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Naval Auxiliary Air Station, San Nicolas Island
(Naval Outlying Field, San Nicholas Island )
History by M.L. Shettle
San Nicholas Island by
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.

San Nicolas Island, approximately nine miles long and four miles wide, lies in the Santa Barbara Channel 75 miles west of Los Angeles. The island, first discovered in 1543 by the Spanish explorer Ferrer, received its present name when sighted by Vizcaino on Saint Nicholas's Day, December 6, 1602. Local Indians were present until 1835 when they were moved to the mainland by the government. During the 1800s, smugglers used the island to avoid custom duties. The island was also used by fisherman, as well as for sheep and goat grazing. Although low scrub oaks originally covered the landscape, most were destroyed by the goats.

In the 1920s or early 1930s, the CAA built two emergency dirt landing strips 2300 and 2100 ft. long. In January 1933, the CAA relinquished the airstrips as the Navy took over ownership of the island. In 1939, a Naval weather station was established issuing daily weather reports to NAS San Diego.

In late 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps determined a requirement to build an interceptor base for the air defense of Southern California. The Navy gave the Army permission to build the base providing the Navy could also use the facility. By the time construction reached completion, the Army no longer had a need for the base turning it over to the Navy. Used for patrol aircraft, training, and other activities, the station commissioned on September 26, 1944, an auxiliary of NAS San Diego. In November 1944, ACORN 46 trained at the station followed by ACORN 45. The ACORNS, Seabee units from Port Hueneme, built and operated small advanced air bases. PB4Ys from Camp Kearny used the base for training and staging until the end of the war. Carrier aircraft from Southern California stations also utilized the airfield for training.

NAAS San Nicolas consisted of the island's entire 13,370 acres. The airfield's single Army-built 6250 x 150-ft. runway had several hardstands. Station complement numbered 121 officers, 312 enlisted men, and nine civilians with barracks for 100 officers and 346 enlisted men. A 30-man dispensary and an auditorium with a 300-person capacity also existed. The station aircraft were usually a Grumman J4F Widgeon amphibian and a TBF Avenger.

Following the war, the Navy decided to locate all testing of pilotless aircraft and missiles on the West Coast. The site chosen was Pt. Mugu, 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. San Nicolas Island was a major factor in this choice since it was an ideal location for placement of radar and telemetry equipment to observe missile testing in Pt. Mugu's 100-mile long range. Initially, the Navy spent $5 million upgrading the facilities. San Nicolas was officially disestablished as an NAAS on December 15, 1946, becoming an Auxiliary Landing Field of Pt. Mugu.

Today, San Nicolas is an integral part of the Pacific Missile Range. In the intervening years, the runway has been improved and extended to 10,000 ft. Besides radar and telemetry facilities, the island also has several target sites used in missile testing.

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

San Nicolas Island

San Nicolas Island [ a.k.a. San Nic and SNI], is the most northwesterly of the four southern Channel Islands. Like its eastern neighbor San Clemente Island, San Nicolas is a US Navy owned and operated island. Located 65 NM southwest of the Point Mugu complex, San Nicolas Island is the cornerstone in the Sea Range capabilities. Because of its instrumentation, isolated environment, shoreline characteristics, San Nicolas Island is ideal for conducting test and training exercises. Because of its isolated environment and shoreline characteristics, SNI is ideal for providing littoral warfare training, including tri-service and theater warfare exercises. It is also an excellent environment for conducting classified operations.

SNI is a Navy owned and operated facility used as an instrumentation site. SNI is the cornerstone in the Sea Range capabilities because of its land mass and depth of surrounding waters. The main support facilities include a 10,000 foot runway, an air terminal, housing, a power plant, a fuel farm and other necessary base support functions. The main San Nicolas Island complex provides complete housing, dining, recreation, transportation, and public works support. Project billeting and logistic support is also available on the island.

San Nicolas Island Navy Outlying Field is capable of supporting C-5's, the 10,000 ft runway, 2 hangers, and associated airfield support facilities are located near the southwest edge of a 500 ft mesa. The runway is lighted and equipped with arresting gear and has a ground control approach systems (ILS). The Barge Landing Area beach landing area is used to barge cargo to large or bulky for aircraft. Cargo can be off-loaded and trucked to the main compound or one of the many project areas.

Air Resorts has two contracts with the U.S. Navy: F11626-93-D-0032 and F11626-94-D-0018. Under one contract, Air Resorts has operated the non-TCAS equipped CV-440 aircraft from Pt. Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS), California to San Nicholas Island Navy Outlying Field (NOLF), California. On the other contract, the aircraft have operated from North Island Naval Air Station (NAS), California to San Clemente Island Naval Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF), California. The usual alternate for the San Nicholas route is Pt. Mugu, and for San Clemente, it is Navy North Island.

The San Nicolas Island Vandal Launch Pad launch complex is capable of supporting missile (Tomahawk & RAM) and missile targets (Vandal) launches. Launch complex's, ordnance handling, and a remote/secure environment provides an ideal location for weapons T&E. Many of the targets routinely used on the Sea Range (the BQM-34 and BQM-74 series and the MQM-8G) are launched from either the Point Mugu Surface Launch Complex at Building 55 or from additional specialized launch facilities on San Nicolas Island.

The west end of San Nicolas Island provides a secured area for missile targets and is often used for SLAM and land attach missile operations. The Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS) is a remote controlled ship with SeaSparrow, RAM, and CWIS defense systems and various target acquisition systems. It provides an open-ocean, integrated, self-defense platform without the safety constraints associated with a manned ship.

San Nicolas Island has numerous radars including three FPS-16 and two RIR-716 tracking radars, and one FPS-114 surface and one ARSR-3 air route surveillance radars. SNI is instrumented with metric tracking and surveillance radars, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, optics, telemetry, and communications necessary to support long range and over-the-horizon weapons testing, Fleet training and Theater Missile Defense exercises. SNI instrumentation also supports InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and Polar satellite launches from the Western Range at VAFB. In addition, frequency monitoring, meteorological measurement systems and ordnance and launching facilities are available. Capabilities include launch of subscale and unmanned full-scale targets and launch sites for surface-launched weapons.

San Nicolas Island has extensive telemetry collection facilities including three 30 ft, two 20 ft, one 8 ft, and 7 ft diameter antennas. Signals can be recorded and routed to the Point Mugu operations complex for best source selection. The SNI Telemetry Collection Facility also provides real-time reception, recording and relay of telemetry data. SNI supplies this telemetry data to Point Mugu for processing and display. Telemetry signals are received through land-based antennas located at SNI and sent in real-time by a fiber optic cable and/or microwave to Point Mugu. The best source signals are then sent by fiber optic cable to the TDC, located in the ROC for real-time processing and display. The SNI telemetry facilities are ideally located to support operations throughout the Sea Range as well as strategic and space launches from the Western Range (WR), Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB). The capability to record and display Miss Distance Indication (MDI) and video Doppler data is also available. Nearly all major users of the Sea Range rely on telemetry support from SNI.

In Sept 2002 it was announced that the contract for a new pier at SNI had been awarded to Nova Group, Inc for $11,500,000. Currently, barges that bring supplies to the island are landed on the beach and are routinely delayed due to weather and sea conditions. The barge delays cause vital military testing and training on the NAVAIR Weapons Division Sea Range to slip. The new pier will significantly reduce the delays and impacts on the growing population of seals and sea lions that breed and pup in the area.

Contract Number N68711-02-C-2004 was awarded by the Southwest Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, San Diego, with assistance from the NAVAIR Weapons Division, and the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center.

The contract includes the design and construction of a 460 foot long pier including mooring systems and a ramp to facilitate offloading the barges. A new operations building, and transit shed for cargo are also included.

The pier will be built on the southeast end of the island in an area called Daytona Beach. Design is underway, with construction expected to be complete in Spring 2004.


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