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Naval Air Facility, El Centro
(Marine Corps Air Station, El Centro; Naval Air Station, El Centro; Naval Auxiliary Air Station, El Centro; Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, El Centro; National Parachute Test Range)
 
MCAS El Centro by M.L. Shettle
NAF El Centro by globalsecurity.org
Command History by NAF El Centro Public Affairs Office
 
 
MCAS El Centro
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.


El Centro is located in California's Imperial Valley 117 miles east of San Diego. The Imperial Valley is an arid, below sea level depression, virtually uninhabited prior to the 1900s. The first water was brought to the valley in 1901 from the Colorado River with the completion of the Imperial Canal. Rapid growth and development ensued as settlers moved into the area. In 1905, floodwaters of the Colorado River broke through an improperly cut second canal. By the time the Colorado River was returned to its original course two years later, the Salton Sea, 42 miles long and from 10 to 16 miles wide, had been created. The town of El Centro, founded in 1906, was followed the next year by the forming of Imperial County from the eastern half of San Diego County.

In 1927, the County purchased 75 acres within the city limits of the town of Imperial for a county airport. Maddox Air Lines began daily service to the airport the next year. In 1941, the CAA offered to build a modern airport if the county provided the land. Since the site of the present airport was considered inadequate for the two 4,500-ft. runways planned by the CAA, a 943-acre site of farmland was selected eight miles west of the old airport near the town of Seely. The farmland had produced one of the last flax crops grown in the United States. The project proceeded at a leisurely pace during 1941. After December 7, 1941, funding was quickly provided and ground broken on January 8, 1942. In March, a Marine air station site selection committee, headed by LCol. William Fox, was directed to look at locations in the Imperial Valley. Two satisfactory locations were found, at Niland and the Imperial County Airport that was presently under construc tion. Since the work on the new airport was well underway it became the choice. Niland was also obtained, but became Camp Dunlap, a Marine artillery training base.

The Navy leased the airport and purchased an addi tional 749 acres for the construction of buildings and other structures. Grading and paving of the first two runways was completed in April and construction of the buildings began in May. At the same time, the CAA expanded the original project by extending the existing runways and adding a third runway. On January 1, 1943, Marine Base Defense Air Group 43, VMF-216, and VMSB-235 were commissioned. The SBD Dauntless equipped VMSB-235's stay at El Centro was a short one. The squadron moved to Hawaii on March 28. A detachment of the Marines first night-fighter squadron, VMF(N)-531, with PV 1s transferred from Cherry Pt. for several months of training before departing for the South Pacific in July 1943. Meanwhile, VMO-155 with F4Fs arrived at the station in June after operating from the CVE, USS Nassau in the Aleutians. On June 1, VMF-217 and VMTB-242 commissioned. The formal commissioning of El Centro took place on July 24, 1943. The station was quite underutilized at that time with only 20 some aircraft present. By September, activity had increased considerably with 105 aircraft on board. VMF-216 was operating Corsairs and departed for the South Pacific during the month. VMO 155 and VMF-217 were still training with F4F Wildcats due to the shortage of Corsairs but began transitioning to the F4U in the next few months. Among the officers assigned to VMO-155 was future astronaut and U.S. senator, John Glenn. In October, VMF-313 commissioned. The same month, Charles Lindbergh, a consultant to Vought, flew a new version of the Corsair to El Centro and spent a few days briefing the squadrons on improve ments to the aircraft.

By February 1944, VMO-155, VMF-217, and VMTB-242 had moved on. Present on the station, were Corsair equipped VMF-313, VMF-323, and Boyington's old squadron, VMF-122 that was being reformed. In addition, VMB-423, VMB-433, and VMB-443, the second, third, and fourth PBJ squadrons to be formed, were also conducting final training before entering combat. The PBJ squadrons practiced night overwater flying as well as bombing, strafing, and formation flying. Joint strikes were also practiced with the Corsair squadrons at El Centro. One of the most demanding tasks was night skip bombing training over the Salton Sea. Two PBJs were lost in January and February without any casualties among the crew.

With VFR flying weather 92% of the time, El Centro was a very desirable training base. As a result, in April 1944, a project started to expand the station. Work included a new area and two additional runways that paralleled existing runways. From March to June 1944, one new Corsair fighter squadron formed each month. These squadrons were replacement training units. A Marine Bombardier and Gunnery School was also established that trained enlisted gunners and bombardiers. The school uti lized 12 Douglas SBDs for aerial training. Three Corsair replacement squadrons were present in September 1944, with a total of 61 Corsairs as well as VMF(N)-543 with F6F-3N Hellcat night fighters. An additional Hellcat night-fighter squadron, VMF(N)-544, transferred to El Centro from Cherry Point, NC in November. Between October and December, the Corsair replacement pilot squadrons transferred to El Toro. The maximum utilization of El Centro occurred in December with 213 aircraft.

Meanwhile, the new air group area became ready for use in October 1944 and MAG 35, a transport-train ing group, moved aboard from Corvallis, Oregon. MAG 35's primary mission was training Marine R4D and R5C crews - pilots, copilots, navigators, radiomen, and crew chiefs. Additional missions included furnishing replacement aircraft and crews
as well as ferrying VMR aircraft. In November, a ferry section detachment was maintained at Camp Kearney, California. VMR-352, an R5C transport squadron, arrived at the station on December 1. Among VMR-352's pilots was the actor Tyrone Power. MAG 35's 19 R4Ds and 90 R5Cs flew 814 flights that totaled 2,371 hours. Fourteen R5Cs were used for training and the remainder held in a pool. Also in December, MAG 35 established a detail at Olathe, Kansas, the Naval Air Transport Command's mid-continent terminal, to service Marine transport aircraft. An additional detail was established at Alameda to help dispatch and equip Marine transport aircraft with long-range gas tanks for ferrying to Hawaii. Although, it would seem that Los Angeles would be the closest U. S. mainland point to Hawaii at 2,555 statute miles, San Francisco is 157 miles shorter at 2,398. Due to this fact, the Oakland air port was the departure point for the first pioneering flights to Hawaii as well as NATS terminal for transpacific flights.

In January 1945, El Centro went through a major mission change. MABDG 43 was redesignated MAG 43 and transferred to Ewa. MAG 42 transferred aboard from Santa Barbara. For the remainder of the war, El Centro was primarily utilized for transport training. The secondary mission became the home base for the ground echelon of fighter squadrons assigned to aircraft carriers. On the morning of February 2, an R5C disappeared on a flight to Corvallis. The last radio contact with the aircraft was in the vicinity of Los Angeles. After a month of searching for the aircraft, the effort was postponed until the summer. In March, MAG 35 began regular scheduled flights to Ft. Worth for fuel consumption tests and transportation of personnel to Cherry Point. On March 15, a Marine Corps Aerial Gunnery School was established with a complement of 36 officers and 322 men. The capacity of the school was 40 students per week. In April, VMF-214 and VMF-452, arrived at El Centro after their carrier, the USS Franklin, had been put out of the war by a Kamikaze attack.

Also in April, a MAG 35 R5C was destroyed with minor injuries to personnel when it crashed while landing in heavy rain at Newport, Oregon. When the USS Bunker Hill was also put out of action by a Kamikaze in May, the two Marine squadrons assigned to it, VMF-221 and VMF-451, were also sent to El Centro for reassignment. The wreckage of the R5C, missing since February, was finally found June 30, on Mt. Whitney. Due to the crowded conditions at El Centro, MAG 35 began using the Camp Pendleton OLF for a storage pool. In July, VMF-112 and VMF-123 completed their tour on the USS Bennington and arrived at El Centro for reorganization. In August, El Centro became involved in the Marine CVE program. VMTB-473 was formed to train personnel for carrier duty. VMSB-231 also arrived from the South Pacific and redesignated as a VMTB squadron for carrier training. In conjunction with the CVE program, Carrier Aircraft Service Detachments 15 and 16 were also organized to provide support for Marine squadrons assigned to escort carriers. On August 25, an R5C and an R4D had a midair collision two miles east of the fleld. The R5C managed to land at the station, but the R4D crash landed in a field. Miraculously, there were no injuries on either aircraft. By the end of the war, 204 aircraft were on board, but over half of that number were in a temporary storage pool.

On May 1, 1946, MCAS El Centro decommissioned and the station was taken over by the Navy as an NAS. For the next year, the Navy used the station primarily for aircraft storage as well as gunnery and rocket training. In 1947, the Navy acquired the leased land of the station for the purpose of making El Centro a permanent installation. Attracted by the year-round good weather, the Naval Parachute Experimental Unit moved to El Centro from Lakehurst. In April 1949, the Naval Air Technical Training Unit, engaged in target drone development and training, moved aboard from Santa Ana. In October of 1949, El Centro was reduced in status to an NAAS. The Air Force and the Navy formed the Joint Parachute Test Facility here in 1951. In May 1952, the Fleet Air Gunnery Unit established, hosting the annual Naval Air Weapons Meet. In 1958, the Gunnery School moved to Yuma as El Centro was reduced to an ALF the next year. During the 1960's, El Centro was the home of the National Aerospace Recovery Facility that tested parachute recovery systems for the space program. In 1967, the Blue Angels began using El Centro as their winter training base - a relationship that remains to this day. In July 1979, the parachute testing moved to China Lake. Today, El Centro is used for weapons training by Navy and Marine Corps aviation as well as the winter training home for the Blue Angels.

Copied with the permission of the author from United States Marine Corps Air Stations of World War II.

NAF El Centro
by globalsecurity.org

NAF El Centro provides realistic training to active and reserve aviation units and activities of the Navy’s operating and training forces. Squadrons visit NAF El Centro to practice gunnery, bombing, carrier landings and air combat.

The facility has two operating runways. The 9,500-foot east/west runway handles 96 percent of the traffic. It is equipped with a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System at each approach end as well as lighted carrier deck landing areas at both ends so pilots can simulate carrier landings.

Apart from "touch and go" landings and take-offs, aircrews use the many ranges at NAF El Centro to develop their skills. A remote-controlled target area allows naval aviators to practice ordinance delivery. The desert range is used for air-to-ground bombing, rocket firing, strafing, dummy drops and mobile land target training. The target complex uses the Weapons Impact Scoring System that microwaves target images to a range master control building for immediate verification of weapons delivery accuracy.

The addition of the Display and Debriefing Subsystem, known as DDS, expanded the role of NAF El Centro to include air combat training by utilizing remote television, acoustical and laser scoring systems. The DDS is linked with TACTS to provide a computerized record of the tactics employed by individual aircrews employ and to evaluate the effectiveness of each maneuver. Many believe the training at NAF El Centro is as close as pilots can get to actual air combat. Much of the movie "Top Gun" was shot at NAF El Centro.

Because of its unique location, NAF El Centro is known to every naval aviator and plays a key role in their initial and refresher training. What makes the NAF so special is its combination of unique climate, vast unobstructed desert terrain, limited non-military air traffic and its own dedicated gunnery and bomb ranges. These factors make NAF El Centro an ideal environment for aerial combat maneuvering, air-to-air gunnery, bombing practice and electronic warfare training. Variable climatic conditions and population are limiting factors at the Navy’s only other facilities with similar missions – Fallon, Nevada, and Key West, Florida. The result is that NAF El Centro is very busy and in high demand. For example, the number of flight operations (landings and take-offs) exceeded 167,000 in 1999. Flight operations on a typical day reach over 450 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

The relatively isolated location of NAF El Centro continues to make this a valuable resource in supporting the aviation readiness of the Navy and Marine Corps. In addition to serving as a divert base for aircraft operating off air capable ships in W-291, the Command supports Field Carrier Landing Practice operations for Navy and Marine Corps users in the immediate area and, as the schedule allows, other units located in the southwestern United States.

NAF is the "winter home" of the world-famous Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. Starting every January, the ‘Blues’ conduct over two months of intense flight operations prior to the start of their air show season. Until mid-March, the officers and enlisted personnel, who are specialists in all the aviation roles required to support the squadron’s maintenance, administration and public affairs requirements, hone their skills as a cohesive unit.

NAF El Centro and its personnel have a role of providing essential support to the squadrons and units training here. This includes flight operations, logistics, billeting, messing, hangars, ramps, aircraft parking space, administration and supply transport. Every month, seven to 12 squadrons and up to 1,600 personnel train here. Additionally, U.S. Air Force parachutists, U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and British, French, German and Italian aviators visit for various phases of their training.

Naval Air Facility El Centro was commissioned on May 1, 1946, as a Naval Air Station. Prior to that, the base was a Marine Corps Air Station. Through the years, Navy El Centro has had several names: Naval Air Facility, Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, Naval Air Station, and the National Parachute Test Range.

For the first 35 years, the mission of NAF El Centro was devoted to aeronautical escape system testing, evaluation, and design. In November 1947, the Parachute Experimental Division from Lakehurst, New Jersey moved to El Centro. In 1951, the Joint Parachute Facility was established and consisted of the Naval Parachute Unit and the Air Force 6511th Test Group (Parachute). The Air Force remained part of El Centro’s test organization for the next 27 years.

In 1959, an ejection seat designed for pilot escape from a high-speed jet at altitudes less than 1,000 feet was successfully tested here. The Mercury Space Program parachute system, used for the first U.S. manned satellites and the Apollo re-entry system, was also tested here.

In 1964, the U.S. Naval Aerospace Recovery Facility was designated and on July 1, 1973, it was combined with the Naval Air Facility El Centro to form the National Parachute Test Range. Exactly six years later, the parachute test mission was transferred to Naval Weapons Center China Lake; and El Centro again became a Naval Air Facility.

Imperial, CA. is located 10 miles east of The Naval Air Facility, El Centro. The Imperial Valley is almost entirely below sea level. The Salton Sea, at the northern-most extremity of the valley, is the lowest point at 235 feet below sea level. The Salton Sea is 28 miles long. The Salton Sea is also an extremely salty body of water. The Imperial Valley is oriented in a northwest to southeast line, beginning near Palm Springs, California and extending into Mexico, to the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula. Another large lake Laguna Salada, lies in the southern section of the Imperial Valley. The valley itself consists of a relatively flat desert terrain. It is almost surrounded by mountains except to the east, where the sand hills and dunes are located at a distance of 45 miles; and to the southeast, where lies the Yuma Desert of Arizona and the Gran Desierto of Sonora, Mexico. There are basically two seasons for the Imperial Valley area; being summer and winter. The transition periods between the two are very short. Spring and Autumn show few, if any, of the seasonal characteristics normal to the other parts of the United States. Normally there is a little more than a week or two of a rapid transition to the dominant seasons of summer and winter.

Copied with the permission of the author from globalsecurity.org

Command History
by NAF El Centro Public Affairs

Whether it concerns flying from an aircraft carrier or landing on the moon, NAF El Centro is proud of its past accomplishments, its expanding mission today, and its important role in the future.
Aircraft at Blue Angels Park.

Naval Air Facility El Centro was commissioned on May 1, 1946, as a Naval Air Station. Prior to that, the base was a Marine Corps Air Station. Through the years, Navy El Centro has had several names: Naval Air Facility, Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, Naval Air Station, and the National Parachute Test Range.

For the first 35 years, the mission of NAF El Centro was devoted to aeronautical escape system testing, evaluation, and design. In November 1947, the Parachute Experimental Division from Lakehurst, New Jersey moved to El Centro. In 1951, the Joint Parachute Facility was established and consisted of the Naval Parachute Unit and the Air Force 6511th Test Group (Parachute). The Air Force remained part of El Centro’s test organization for the next 27 years.

In 1959, an ejection seat designed for pilot escape from a high-speed jet at altitudes less than 1,000 feet was successfully tested here. The Mercury Space Program parachute system, used for the first U.S. manned satellites and the Apollo re-entry system, was also tested here.

In 1964, the U.S. Naval Aerospace Recovery Facility was designated and on July 1, 1973, it was combined with the Naval Air Facility El Centro to form the National Parachute Test Range. Exactly six years later, the parachute test mission was transferred to Naval Weapons Center China Lake; and El Centro again became a Naval Air Facility.

Today, NAF El Centro provides realistic training to active and reserve aviation units and activities of the Navy’s operating and training forces. Squadrons visit NAF El Centro to practice gunnery, bombing, carrier landings and air combat.

The facility has two operating runways. The 9,500-foot east/west runway handles 96 percent of the traffic. It is equipped with a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System at each approach end as well as lighted carrier deck landing areas at both ends so pilots can simulate carrier landings.

Apart from "touch and go" landings and take-offs, aircrews use the many ranges at NAF El Centro to develop their skills. A remote-controlled target area allows naval aviators to practice ordinance delivery. The desert range is used for air-to-ground bombing, rocket firing, strafing, dummy drops and mobile land target training. The target complex uses the Weapons Impact Scoring System that microwaves target images to a range master control building for immediate verification of weapons delivery accuracy.

The addition of the Display and Debriefing Subsystem, known as DDS, expanded the role of NAF El Centro to include air combat training by utilizing remote television, acoustical and laser scoring systems. The DDS is linked with TACTS to provide a computerized record of the tactics employed by individual aircrews employ and to evaluate the effectiveness of each maneuver. Many believe the training at NAF El Centro is as close as pilots can get to actual air combat. Much of the movie "Top Gun" was shot at NAF El Centro.

Because if its unique location, NAF El Centro is known to every naval aviator and plays a key role in their initial and refresher training. What makes the NAF so special is its combination of unique climate, vast unobstructed desert terrain, limited non-military air traffic and its own dedicated gunnery and bomb ranges. These factors make NAF El Centro an ideal environment for aerial combat maneuvering, air-to-air gunnery, bombing practice and electronic warfare training. Variable climatic conditions and population are limiting factors at the Navy’s only other facilities with similar missions – Fallon, Nevada, and Key West, Florida. The result is that NAF El Centro is very busy and in high demand. For example, the number of flight operations (landings and take-offs) exceeded 167,000 in 1999. Flight operations on a typical day reach over 450 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

NAF is the "winter home" of the world-famous Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. Starting every January, the ‘Blues’ conduct over two months of intense flight operations prior to the start of their air show season. Until mid-March, the officers and enlisted personnel, who are specialists in all the aviation roles required to support the squadron’s maintenance, administration and public affairs requirements, hone their skills as a cohesive unit.

NAF El Centro and its personnel have a role of providing essential support to the squadrons and units training here. This includes flight operations, logistics, billeting, messing, hangars, ramps, aircraft parking space, administration and supply transport. Every month, seven to 12 squadrons and up to 1,600 personnel train here. Additionally, U.S. Air Force parachutists, U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and British, French, German and Italian aviators visit for various phases of their training.




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