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September 1, 2014

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Where I Stand: Nellis a hub for combat air forces around the world

EVEN OLD-TIMERS find it hard to remember when Nellis Air Force Base was not on the Las Vegas landscape. Maj. Gen. Marvin R. Esmond, commander of the base, tells the history of military aviation in the valley in today's guest column.

THE PROUD HISTORY of Nellis Air Force Base and its connection to the Las Vegas community began in 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside land for use as a flexible gunnery school. As Las Vegas Army Air Field took shape during World War II, it trained thousands of aerial gunners for B-17s, B-24s and B-29s and co-pilots for B-17s. Becoming one of the war's major training facilities, LVAAF personnel quickly established strong ties to the Las Vegas community that endure today.

After World War II and a brief closure, Nellis reopened with the creation of the Air Force as an independent arm of the armed forces and was renamed Las Vegas Air Force Base. Originally intended to train single-engine fighter pilots at the USAF Gunnery School and perform modest amounts of testing and evaluation, it has since grown into a major training center for U.S. and Allied airmen.

On May 1, 1950, the base received its present name in honor of 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, a Las Vegas resident and P-47 pilot in World War II who lost his life in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1944. Barely a month later, war broke out in Korea, and Nellis immediately switched to combat crew training in the F-80 jet, graduating highly proficient pilots before they left for Korea.

As during World War II, base personnel and members of the community supported one another. Local Red Cross blood drives brought in Arizona medical personnel to assist at the base, and Las Vegas hotels donated seats to shows and even gave special shows at the base for the young airmen. The base returned the favors by having marching parades and opening the base on Kiwanis Kids Day.

During the '50s and '60s, as the population of Nellis remained stable and the Las Vegas population doubled, the base continued to enjoy an excellent relationship with the Las Vegas community and was the largest employer. In addition, the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, "Thunderbirds," was transferred to Nellis in 1956. Since then, they have become a symbol of the Air Force, Nellis and Las Vegas, performing in more than 60 countries, all 50 states and in front of more than 275 million spectators. The base continued to involve itself in the emergency needs of the valley by conducting searches when requested and assisting in fighting forest fires in the hills surrounding the valley.

The end of the Vietnam War spelled changes for Nellis. A study after the war revealed that the highest fatalities of the war were suffered by young pilots in their first 10 combat missions. The result was the creation of Red Flag exercises in 1976, designed to give pilots those first 10 combat-like missions. Today, Flag exercises strive to maximize combat readiness, capability and survivability of participating units by providing realistic training in a combined air-, ground- and electronic-threat environment and a forum for free exchange of ideas. Flag exercises bring more than 325 U.S. and Allied units, more than 1,200 aircraft and 26,750 personnel annually to the Las Vegas Valley. An average Flag exercise involves about 4,400 personnel and 200 aircraft, generating close to 2,500 sorties, and lasts for six weeks.

In the 1980s, expanding missions across the board brought major renovations to the base, altering 1940s-era buildings into the showcase for the Air Force that it is today. Nellis continued its support of the local community in the early '80s by assisting in two rescue operations. The MGM and Hilton hotel fires drew immediate help from Nellis, with helicopters responding within minutes, and donating blood and emergency items within hours.

In 1989, the arrival of Air Warrior exercises brought close air-support missions to directly support the U.S. Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. This exercise is held up to 12 times a year, bringing an even greater influx of Air Force and Allied personnel.

In the early '90s, war again broke out, and members of Nellis deployed for Operation Desert Storm. Las Vegas Valley citizens once again rallied behind the base and provided support through blood drives and offered tickets for free shows to help relieve the stress of the families left behind.

Today, the base continues to be the hub for combat air forces around the world, providing world-class training in Flag/Air Warrior exercises and USAF Weapons School graduates. In addition, operational test and evaluation of the most leading-edge technologies are tested on the Nellis Range for future use in combat aircraft.

The relations between the base and the community go beyond bringing students and distinguished visitors from around the world to the valley. There is also a strong tie to help improve the community and help those in need. Nellis airmen volunteer for a variety of community programs, such as Opportunity Village and Special Olympics, and compete in the yearly Corporate Challenge, helping foster a sense of camaraderie with the valley residents. In addition, thousands of military retirees have settled in the valley taking advantage of the outstanding weather and health care available at the Mike O'Callaghan Federal Hospital. These retirees, along with the more than 7,000 active-duty and 36,000 dependents, are proud to call Las Vegas home.

It is appropriate during this 50th anniversary of the Air Force that we celebrate the long and rich relationship that we all continue to enjoy with the Las Vegas Valley and look forward to many more years of close partnership.

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