Saturday, April 19, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Gary Nellis will be in attendance this week when the Air Force commemorates its 50th anniversary at the base named for his fallen father.
As he watches the planes soar and views the static aircraft displays, the 56-year-old Las Vegas businessman's thoughts will undoubtedly turn to fragmented memories of a man he barely knew.
Nellis was 4 years old when his dad's P-47 was shot down near Bastogne, Belgium, while providing air support for Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge.
It was Lt. William Harrell Nellis' 70th and final mission and it came two days after Christmas 1944. The 29-year-old pilot went down with his plane; his body wasn't recovered until April 1945.
One memory etched in Gary Nellis' memory is the day his dad left for World War II. "I had him around the leg and I was asking him not to go and he told me he had to go," Gary recalls. "That was the last time I saw him."
Another recollection is a year earlier when the 1936 Las Vegas High School graduate took his 3-year-old son out to fly in a plane.
"We drove out to some airfield, he opened the airplane up and put me inside and I started to cry because it scared me. We left, but as we were leaving I said 'Daddy, I want to go fly."'
Gary Nellis eventually shed his fear, and obtained his pilot's license in 1960. And he has tried to keep the memory of his father alive by naming his son after his father. William David Nellis, 28, is a patrol officer for Metro Police.
The Air Force also did its part in keeping alive the memory of the Las Vegas flier, naming the base after him during a dedication ceremony May 20, 1950. Gary Nellis was 10 when that ceremony was held and he remembers attending with his mom and younger sister.
The Air Force placed a bronze plaque beneath the base flagpole that reads: "To the Memory of Lt. William H. Nellis. Born 1916. Killed in Action, 1944. With courage and daring he brought the fight to the enemy defending his country without regard for his personal safety or welfare."
"I'm sure he would have been very proud," Gary Nellis said of his father.
It's fitting that the base was named for one of Southern Nevada's fallen heroes. It's also appropriate that Nellis Air Force Base was selected as the site for the Air Force's golden anniversary celebration.
The base has actually been around six years longer than the Air Force itself, has provided advanced-level training to legions of the nation's finest pilots, and routinely hosts training exercises for top-notch fighter jocks from all over the world.
Nellis, on Las Vegas Boulevard North about 10 miles northeast of downtown Las Vegas, bills itself as "home of the fighter pilot" and anyone who's anyone in the world of aerial combat has trained at Nellis at one time or another.
"It's one of our historic bases, our largest and probably most important in training and testing for combat," said retired Maj. Gen. Zack Taylor, base commander from 1966-69 and now a prominent Las Vegas businessman.
"It's the only place in the world" to have the celebration, said retired Maj. Gen. Billy McCoy, who served as base commander from 1989-92. "There's a lot of affection about Nellis, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have served here in some capacity. I don't think there's any other place where we've had so much operational emphasis."
Nellis is home to a number of vital Air Force components. It is headquarters of the Weapons and Tactics Center and home to the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's demonstration squadron. It also houses the weapons school, the combat tactics development and evaluation function, a threat training facility and unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones. Four times a year it hosts its Red Flag training for pilots.
But what makes Nellis unique is the 3 million acres of land north of Las Vegas known as the Nellis Range, McCoy said. When you include the range, Nellis is actually larger than the state of Connecticut, Taylor noted.
"You can do other things in other places," McCoy said. "You can bed them down, you can park the airplanes and fly them in and out. But what makes Nellis Nellis is the access to that wonderful range and the ability to fly composite force training with our allies in a fashion that can't be done anywhere else in the world."
The range extends roughly from Indian Springs on the south to Tonopah on the north and from U.S. 95 on the west to U.S. 93 on the east. Fliers from the U.S. Air Force and its allies engage in simulated war games at the high-tech facility while honing their combat skills.
The range has played a vital role in the nation's defense since the early 1940s, having been used to train air crews that saw combat during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
Nellis pre-dates the Air Force by six years. Founded in 1941 in response to the growing threat of war in Europe, the facility was opened by the Army Air Corps Sept. 15 under the name Las Vegas Air Field. It became the Las Vegas Army Gunnery School in 1942 and then was renamed the Las Vegas Army Air Field on April 8, 1943.
In the fall of 1940, the Army needed a site for an aerial gunnery school. It found the site in Southern Nevada where Western Air Express (which later became Western Airlines) had operated a commercial landing strip about 10 miles north of Las Vegas since 1926. The company operated a regular air mail and passenger service between Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
"Its four dirt runways, water well and main building (equipped with a telephone, a light-duty power line and a light beacon) provided austere facilities at best ... and the sole commercial airline service for Las Vegas, a bustling town of about 9,000 people," according to a published history of the base.
The commercial field met most of the Army's requirements for the gunnery school.
"The area had excellent flying weather with a strategic inland location that would be difficult to fly to from U.S. borders or coasts," according to historical records. "It had nearby mountains that could serve as a natural backdrop for cannon and machine gun practice and dry lake beds for emergency landings. It also had enormous capacity for expansion, sited adjacent to and south of a vast amount of public-domain land suitable for a gunnery range."
Las Vegas received a $340,000 grant from the Civil Aeronautics Board to develop the Western Air Express Field as a municipal airport at the same time the Army planned to make it a military one. This was intentional since the plan freed up civilian dollars to build a facility that could be used jointly by civilian and military fliers, according to historical accounts.
Western sold the land to the city in early 1941 for $10. The Army leased the air field from the city and permitted the municipal airport to use existing runways and adjoining Army runways for regularly scheduled commercial aircraft. The municipal airport, McCarran Field, was dedicated in honor of Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran.
The Las Vegas Army Gunnery School was the first facility of its kind in the world and men who trained there provided vital protection to bombers. Gunners, housed in the back, belly or nose of the plane, often provided the only defense between a bomber pilot and his enemy.
"The first ace in the Pacific flew with a Nellis gunner," said Dr. Cate Wilman, a civilian historian employed by the Air Force at Nellis.
Open, closed, open
The Las Vegas Army Air Field was inactivated on Jan. 31, 1947, as the military scaled back operations following the war. The Army and Air Force split into separate services the same year and the base was reactivated as the Las Vegas Air Force Base on Jan. 13, 1948.
The fledgling Air Force did not like sharing its facilities with civilian fliers and asked Las Vegas leaders to relocate McCarran Field. "Civic leaders were anxious to retain a major military facility and sought a successful $750,000 bond election in May 1947. The municipal airport moved from the base to its current location south of downtown Las Vegas the following year," military records said.
The location south of Las Vegas is now McCarran International Airport, one of the busiest in the nation.
During the Korean War, Nellis trained combat crew aerial gunners and pilots whose primary mission was to provide air superiority over Korea. Their jobs included fighting MiGs and providing support to ground troops and bomber escorts, Wilman said.
"The F-86 training the Nellis pilots received was directly responsible for a 14-1 kill ratio over the MiGs in Korea," Wilman said.
During the Vietnam War, Nellis provided reconnaissance support and training. One of its foremost projects was Operation: Night Owl, which taught reconnaissance personnel how to fly at night.
"Flying at night was a very dangerous thing because we didn't really have the technology to support safe and sane night flights," Wilman said. "Men who did that work were risk-takers of the first degree. They were very exciting and intelligent men who liked the thrill of it all which is what most of the early fliers did."
One of the big problems the Air Force discovered during the war in Southeast Asia was that pilots didn't get enough initial training.
"There was such a rush in the thrust of war to get combat pilots out there as quickly as possible, so frequently they did not get enough training to have a good survival rate," Wilman said.
The Air Force found that pilots who survived their first 10 combat missions had a much higher overall survival rate. As a result of that finding, the Air Force in 1975 "decided to establish Red Flag, designed to give pilots their first 10 combat-like missions to increase their survivability. That is the sole purpose of Red Flag -- to make sure pilots are accomplished enough to survive in air combat and to win," she said.
Red Flag training is now held four times a year at Nellis and attracts hundreds of pilots from around the globe.
The Stealth fighter, which played a vital role during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq earlier this decade, was developed between 1980 and 1988 at the Tonopah Test Range, a subsidiary field of Nellis Air Force Base. The Stealth was first unveiled at the Nellis Air Show in 1990, but was never based at Nellis, Wilman said.
The Nellis Range provided a place for the Air Force's different specialty wings to come together, much like the specialty teams on a football team, to practice in preparation for Desert Storm, said McCoy, who served as base commander during the Iraqi conflict.
The base also played a vital role in developing and testing equipment that was important to the Desert Storm effort, he said. One of the technologies was a low-level night navigation device that turns night into day for pilots.
Nellis personnel had to accelerate testing and implementation of the low-level night navigation system and other technology important to the effort in the Middle East, recalled McCoy, who retired in Las Vegas in 1993 and now serves on the board of directors of Boyd Gaming Corp.