July 5, 2022 - 7:01 am
Nellis Air Force Base opened as the Las Vegas Army Air Field in 1941. The airfield was first established as the Las Vegas Airport in 1929 and was purchased by Western Air Express in 1932. Western Air Express would take passengers between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
In 1940, the U.S. Army surveyed the airfield for use as the potential site of the Army Air Forces Flexible Gunnery School. The U.S. Army Air Corps ultimately picked the airfield for the school in 1941 because of the area’s optimal flying weather for most of the year and the availability of vacant land.
In January 1941, Las Vegas bought the airstrip from Western Air Express for $10, and leased it to the U.S. Army Air Corps with the plan to use the strip for both military and civilian aircrafts. Later that same month, Las Vegas Mayor John L. Russell signed over the property to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps to develop the gunnery school, with World War II putting pressure on the base to train aerial gunners for combat.
Training at the gunnery school reached its height between 1943 and 1944 with over 15,000 people located at the base. The gunnery school closed in September 1945.
After the end of World War II, the base was put in stand-by status in 1946. The base then reopened in 1949 for advanced pilot training, and the Aircraft Gunnery School opened that same year.
In 1950, the base was renamed Nellis Air Force Base after 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, a Searchlight native who was killed during World War II.
In 1956, the 3595th Air Demonstration Flight, now know as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron or the Thunderbirds, was assigned to Nellis.
In 1975, the RED FLAG combat training exercise with the U.S. air forces and its allies was established. The exercise’s goal is to improve combat readiness and survivability with realistic training, according to the Nellis Air Force Base website. Airmen from 28 countries have participated in the exercise.
In 1981, Green Flag air-land combat training exercises began, which are also conducted with the U.S. air forces and its allies.
Today, Nellis continues to host many operations and the U.S. Air Force Weapons School as part of its mission of “Testing, Training and Tactics.”
To learn more about Nellis Air Force Base, check out the Review-Journal’s lookback at the history of Nellis from our Nevada 150 series.