COCHISE COUNTY — Although the sands of time seem only to circle in the Dry Lake, historical events have happened in the playa.
Located in the northern region of Sulphur Springs Valley, the playa was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1966 because of its fossils.
Home to sandhill cranes, the lake basin has a long history with aviation, including a military seaplane from World War II landing in the sand when it was in distress in 1944. The plane was later repaired and took off from the playa.
The Vin Fiz was the first plane to land in Willcox in 1911. This plane was flown by Calbraith Perry Rodgers in the first transcontinental flight. It is unclear where the Vin Fiz landed.
The playa also served as a bombing range during World War II and as a radio tower field in the 1960s.
“The bombing range was put together at the start of World War II. The playa was owned by the U.S. Government Department of the Interior, and the Army Air Force leased it from the Department of the Interior,” said Willcox historian Howard Bethal. “Some of the big bombs in 1948 broke house windows and doors in the city of Willcox. After that happened, they switched from a bombing range to a shooting range.”
According to Bethal, in 1966, the military placed 90 radio towers in the lake to conduct radio experiments.
“It was reported in newspaper accounts that before the towers could be placed in the playa, the Army Corps of Engineers exploded a high amount of explosives. This was a report made by the contractors building the towers,” Bethal said.
On Wednesday, the Range News spoke with Boeing Technical Lead Marty Linde. Boeing and NASA are the latest entities to take up interest in the sandy playa. In this case, Boeing and NASA hope to land the Starliner spacecraft in one of five potential sites.
Linde told the Range News that since Boeing has taken on the project of using the playa as a possible landing field, the 90 radio towers have been removed. Also, an arial sensory scan has been made of the playa’s bed to be sure there were no unexploded bombs left over from the 1940s.
“The scan found a few trace materials but nothing that would explode,” Linde said.