Closing in on its 75th anniversary, Nellis AFB has stood the test
of time. Although the Las Vegas Army Air Field opened in 1941, the
base's roots can be traced back to a little over a decade earlier
when a new airfield opened in the barren desert of Las Vegas.
Pop Simon, a local fuel distributor and entrepreneur, opened Las
Vegas Airport in 1929, which was located eight miles northwest of
downtown Las Vegas. In 1932, the airfield was purchased by Western
Air Express, which carried passengers in between Los Angeles and
Salt Lake City.
The U.S. Army surveyed the field in 1940 for
use as the Army Air Forces Flexible Gunnery School because of the
good flying weather throughout the year, the available access to
vacant land for gunnery ranges, as well as being a good distance
away from the Pacific Ocean's coastline.
After the survey
was completed, the city of Las Vegas purchased the airfield on Jan.
2, 1941, for $10. The U.S. Army leased the airfield three days
In October 1941, the airfield was dedicated as the
Las Vegas Army Air Field.
Western Air Express Airfield, pictured here in 1941, was a central hub for passengers and mail going to and from Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Today, Western Air Express Airfield has become Nellis Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by 94th Airlift Wing)
Starting in 1942, gunnery training at Las Vegas Army Air
Field commenced with student gunners progressing from skeet
shooting from atop moving vehicles to mobile sperry ball
turrets and stationary top turrets for the B-17 Flying
Fortress and, by 1945, for the B-29 Superfortress.
The training produced approximately 55,000 B-17 and 3,500
B-25 Mitchell gunners for World War II.
From July to
August 1942, a training film called “The Rear Gunner” which
starred Ronald Reagan and Burgess Meredith, was produced at
Las Vegas Army Air Field to generate volunteers as military
flying was an exclusively volunteer business.
Operations at the base wound down after World War II came to
an end which ultimately put the base in stand-by status in
December 1946. The base re-opened in January 1949 for
advanced pilot training with the first gunnery meet and the
opening of the Aircraft Gunnery School in May 1949.
On May 1, 1950, Las Vegas Army Air Field was officially
renamed Nellis Air Force Base, after the late 1st Lt.
William Nellis, who was shot down while flying during the
Battle of the Bulge.
Many of the Korean War aces
trained at Nellis AFB or served as instructors after their
Later in 1950, Nellis Air Force Base
opened its first base chapel and a movie theatre, which
provided Airmen an escape from the base's mission during
their off-duty time.
In 1956, the 3595th Air
Demonstration Flight was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base,
which today is known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration
Squadron, the Thunderbirds.
In 1965, Nellis Air
Force Base opened the U.S. Air Force Medical Facility, which
was classed as a 50-bed hospital that could care for 9,000
military personnel and their dependents, and an additional
3,000 retired military personnel.
In 1991, the
Tactics Weapons Center was redesignated as the U.S. Air
Force Fighter Weapons Center and was changed to the U.S. Air
Force Warfare Center in October 2005.
Air Force Base hosts many operations, which include Red and
Green Flag, and the U.S. Air Force Weapons School -- all of
which contribute to the base's mission of “Testing, Training
Attendees of the 2014 Nellis Open House enjoy the event's festivities at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 12, 2014. Today, Nellis provides operation support for six wings, Nevada Test and Training Range, United States Air Force Warfare Center, 52 tenant units and approximately 12,000 military and civilian members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher Tam)
To Gerald White, 99th Air Base Wing historian, the
history of Nellis Air Force Base has fascinated him since
the day he arrived in 2009.
“I didn't know a lot
about fighter aircraft with my background in air mobility,
but I also didn't know a lot about training and the history
in Las Vegas because I had only been here once as a
tourist,” White said. “I learned how Las Vegas was selected
for the mission after it was re-opened after World War II
because of its location as well as the development of
fighter and their weapons and how the base supported
operations in North Korea and Vietnam.”
Wheaton, 57th Wing historian, also is amazed at how large
the mission at Nellis Air Force Base has become.
big thing I've learned about Nellis AFB is the amazing
mission of the 57th Wing that occurs here. This wing has
many missions not found anywhere else in the world; the U.S.
Air Force Weapons School, the Aggressors, the Thunderbirds,
the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron, the U.S. Air Force
Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School, the
many exercises under the 57th Operations Group including Red
Flag and Green Flag-East and –West, and the many airframe
types utilized by and maintained by wing units,” Wheaton
said. “Every Airman in these units plays a significant role
in these missions, and these missions play a vital role in
influencing the success of the U.S. Air Force all over the
world. It is quite amazing when you think about it.”
There is a never ending learning process about the history
of Las Vegas, Nellis Air Force Base and the missions that go
on during a daily basis, but White has noticed that the city
and the base have coincided and have grown up together.
“In January, it will be the 75th anniversary of the
lease of the base,” White said. “So basically there has been
an Air Force presence in the city of Las Vegas for the last
75 years and the town has grown up with the Air Force
growing up with it.”
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jake Carter
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