- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
Nevada’s military installations are key contributors to safeguarding our nation.
Photo: Technical Sergeant Bucky Parrish
While most people are familiar with Nevada’s status as the most established gambling destination in the world, and maybe even its substantial involvement in gold and copper mining, many are unaware of the Silver State’s important contributions to the United States Armed Forces. Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases, Naval Air Station Fallon, and Hawthorne Army Depot are instrumental in our nation’s military operations and bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the state.
Nevada’s open, unpopulated expanses of desert allow soldiers to train in live-fire exercises and pilots to dart and spin across the sky at hundreds of miles per hour—all while barely disturbing a soul. For those directly involved in the action, consider the shared sentiment of Master Sergeant John Asselin at Nellis and Fallon’s Public Affairs Officer Zip Upham: “Every day is like an air show.”
In 1941 the opening of the El Rancho and El Cortez hotel-casinos signified the transformation of Las Vegas from a sleepy burg of fewer than 9,000 residents into the tourism Mecca we know today.
In the same year, a dirt runway about 10 miles northeast of the newly built attractions also started a transformation. In the following decades the once out-of-the-way, dusty landing strip changed every bit as drastically as its neighbor to the south, eventually growing into one of the most important military bases in the United States.
The Las Vegas Army Air Field—thanks to the Las Vegas Valley’s dry, sunny climate—was commissioned to house a school to train aerial gunners (the rough equivalent of today’s fighter pilots) during the build-up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. A far cry from the city-within-a-city that is Nellis Air Force Base today, the humble operation consisted of a detachment of five officers in a basement office in the Las Vegas Federal Building.
Enlisted men were quartered at a Work Project Administration building in the city because there were no services or buildings at the new base. By mid 1941 construction of permanent facilities began and by the end of that year the base was home to 10 AT-6 trainers and 17 B-10 bombers. The base continued to expand operations through the early 1940s, and, by the height of World War II, LVAAF was graduating 600 gunnery students and 215 copilots every five weeks. During this period the base population exploded to almost 11,000. Base operations declined as the war wound down until the base was inactivated in January 1947.
In 1948, the base was reactivated under the title of Las Vegas Air Force Base before the onset of the Korean War. In 1950 the base was renamed in honor of 1st Lieutenant William Harrell Nellis, a decorated Southern Nevada pilot who was killed in action over Luxembourg in December 1944.
Today roughly 12,000 people—about 3,000 of which are civilians—are employed at Nellis, making it one of the largest single employers in Southern Nevada, and, according to recently retired 99th Air Base Wing Commander Colonel Dave Belote, the base’s annual economic impact on the Las Vegas area is more than $5 billion. The base that once had to truck enlisted men and officers in for lack of on-site services now houses a full grocery and department store, elementary school, library, movie theater, restaurants, community center, sports and fitness center, bowling alley, hospital, auto mechanic and parts store, and more—it is in every way a full-functioning city.
Running such a “city” is no easy task, and that is where the 99th Air Base Wing comes in. “We create an environment that helps people do their jobs,” Belote says. Day-to-day operations at Nellis are overseen by the 99th; everything from trash disposal and fire protection to construction of new facilities and maintaining the base’s photovoltaic solar array (the largest such installment of solar panels in North America). The solar array provides nearly 30 percent of the power at Nellis.
The once-isolated base in the desert is now much closer to its neighbors. The exponential growth experienced in the Las Vegas metropolitan area since the 1950s has pushed urban development literally to Nellis’ doorstep. And while the base and its neighbors coexist surprisingly well, encroachment is a major obstacle. Flights at Nellis are restricted to north and east takeoffs only, to spare residents the noise (during a Red Flag exercise planes take off as frequently as every few seconds).
While Nellis’ physical appearance has changed drastically in the 69 years since the base’s inception, its primary mission, to provide advanced combat training, has not. The United States Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis is tasked with analyzing the adversary, equipment certification, and tactic development to ensure that United States military units are prepared for combat. Training at Nellis includes every type of aircraft at the Air Force’s disposal and incorporates air and ground units from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and allied forces from around the world. To give an idea of the vital role Nellis plays in today’s Air Force, the base’s roughly 40,000 annual flights account for 75 percent of the Air Force’s total training operations. “I believe our aggressor courses are why we [the U.S. Air Force] are as good as we are,” says Colonel Paul Huffman, commander of the 57th Wing, the unit responsible for the oversight of most of the flying operations at Nellis.
Red Flag and Green Flag training exercises, controlled by the 57th, are among the world’s premier combat training exercises and give American and allied forces the opportunity to train against mock adversaries in real-life scenarios. The larger of the two, Red Flag, is responsible for training more than 26,000 personnel annually. Red Flag was originally created to curb the excessive air losses experienced during the Vietnam War, according to Huffman. The exercises make up roughly half of all flights at Nellis.
The reason Nellis is able to facilitate such advanced and complicated training exercises is the massive amount of space at the base’s disposal. The Nevada Test and Training Range north of the base encompasses more than 4,800 square miles of restricted land in the Nevada desert, making it the largest such range in the country. Combined with more than 10,000 square miles of additional airspace available to Nellis, the base has access to an area nearly the size of Switzerland. “The Nevada Test and Training Range is the Air Force’s crown jewel,” says General William Fraser III, Commander of the Air Combat Command.
Yvonne Gresnick, Civilian Vice Wing Director of the 98th Range Wing, the unit responsible for command and control of the NTTR, says the range is most important to the Air Force because of the vast amount of training scenarios it can support. Target simulations such as airfields, surface-to-air missile sites, truck convoys, ammunition and fuel storage sites, and artillery units all exist on the range, which holds the added benefit of closely resembling actual combat zones in the Middle East.
About 3.6 million pounds of ordnance (ammunition, missiles, bombs, etc.) are used in training on the NTTR each year, which amounts to 75 percent of all training ordnance used by the Air Force. But Gresnick is quick to point out that the range is not a bombed-out wasteland. “Only five to 10 percent of the range is bombed,” she says. “The rest is pristine desert.” More than half of the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, actually overlaps the NTTR.
Nellis Air Force Base
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States became increasingly apprehensive of a Japanese attack on the west coast. In an effort to repel such a strike the Civil Aviation Administration and the Army Air Corps constructed airfields in Fallon, Lovelock, Minden, and Winnemucca. As the war escalated, the Navy took control of the airfield at Fallon and immediately began construction of barracks, hangars, and air traffic control facilities. In 1944, Naval Auxiliary Air Station Fallon was officially commissioned. For the duration of the war, Fallon provided training, services, and support to air groups deploying for combat in the Pacific. During the summer of 1945, operations at Fallon peaked at more than 21,000 take-offs and landings. At the end of the war, activity at Fallon declined sharply until its designation as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station was removed and the property was turned over to the Bureau of Indian Service. New life was injected into the base when it was re-commissioned at the onset of the Korean War. In 1958, the airfield was renamed Van Vooris Field in recognition of Fallon native and Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Commander Bruce Van Vooris. The base was used lightly for training until 1972, when the Navy upgraded it to a major command.
In 1985, Naval Air Station Fallon installed the state-of-the-art Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System, an advanced computer system that allows pilots to view their flights in intimate detail, providing crucial feedback for their training.
Today, NAS Fallon is considered the Navy’s premier integrated strike warfare training facility. About 3,000 people, military and civilian, are employed at NAS Fallon, making it the largest employer in Fallon and one of the largest in northwestern Nevada. During carrier air wing training (groups preparing for deployment on aircraft carriers) as many as 2,000 more people are at the base to undergo four weeks of training. The base and its thousands of employees and transient personnel are responsible for roughly one third of the local economy, according to Upham.
Thanks to a large green belt reserved for farming and conservation that separates the base from residential and commercial development in the City of Fallon, the base and the city coexist without impacting the Navy’s flight operations.
Real-life scenarios against highly trained aggressor forces are what make NAS Fallon such an important tool to the Navy. Carrier air wing trainers in Fallon receive instruction in every scenario they will face in combat except for aircraft carrier landings—since Fallon is almost 4,000 feet above sea level it would be detrimental to train for sea level landings on a carrier—and air-to-air refueling. The high-desert climate and more than 300 days of sunshine a year allow pilots training at Fallon to log vital flight hours before being deployed to the front lines in conflicts around the world. The Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, moved to the base in 1995 and is responsible for training what many consider to be the best fighter pilots in the world. NAS Fallon also trains units from other branches of the military as well as allied forces from around the world. “We say it’s better to sweat and learn in Fallon than to bleed and die in combat,” Upham says.
NAS Fallon’s training scenarios are made possible thanks largely to the Fallon Range Training Complex and more than 13,000 miles of airspace. Within this space exist almost 250,000 acres of land, including four target ranges, on which live training ordnance can be used. NAS Fallon consumes about 80 percent of all training ordnance used by Navy aircraft. The base can accommodate more than 100 planes and helicopters on two (north and south) ramps. Fallon’s 14,005-foot-long runway is the longest in the Navy and could accommodate a space shuttle in an emergency.
Naval Air Station Fallon
In 1926, an explosion at the Naval Ammunitions Depot at Lake Denmark, New Jersey seriously injured or killed more than 70 people, caused heavy damage to the surrounding communities, and cost the Navy $84 million (the equivalent of more than $1 billion today). To minimize the possibility of such a devastating disaster recurring, the Navy selected a sight in remote central Nevada to replace the one at Lake Denmark. Construction on the Hawthorne Naval Ammunitions Depot began in July 1928, and the facility received its first shipment of high explosives in October 1930. In addition to its remote location, another benefit of the Hawthorne depot was its proximity to the Pacific coast, which proved integral to supporting forces during World War II. The depot was the staging area for bombs, rockets, and ammunition for almost the entire war effort. Employment at the depot reached its height in 1945 at nearly 6,000. During the same time, Hawthorne’s population boomed to a high of more than 10,000.
While the workforce at the depot declined following World War II, it remained a key ammunition center during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1977, it was transferred to the United States Army and renamed Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant. The facility was given its current name, Hawthorne Army Depot, in 1994. The nearly 150,000-acre depot is the largest such facility in the world. Its more than 2,400 buildings and storage structures combine for almost 7.7 million square feet of storage capacity. While much of this space is devoted to the storage of ammunition and other high explosives, the role the depot plays in today’s military reaches much further.
While Hawthorne isn’t nearly as busy shipping ammunition as it was during World War II, it still exports a substantial amount to support current military efforts. Since 2003, the depot has shipped more than 7,000 tons of ammunition to the warfront in Iraq.
One of the primary responsibilities of the base is the demilitarization of projectiles, bombs, cluster bombs, mines, depth charges, torpedoes, mortars, small arms, fuses, and primers. The Western Area Demilitarization Facility is a 160-acre, state-of-the-art campus devoted to safely dismantling artillery and other explosives. By the end of June, the facility is scheduled to demilitarize more than 5,000 tons of ammunition and explosives in 2010 alone.
One of Hawthorne’s most valuable attributes is its isolation. The base’s training capabilities include live fire ranges, a sniper range, pistol and rifle ranges, prisoner of war training area, simulated urban training area, water training on Walker Lake, airport logistics training, and mountain warfare and light infantry training on nearby Mount Grant. The high-desert climate, geography, and scenery closely resemble that of Afghanistan. “We call it mini-Kabul,” says Base Commander Lieutenant Colonel Kimberly Gilbert-Mason of the urban training area.
The collection of truck containers arranged to resemble an Afghan cityscape (complete with a mock mosque) has an eerie and hostile calm about it. During a February visit to “mini-Kabul,” I can easily see why troops praise the realistic training they receive as I walk through the narrow halls and passages of the dusty, remote outpost. In 2009, more than 10,000 troops received training at Hawthorne.
The more than 550 people employed by the depot make it the largest employer in Hawthorne, a town of less than 3,000 residents that would probably struggle to survive without the jobs provided by the base.
Hawthorne Army Depot
Unmanned aviation plays a major role in today’s War on Terror. The ability to perform reconnaissance and engage in combat with unmanned planes helps the United States military to preserve its most valuable
asset—the lives of American troops. Creech Air Force Base, about an hour northwest of Nellis, is home to the MQ-1B Predator, MQ-9 Reaper (two types of unmanned aircraft), and the Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence. Working closely with Nellis, Creech utilizes the Nevada Test and Training Range for remote-piloted training exercises. The 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis oversees daily base operations at Creech.
Creech, formerly the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, started as a gunnery range for the Las Vegas Army Air Field in January 1942. The base was closed and re-opened with LVAAF in 1947 and 1948, respectively. The base received its first permanently assigned Air Force unit in 1950 and supported a variety of missions over the following decades, including many atomic bomb tests on the Nevada Test Site a short distance north.
Creech Air Force Base
About the time the Las Vegas Army Air Field was commissioned in 1941, the Tonopah Army Air Field, 200 miles north, also started operations. The two bases marked the northern and southern ends of the three-million-acre Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, which roughly covered the same land as today’s Nevada Test and Training Range. During World War II, P-39 fighter pilots and B-24 bomber pilots were trained at Tonopah. Tonopah was also home to the then top-secret Glide Bomb project, which included heat-seeking and radio-television controlled bombs. At the conclusion of World War II, Tonopah was closed, never to re-open. From 1983-89, the F-117 Stealth aircraft was tested in secret near the former base.
MILITARY-THEMED EVENTS IN NEVADAMay 3
Air Force Jazz Band
Fremont Street Experience
60th Annual Armed Forces Celebration
Air Combat USA
North Las Vegas Airport
Armed Forces Day
Nevada State Railroad Museum
Armed Forces Day Parade
Veterans Reunion Farewell Dinner
Jim Butler Days