Las Vegas Sun - History

August 20, 2019

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Where the fighter pilot calls home

Nellis AFB grew from a dirt runway to housing the world’s most squadrons

Nellis Air Force Base

The Thunderbirds came to Nellis Air Force Base in 1956. The name thunderbird refers to a southwest American Indian tradition of a majestic eagle or hawk that shakes the earth with its thunderous wings and shoots lightning from its eyes. Launch slideshow »

While it's nicknamed the "Home of the Fighter Pilot," Nellis Air Force Base, located in the northeast part of the Las Vegas Valley, is home to much more than just fighter pilots. With nearly 12,000 military personnel and civilians, and more squadrons than any other Air Force base in the world, the 14,000-acre base plays a vital role in the U.S. military operations.

However, the base has a humble beginning. Nellis AFB began in 1941 as a dirt runway, a water well and a small operations shack located eight miles north of Las Vegas. Maj. David Schlatter of the U.S. Army Air Corps wanted to utilize the desert wasteland surrounding Las Vegas to create an aerial gunnery school.

Year-round flying weather, land sold for $1 per acre, rocky hills as a natural backdrop for cannon and machine-gun fire, dry lake beds for emergency landings and the massively unpopulated area to the north made the locale ideal for the school. According to Capt. Jessica Martin in Nellis' public affairs wing, approximately 4,700 square miles of land and 15,000 square miles of air space are available for Nellis to use.

In 1942, the first B-17s arrived and launched the rapid growth of the Air Force establishment. During the height of World War II, 600 gunnery students and 215 co-pilots graduated from the aerial school every five weeks.

In early 1945, nearly 11,000 officers and enlisted personnel populated the base. From that highpoint, base activity declined.

The base was inactivate from January 1947 until 1948, when it became a training facility for fighter jets preparing for the upcoming Korean War.

In 1950 the facility was given the name Nellis in honor of 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, a southern Nevada man who died during active duty.

Since then, Nellis has become home to more than 150 aircraft and a Warfare Center responsible for advanced combat training, tactics development and operational testing.

The public most often associates Nellis with the Thunderbirds, an Air Force demonstration squad . The Thunderbirds formed in 1953, just six years after the Air Force was established as a separate service from the Army. Originally, the group was based out of Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

The Thunderbirds' name stems from Southwest Native Americans legends, which depict a thunderbird as a greatly respected and feared eagle or hawk. The bird shot lightning from its eyes and the earth shook from the thunder of the majestic animal's wings whenever it took flight.

In 1956 the Thunderbirds relocated to Nellis AFB. The move simplified maintenance for the aircrafts. While the Thunderbirds team has flown F-16s for two decades, they originally began as F-84G Thunderjets. From there they tried a handful of other planes, including the F-84F Thunderstreak, the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-4E Phantom II, before settling on the F-16.

Always a crowd favorite, the Thunderbirds perform demonstrations at air shows across the country, including one held at Nellis. In November 2007, the Las Vegas Air Show -- called Aviation Nation -- held a capstone event for the U.S. Air Force's 60th Anniversary Heritage to Horizons celebration. The Thunderbirds joined other air demonstration teams, warbirds and top civilian air performers for one of the largest public events ever held in Nevada. Approximately 200,000 people were expected to attend the show, held Nov. 10 to 11.

"[The air shows] are held to demonstrate our capabilities, showing the taxpayer how we're using their dollars to protect and defend the nation," Martin explained. "We love to open our doors to our neighbors and thank them for their support."

Although much of the action on Nellis occurs in the wild blue yonder, the base is involved with much more than simply flying, including combat search and rescue operations. Nellis' Red Horse Squadron is responsible for heavy repair and construction in wartime environments.

Nellis is also part of a very green project. Nellis is in the process of completing the largest photovoltaic solar power plant in the United States. According to Martin, the project saves the base $1 million dollars per year.

From slicing through the sky with high-tech planes to harnessing renewable energy using the latest technology, Nellis has come a long way from its beginnings as a dirt runway, water well and shack.

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