Nellis AFB: Inside the Military Marvel Mere Miles from Las Vegas Strip

An F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron takes off for a training flight Aug. 13, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz)
FILE -- An F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron takes off for a training flight Aug. 13, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz)

On a hot August afternoon, the world is buzzing in the wide-open atrium of the Nellis Air Force Base Exchange.

Pilots fresh from the day's mission huddle at tables in the food court, retirees stop for a bite to eat and wives and husbands of service members shuffle kids into the barbershop. In the department store, a couple of men dressed in the desert camouflage of a foreign air force gape at row upon row of discounted American goods.

This is everyday life at one of the largest and busiest air bases in the country, a snapshot few civilians will ever see. Aside from spectacles such as air shows and parades, the public rarely gets a chance to encounter the armed forces up close.

Though it's only 13 miles northeast of the Strip, Nellis might as well be on another planet. Many who now live in Las Vegas weren't around when it took root, before neon consumed Las Vegas Boulevard.

It wasn't so long ago that the success of the base and the town were intertwined, but that symbiosis has been overshadowed by the business of tourism. Las Vegas has transformed from a "martial metropolis" into a company town centered on the service industry and gambling.

All the while, Nellis has quietly grown, and its role in the modern Air Force has made the base more important than ever.

Life on base

It's easy to focus on the military might of Nellis, but the base isn't just home to fighter pilots.

Other Air Force bases typically house one wing, or aviation unit. Nellis has six. As a result, it's a hive of activity, with roads named after famous pilots and air bases traveled by service members and their families, contractors and retirees making their way to and from jobs and the base's buffet of discounted shops and services.

They include a gas station, tire shop and resale car lot; a new charter school and Community Commons with libraries, a dance studio and high-tech gaming center; fast-food favorites including Popeye's, Burger King and Papa John's, and a food court with more; a commissary supermarket; a 24-hour convenience store; a gym (the 110,000 square-foot Warrior Fitness Center, boasting courts for basketball, racquetball and tennis, fields for softball and soccer, an indoor pool, an outdoor track, massage therapists and a juice bar); a 27-hole golf course; an equestrian center; a gun club; an Olympic pool; a park and an RV park; a department store complete with a Gamestop, Starbucks and salons; and a massive solar array that pretty much powers the entire base.

In other words, if the zombie apocalypse hit, Nellis could seal its gates and not sweat it for a while.

The crown jewel of base amenities is the Mike O'Callaghan Federal Medical Center.

The facility is across the street from the main base and employs about 1,400 staffers who care for 22,000 active-duty members and their relatives in addition to over 40,000 retirees. It's one of eight major hospitals operated by the Air Force.

At any given time, as many as 60 of the unit's medics are deployed around the globe in conflict areas or on humanitarian missions.

"They ask us to pick up and move and we do it," said Ron Merchant, the officer overseeing the medical center. "We are the 911 call for them."

On base, many airmen live in the dorms. Luke Schroeder, for instance, has made the utilitarian space his own by stringing LED lights in decorative netting and hanging branches he found on Mount Charleston.

"I grew up around four-wheelers and caves in my backyard," said the native of Ozark, Mo. "The desert was definitely a change."

Such newly enlisted recruits are required to live in the dorms, but they can venture off-campus -- Schroeder is fond of Summerlin because it "reminds him of home" -- or spend their downtime somewhere in the approximately 11,300-acre complex.

Housing options increase with rank, or when an Air Force member gets married.

Staff Sgt. Magic Cannon lives with his wife, Juliana, and their two kids in a duplex on a picturesque street behind the medical center. You could easily mistake it for a suburb on the civilian side if it weren't for the roar of F-22 Raptors passing overhead.

They've been living at Nellis for about a year, having looked for housing elsewhere in the valley but deciding against it.

"Here, there's a sense of community and being around people who do what you do," Cannon said. "It's a lot harder on the civilian side."

The only downside? Living down the street from your boss.

"(Las Vegas) is not a family-friendly city, but the base has options for that," Juliana said. "You know what you're gonna get. It's not a gamble."

The beginning of Nellis

The invention the Wright brothers thought would make "wars practically impossible" played a decisive role in one of the deadliest conflicts ever.

Handcrafted machines of wood and fabric flew over the trenches of World War I, pinpointing enemy positions, directing artillery fire and shooting down observation balloons. Stories of aces such as Manfred von Richthofen -- the Red Baron -- and Eddie Rickenbacker catapulted pilots from obscurity to near-mythical status on the home front.

Aviation had such an impact that two years after the war ended, Congress established the Air Service as an official branch of the Army. Vast stretches of American airspace were uncharted, so fliers set out on scouting missions up and down the coasts and the interior.

It was in the early 1920s that Air Service pilots Lowell Smith and William Whitefield flew into Southern Nevada -- a seemingly endless desert crowned with beautiful blue skies and perfect weather almost year-round. It was a pilot's dream.

They recorded locations suitable for landing sites and airports. At that time, there was only one airport: Anderson Field, sitting on what is now the SLS parking lot on Paradise Road and Sahara Avenue. It closed in 1929, the same year local businessman Peter "Pop" Simon ventured onto a patch of desert northeast of town and carved a new airstrip.

Almost overnight, the way station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles became a hub of activity, due in great part to Nevada's 1931 legalization of gambling and activation of a six-week residency requirement for "quickie" divorces.

Commercial airline Western Air Express bought the airstrip in 1932 and, for nearly a decade, ran passenger and mail flights that helped grow the region's tourism economy. But in 1941, as another world war raged, the Army was eager to train pilots and air crews. To do that, bases would be needed.

"They were looking for good flying weather, access to land for gunnery ranges and not too close to the West Coast," said base historian Gerald White. "There was a fear that the Japanese would invade."

The city of Las Vegas bought the airstrip and leased it to the Army for $10. By October, the site had a new name: the Las Vegas Army Air Field.

From 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945, thousands of gunners were trained there. The remnants of the gunnery range still sit in the desert behind Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just a triangular pattern of dusty roads.

In 1947, Congress created the Air Force. And in 1950, Las Vegas' airfield was renamed Nellis Air Force Base, after a local P-47 pilot who died during the Battle of the Bulge.

But it was in the skies over Vietnam where Nellis' future was forged. Despite advantages in technology and numbers, U.S. aircraft were downed in droves by surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns and enemy MiGs. A government report found American pilots were unprepared to face the unpredictable tactics of enemy MiG pilots.

The Air Force's reaction was swift. Fighter pilots needed more training, and a Nevada base fit the bill.

Red Flag's combat classroom

Frank McCormick knew there was an Air Force base nearby when he moved into a neighborhood near Sunrise Mountain, but he didn't expect his house to shake.

"Loud," he said. "Real loud."

Whenever the B-1 Lancer is in town, he can feel it. The heavy bomber's engines produce 120,000 pounds of thrust during takeoff, around five times the power of an F-16.

"When those things come around, it feels like it's fixin' to be an earthquake," McCormick said. "You get used to it, though."

Eight weeks out of the year, dozens of attack planes, fighter jets, cargo transports, helicopters and bombers from friendly countries all over the world take off from Nellis around the clock for Red Flag, a massive combat exercise held in the skies above pristine Southern Nevada desert. Over hundreds of miles of scrubland, jets fire mock "missiles" at each other at thin-air altitudes, and cargo planes fly low over peaks, hugging the nap of the earth to avoid detection.

Takeoff is not so stealthy, and the base public affairs staff is used to the phones ringing off the hook with complaints. But there's a reason for all the noise.

Though military pilots train heavily, few see real combat situations where a split-second decision could mean life or a fiery death. But a key finding of Project Red Baron, the government report that called for better training during the Vietnam War, was that, if a pilot could survive the first 10 missions in a combat zone, the chances of survival increased exponentially.

Red Flag provides those 10 sorties in an environment often considered more stressful than being in actual combat.

"We try to make it as realistic as possible for our guys," said Philip Topper of the 547th Intelligence Squadron. "It's all about training how we fight."

From the moment they arrive at Nellis, pilots and crews are subjected to stresses mimicking a war situation. They attend countless briefings and debriefings, protect the aircraft from the grueling desert heat and sand, and stay ready to jump in and take off at a moment's notice.

Their "battlefield" is the Nevada Test and Training Range, the largest contiguous military training area in the nation. Imagine an inverted triangle beginning in the mountains north of Las Vegas and stretching for nearly 200 miles, the edges going as far as the California and Utah borders. Dotted around that range are mock airfields, radar sites, surface-to-air missile networks and other simulated threats.

On a typical Red Flag mission, aircraft take off from Nellis and head north above U.S. 93 in a sliver of airspace called the Sally Corridor. Once in the "combat zone," the pilots go to work. Bombers make runs, attack planes take out defenses, fighters engage other fighters, and refuelers stand by to top off any plane that runs low. It's carefully choreographed to give participants a chance to work with a variety of units they would encounter in a real deployment.

Watching from the base's south side are staff from the 414th Combat Training Squadron, "show runners" who monitor the battle remotely with radar readouts and live feeds. They often throw curveballs at the trainees in the form of surprise objectives that require quick thinking and action, such as having to find a downed pilot during a mission.

But the real value in the exercise comes less in the flying and more in what happens after the pilots land.

Computers track and record every maneuver. If a pilot engages too early or too late, or if someone gets lost in the white-knuckle frenzy of battle and fails to protect his or her wingman, instructors take them to task during an extensive, often hours-long debriefing.

It's a way to drill home lessons that otherwise would be learned the hard way, with potentially deadly consequences.

Cold War echoes

Cloistered in a small outpost on the south side of Nellis, pilots of the 64th Aggressor squadron live in their own little world.

On the walls are photos of old Soviet fighter jets, and on their shoulders are patches adorned in Russian Cyrillic script, red stars and hammer-and-sickles. These pilots, among the best in the Air Force, spend most days trying not to fly like Americans. Instead, they imitate the Red Force.

Activated in 1972, the squadron was one of the first byproducts of Project Red Baron, sending pilots up against others who knew the enemy's tactics. Aggressors originally flew American planes comparable to the MiGs of the day. They now fly F-16s painted in special camouflage.

The Soviet motifs are a tradition handed down from the Cold War days, when Russian air power was a formidable match for the U.S., but the mission is the same.

"We're a customer-based organization, and the customer is the rest of the Air Force," said Capt. Brandon "Twig" Sullivan, a 64th Aggressor pilot. "We're there to provide the best possible training."

They do that by studying the tactics and doctrine of foreign air forces and using them against the Blue Forces during Red Flag. That could mean operating at higher or lower altitudes than expected or engaging at different ranges. While Red Forces are hardened veterans of the mock combat, many Blue Force pilots have never experienced it.

"They see a lot of things that they've never seen before," said Capt. Josh "Rex" Kitchen, also with the 64th.

When the exercise is not in session, the faux Soviets practice together and study intelligence on air forces coming in from around the world. They also lend their services to other Nellis programs like the Fighter Weapons School, the Air Force version of the Navy's Top Gun, at Fallon, in Northern Nevada.

"At the end of the day, when those guys win and crush us, that's what we want," Kitchen said.

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