The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Right now, Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, is leading this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory takes them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark is sending us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Constructed over four years in the late 1950s at a then-astronomical cost of $58 million, the Trestle is still the largest all-wooden structure in the world, comprising over 6 million feet of timber. Part of the Air Force’s research into the after effects of a nuclear blast, a range of aircraft, including huge B-52 bombers and Air Force One were hauled up onto the Trestle, where they would be bombarded with electromagnetic pulse waves (EMP) fired from an emitter on either side.

EMP waves travel long distances in a very short amount of time and can seriously disrupt electronic systems, as we also know from powerful solar emissions. Understanding how EMP might affect the functioning of retaliatory nukes, bombers or command and control aircraft was therefore an essential part of post-apocalyptic preparations.

Every element of the Trestle, right down to its oversized nuts and bolts, had to be wooden so that none of its own components would interfere with the effects of the EMP wave on the aircraft being tested (though apparently there are some small metal o-ring components deep in the mix). Inspecting all the joints took a dedicated team a whole year; as soon as they had finished it was time to start again.

A unique monument to Cold War rigor and ingenuity, reminiscent of a huge fairground ride, perhaps the Cyclone, Coney Island’s wooden roller coaster, or a wooden labyrinth, the Trestle is now a condemned structure, too unstable to use, too expensive to dismantle. Today it provides a home to local wildlife, including a colony of great horned owls who can be heard screeching from within its depths. Our guide tells us that she likes to collect the skulls of their prey, which they leave scattered around the base of the structure.


  1. Kirkland AFB has all sorts of odd things like that dotting the landscape. Many of them are affiliated with Sandia National Lab, which sits on the base. Just driving around the base, there are no shortage of “wtf is that?” moments. Add to that, that several of the mountains on the base were hollowed out during the cold war for the storage of nuclear devices and its a peculiar place to visit. 

    It was also, interestingly enough, the very first place I saw an in car GPS system get blacked out. We were driving along and all of a sudden the map was gone and we were just an arrow on a grey field with no roads or landmarks.

    1.  Kirkland and Sandia are different facilities.  They are located next to each other.  Sandia is the larger of the two.

      Kirkland also borders the airport.  You can often get a good view of the trestle (and a lot of the other oddities out at Sandia) while taking off and landing.  The trestle is the closest, positioned for planes to taxi right to it from the runway taxiways (which are shared between Kirkland and Albuquerque airport.

      Driving around Sandia/Kirkland, there are a bunch of fun things.  Don’t drive too close to 4 Hills.  That is where they store nuclear warheads.  It’s surrounded by several fences and minefields.  Drive past a certain line on the road there, and they shoot you.  Literally shoot first, ask questions later.

      Take a a turn and you go past huge centrifuges, nuclear blast simulators, rocket test tracks, and a whole lot of desert.

          1. Whoah!  Intense!  I count THREE fences. And you can see all the underground bunker entrances scattered around the roads.

      1. I was doing some work at Sandia, but had to process through the Kirkland gate to get to the Sandia buildings I was working in. Once on base, I let people who worked there full time drive me around (no need getting shot for asking where they keep the nuclear wessils.) Once you got away from the main groups of buildings, it wasn’t clear (to me as a civilian) what was Sandia and what was Kirkland other than there were some really weird/ cool looking buildings that no one in the car seemed to know what they did. The Tressel is the one that sticks in my mind.
        We did drive out fairly close to 4 hills one day because there was a cafe that the Sandia guys liked out there somewhere. (Plus they liked freaking out the civilian). 

    1. “The Marx generator providing the EMP pulse generated 200 gigawatts of electromagnetic flux at an electrical potential of 10 megavolts.”

    1. Yes. What a POS. Evidently, not a design studio one should ever consider using if one wanted the outcome to be a design that actually worked. I think that there is irony in abundance here.

      1. If their mission was trying to incite their audience to slap them upside the head; achievement unlocked.

    1. Fun factoid by looking at it in google maps: the trestle is roughly the size of a single fairway on a golf course.

      1.  Thank you. My question was going to be “can we get some perspective on its size?” The picture makes it difficult to parse out how big it is.

  2. Too expensive to dismantle? I know the military budget gets tighter all the time, but we’re talking 50 year old wood in a desert here. How much does a gallon of kerosene and a match cost?

      1. As a veteran of the Army Corp of Engineers the units are always looking for stuff for training to blow up. Really… I don’t understand why this thing couldn’t be used as training to learn to rig with explosives and blow up… That or get Myth Busters involved they love to blow stuff up.

  3. Some of my coworkers at Bell Labs used to take equipment there to test its EMP resistance.  There’d been an event in the 60s when a long haul copper cable got taken out by a solar flare, which was the origin of a lot of the testing and a lot of really interesting physics.  Back when phone switches were electromechanical, it usually didn’t take too much work to make them EMP-tolerant (some capacitors to prevent relays from getting fried, etc.)  The newer electronic switching systems that came out in the 70s and especially 80s are a lot more sensitive – ICs as opposed to transistors or relays, etc.  On the other hand, these days the phone network is connected together by fiber optics instead of copper cables and microwave towers, so the long-haul networks are a lot less vulnerable than the endpoints. 

    1. Looks like a small concentrated solar power installation

      [apologies if this appears for a second time, tried to post and it didn’t appear…]

    2. Thats the tower of power. It is, as the previous reply stated, a concentrated solar installation. On clear days you can see the top of the tower lit up. I haven’t been out there for years but they used to have slabs of steel sitting outside that they melted through using this concentrator.

  4. Minor correction: the Coney Island Cyclone is mostly steel.  The rails are on a wood bed and it’s therefore considered a wood coaster, but the support structure is mostly (if not all) steel.

  5. “the Trestle is still the largest all-wooden structure in the world”

    Sez who? The blimp hangar in Tillamook, Oregon or the Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan don’t count?

    1. The temple is quite a bit smaller (170′ x 190′ x 154′) than the trestle (1000′ x 600′ x 200′).  You could stack four of the temples just in space of the large platform the planes sit on.

      The hangar takes up a similar amount of land space (1000′ x 254′) but is only one third as tall, plus it is made with metal components (nails, nuts, bolts, shear plates, etc.).  The Trestle’s nuts and bolts and other hardware are made of wood.

  6. BTW early posters, it’s spelled Kirtland, not Kirkland. (Not lost in a Star Trek haze, I hope?) Anyone taking off in daylight from the adjacent Albuquerque airport (“Sunport” in CofC talk) can see it as your plane ascends Eastward. 

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