almost impossible to notice the targets unless you happen to be in a low-flying small Cessna.  The locations were picked for their isolation, so the only visitors on the ground are probably coyotes and prairie dogs.

When archaeologists rediscover the geoglyphs ten thousand years from now, they will be as mysterious as the Nasca Lines.  Undoubtedly, they will say they had some religious purposes--maybe thinking that we worshipped ships by shooting at them.

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