Get to know Nellis in anticipation of Aviation Nation

Nellis Air Force Base dominates the northeast corner of the valley, but there are many who know only that it exists, not what is done there or what is on the base.


Aviation Nation this weekend will bring thousands of spectators to walk the tarmac and see aerial demonstrations. The event is free, and free parking has been donated by the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 7000 Las Vegas Blvd. North. Gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with an opening ceremony scheduled at 10:30 a.m. and flying demonstrations from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Visitors will be transported by bus from the speedway to the base. They’ll have an opportunity to see a slice of the base, but there is much more than can be seen from bus windows.

Aviation Nation is the only time the base is open to the general public on a large scale. There are no regularly scheduled tours, and due to the business of the base and the limited staffing, personnel are unable to accommodate individual or small group tours. The base website,, includes a form for requesting a group tour of 40 people or a maximum of one busload.


Mark Hall-Patton, administrator for the Clark County museums, explained that the airport at Nellis Air Force Base predates the Air Force itself. It was built in 1929 by Peter Aloysius "Pop" Simon and originally was the field for Nevada Airlines. When that firm went out of business in October 1929, Western Air Express Airlines moved in. By 1940, with World War II looming, the Army needed a training base for its air corps. The field’s location far from the coasts and possible attack combined with a climate that allowed a large number of flying days made it ideal for that purpose.

The Army paved the dirt field and renamed it McCarran Airport, and it served both the military and commercial flights. The Las Vegas Army Air Corps Flexible Gunnery School was based there during the war. In 1947, the Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the military, and by 1949, the civilian aircraft were moved to the current location of McCarran International Airport. The base was named after Lt. William Harrell Nellis in 1950.

"The naming of the base came from a concerted effort of the schoolchildren of the valley," Hall-Patton said. "Bill Nellis was a World War II hero, raised in Searchlight, and went to high school in Las Vegas. He was shot down three times and made it back twice."


Although much has changed in 72 years, the base is still a place where Air Force personnel come to learn.

"Our big mission is training," said Master Sgt. David Miller, a spokesman for the base. "We do testing tactics and training for the Air Force."

The Nellis website lists that mission in great detail: "Operational testing of our most advanced aircraft and weapons systems, tactics development for war fighters around the globe, and advanced training to fly, fight, and win utilizing the 2.9-million-acre (Nevada Test and Training Range). In support of these missions, Nellis, Creech, and the NTTR are home to the only security forces group and largest civil engineer, logistics readiness, communications, and force support squadrons in Air Combat Command."

Several times a year, the base hosts exercises called Red Flag and Green Flag. The details of the training exercises vary as different scenarios are presented, but they almost always involve large numbers of assorted planes flying out in two directions from the base and meeting in the air to engage in "battle."

The battles are typically mostly electronic, with real planes attacking with virtual armaments. Trainees coming to the base are assigned to the Blue forces. The 57th Adversary Tactics Group is stationed at the base and forms the Red force, which takes the role of the aggressors flying with the tactics and in similar planes of likely enemy forces. A White force tracks the action via the Nellis Air Combat Training System and keeps track of electronically simulated hits, recording the action for a post-engagement briefing so the participants can learn from their soirees.

All four U.S. military services, their guard and reserve components and the air forces of other countries participate in Red Flag exercises. The exercises are run in the air of the Nevada Test and Training Range north of the Sheep Mountain Range.

In Green Flag exercises, aircraft and crews fly in support of ground combat training at Fort Irwin near Barstow, Calif.

What this means for civilians is an increase of air traffic for two weeks, usually in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. This is also the best time to see numerous and unusual aircraft in the air near the base. If the planes are landing from the south, they often come in so low over the industrial area near the base that people can almost count the lug nuts on the landing gear.


The commander of the 99th Air Base Wing oversees all operations for the base and is currently Col. Barry Cornish. The command generally changes every two years, but that can be shorter if unusual circumstances occur.

The base is also home to the U.S. Air Force demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. They are scheduled to fly at Aviation Nation but can sometimes be seen practicing near the base at other times of the year.

There are about 12 units assigned to the base, including the 6th Combat Training Squadron, the 65th Aggressor Squadron and 547th Intelligence Squadron. Tenant units include test and evaluation groups, rescue squadrons and the 820th Red Horse Squadron, a civil engineering and logistics unit.


In addition to military facilities, many families of base personnel are housed in a section of the base that looks much like any other suburban community. The base functions like a small town, albeit a town with limited access and military restrictions. As such, there are amenities to serve the neighborhood, including stores, a gas station and an elementary school.

Miller described the base’s Exchange as being similar to a Wal-Mart but with food vendors, a barber shop, a beauty salon, an optical center and military clothing sales. There is also the Commissary, where people can purchase groceries.

"It is a large grocery store that provides tax-free shopping but has a surcharge that is applied to the total value of each commissary purchase," wrote Miller. "Congress has mandated collection of surcharge, currently 5 percent, to pay for commissary construction, equipment and maintenance."

Other amenities include a golf course, an equestrian boarding facility, an RV park and three childhood development centers.

Counting military, dependants and civilians, more than 41,000 people are directly associated with the base. Air Force representatives have said that in 2011, Nellis, Creech and the NTTR contributed more than $5 billion to Southern Nevada in the form of purchases, creating jobs and procuring services and commodities from local businesses.

As a government entity, the budget is transparent, and a breakdown of current numbers is available at the Nellis website.

For more information on Aviation Nation, visit

Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at or 702-380-4532.

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