Las Vegas Army Air Base

Las Vegas has long used the warmth of its desert sun to entice residents and businesses. In January 1941, that climate and location attracted the United States Army Air Corps.

The Army Air Corps had been looking at the area since the 1930s, when it had used the Western Air Express Field—later renamed McCarran Field—northeast of Las Vegas for its training flights. With war looming, new training bases were needed. Far from either coast, Las Vegas' location made it safe from surprise air attack and offered a climate perfect for year-round flying. In addition, the hundreds of miles of uninhabited desert surrounding Las Vegas were well suited for munitions training.

The Army chose Las Vegas as the site for a flexible gunnery school. In 1941, the Army concluded a lease with the City of Las Vegas to use McCarran Field. The facility, which opened in 1942, provided training to pilots and instruction on handling machine guns mounted on the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator and, later, the B-29 Super Fortress.

Students received five weeks of intensive training and classes were quickly rotated. The training started on the ground using mounted shotguns with fixed arcs of fire, and then shotguns mounted on the backs of trucks, which were driven through a course. Then the students went up in the bombers, shooting at targets pulled by other aircraft. Twenty-five thousand students eventually trained at the base.

One unusual training program was tried at the end of the war. Operation Pinball used unique frangible, or breakable, ammunition. The bullets were made of a ceramic material that disintegrated upon contact with a surface. These were fired at specially armored P-63 aircraft. When a hit was scored, a light in the propeller hub lit up. The program was successful, and by the end of the war, all flexible gunnery schools were using the frangible ammo.

Combat training can be hazardous, though, and residents learned to mix their pride in the school with their grief for victims of training accidents. In just eight days in March 1942, four airmen were killed in three separate accidents.

The base was shut down in 1945, but the U.S. Air Force reopened it in 1949, and renamed it Nellis Air Force Base in 1950. It remains a training base, known as the "Home of the Fighter Pilot" and the Air Force Thunderbirds.

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