Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfield
Naval Air Facility, Inyokern
(Inyokern Auxiliary Field; Naval
Ordnance Test Station, Inyokern)
An F6F-5 "Hellcat"
at NAF Inyokern.
by M.L. Shettle
In the mid-1930s, Trans-Sierra Airlines applied for a route between
Fresno, California and Phoenix, Arizona. The CAA granted the
request with the provision that an emergency landing field be
built in the Mojave Desert. This resulted in Kern County purchasing
land and the CAA/WPA building a paved runway one mile northwest
of the small town of Inyokern (1940 population 55). The airport
was inaugurated in 1935 with General Hap Arnold in attendance.
In September 1942, the airfield was taken over by the Army's
Fourth Air Force and assigned to the Muroc Bombing Range Air
Base (now Edwards AFB), 50 miles to the south. Although the Army
intended to use the airfield for dispersal and glider training,
this plan was never augmented; however, Army primary training
Stearmans from Lancaster regularly used the airfield for cross
Prior to the beginning of World War II,
the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was
created to oversee the development of weapons by America's academic
scientists. In August 1940, OSRD placed the California Institute
of Technology at Pasadena under contract to develop rockets and
other weapons. On July 14, 1943, a TBF fired a British 3.5"
rocket and five weeks later, the first Cal Tech produced rocket
was launched. The program needed a test facility near Pasadena,
so the Army released Inyokern to the Navy when requested in October
The Navy built a hangar plus other support
facilities at the airfield. Ten miles east of Inyokern, the main
base was constructed and con sisted of work shops, laboratories,
and barracks for 60 officers and 600 men. The Naval Ordnance
Test Station commissioned on December 12, 1943, including a 900-sq.-mi.
test range. Meanwhile, the Vice-Chief of Naval Operations ordered
6000 aircraft equipped for rockets by June 1, 1944. On January
15, 1944, CASU 53 formed at Inyokern with 31 officers and 617
men to support rocket training for fleet squadrons that arrived
shortly thereafter. Development continued with the British designed
3.5" rocket which was forward firing and high velocity with
interchangeable high explosive or incendiary warheads. Combat
experience had shown that larger and more powerful rockets were
needed. A modified 5" artillery warhead was mounted on a
3.5" rocket motor becoming the 5" Aircraft Rocket (AR).
When the new warhead reduced the 5" AR's velocity to 710
fps (feet-per-second) from the 3.5" rocket's 1175 fps, a
new motor was developed. This resulted in the 5" High Velocity
Aircraft Rocket (HVAR) or "Holy Moses." The first test
firing of the Holy Moses took place on March 29, 1944, from a
TBF. The rocket's nickname was allegedly coined by Conway Snyder
of the rocket's design group after observing a test firing. The
first operational use of the rocket occurred in France by the
Army. Both Army and Navy units quickly disdained the 3.5"
and 5" AR for the more powerful Holy Moses. A full salvo
of the Holy Moses gave an aircraft the fire power greater than
a broadside from a destroyer.
Demand was such that the Joint Chiefs
of Staff had to ration the weapon through March 1945. At war's
end, however, over one million had been stockpiled. The popularity
and effectiveness of aircraft rockets led the Navy to begin a
project to develop a "really big rocket" in early 1944.
The project culminated with the 11.75" or "Tiny Tim."
With a total weight of 1290 lbs., the Tiny Tim, basically a rocket
pro pelled 500-lb. bomb, was accurate at ranges to 4,000 yds.,
had a velocity of 820 fps, and could penetrate up to 4 ft. of
reinforced concrete. The first firing took place on June 6, 1944.
Several developmental problems were encountered including the
launching method. A lanyard system was finally selected that
fired the motor after the rocket dropped approxi mately three
feet below the aircraft.
After the German V-1s began their assault
on England, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Project Crossbow.
The project provided for Marine Air Group (MAG) 60's F4Us to
attack the V-1 launch sites with the Tiny Tim. MAG 60's aircraft
came to Inyokern for training in July. Delays in the rocket's
development and the overrunning of the V-1 launch sites by Army
ground units caused the project to be cancelled. With all the
problems finally overcome, production of the Tiny Tim began early
in 1945. The rocket's effectiveness during the war was minimal
and very few were fired in combat. One of the two Tiny Tim squadrons
was destroyed when the USS Franklin was put out of action by
the Kamikaze attack on March 18, 1945.
The airfield at Inyokern was dedicated as Harvey Field on May
10, 1944, in honor of LCdr. Warren Harvey for his contribution
to the development of aviation ordnance and fighter tactics.
The next month, CASU 53 moved to Holtville as rocket training
began at other bases. Meanwhile, the facilities at Harvey Field
became inadequate and a larger airfield was needed. In June 1944,
work began on a new air station east of Inyokern near the main
During the summer of 1944, a series of tragic accidents left
the station in a state of shock. On June 20, Lt. Donald Innes
was killed over the Salton Sea when a rocket under his wing prematurely
exploded. Twenty days later, a similar accident claimed the life
of Lt. Douglas Walhall and his crewman, Wilson Keller. On August
21, Lt. John Armitage flew into the ground from 1500 ft. in an
SB2C and was killed after the launching of a Tiny Tim. Accident
investigators discovered that the shock wave from the rocket's
blast caused a jam in the SB2C's flight controls. The carnage
continued just eight days later, when a rocket ricocheted off
the ground tearing the wing off Lt. Robert Dibbs aircraft, who
was killed in the subsequent crash. In spite of these grievous
losses, work continued unabated.
Beginning in early 1945, Inyokern supported three Army B-29s
of the atomic bomb development unit. On June 1, 1945, the Navy
opened the new airfield dedicating it as Armitage Field. Harvey
Field remained in use by drone utility and fleet units. At that
time station complement numbered 60 officers and 732 men with
73 aircraft of 27 types. During the war, the station flew 12,000
flights and accumu lated 11,000 flight hours. Rocket firings
totaled 1300 Tiny Tims, 5,000 5" Holy Moses, plus 6,500
5" and 3.5" rockets. Rockets were adapted to and test
fired from the TBF, PBY, PV, SBD, OS2U, FM, F6F, F4U, SB2C, and
PBJ, as well as the Army's P 38, P-47, P-51, A-20, and A-26.
Following the war, Inyokern continued in the development and
production of missiles. The Navy closed Harvey Field in April
1946, returning it to the County a year later. In May 1948, the
Michelson Laboratory reached completion. The most famous product
of the laboratory was the heat-seeking Sidewinder, named for
the desert horned rattlesnake. In 1967, the complex became the
Naval Weapons Center, China Lake.
During the Vietnam War, 75% of the air-to-air and air-to-ground
missiles in use were developed by the Navy at the Center. In
1979, the joint service National Parachute Test Range moved to
China Lake from El Centro, California. Today, the Center encompasses
by Justin Ruhge
Inyokern Airport had its beginning in
1935 when the commercial air services wanted to initiate trans-Sierra
flights. The Civilian Air Administration (CAA) determined that
an emergency landing strip was needed in the vicinity of the
tiny desert village of Inyokern for passenger safety. The Works
Progress Administration (WPA) purchased some land and paved a
runway on the present airport site. In late 1935, there was a
dedication of the new airport. In 1939, the field became Kern
County Airport #8 as a part of a countywide system of airports.
Only private pilots used the Inyokern Airport.
At the beginning of World War II, the
Army Air Corps requested permission to use Inyokern Airport as
an auxiliary field. Some 40 Army cadets did land their Stearman
aircraft there as a part of a cross-country training exercise.
However at the same time the Navy was looking for a test range
for its missile development programs and saw the China Lake area
as a perfect location. The Inyokern Airport was also in a perfect
location for their early test programs. In late 1943, the Naval
Air Facility Inyokern was authorized. The Army Air Corps was
given Muroc Field instead. This was the beginning of the Naval
Ordnance Test Station (NOTS).
The Navy constructed Quonset hut barracks,
hangars, small buildings, the large Kodiak hangar, ammunition
bunkers, fuel storage tanks, three paved runways, and the building
now used as a terminal, which at the time had a three-story tower
on top. These were completed in early 1944. Kern County Airport
#8 was officially commissioned May 10, 1944 as Harvey Field,
in memory of Warren Harvey a Navy squadron leader who lost his
life in the war and a close friend of the founder of NOTS, Captain
Burroughs. At about this time the Navy was building the permanent
facilities at China Lake, which included Armitage Field. Inyokern
was used for flight test programs until the facilities at China
Lake could be completed.
After the War, the Quonset huts and other buildings were moved
to the new China Lake facility, although a few were sold to the
townspeople and a few were demolished. The flight control tower,
the Kodiak hanger, fuel pits, ammunition bunkers, and the runways
remained. The County regained control of the airport and again
named it Kern County Airport #8 but the transfer was not recorded
There was a rumor that the Enola Gay,
the B-29 that dropped the first Atomic bomb, was hangared at
Inyokern. However it appears that the runway at Harvey Field
at that time was too short for the B-29. Armitage Field's runway
was being rushed to completion to handle the B-29s, but until
it was finished in May 1945 the bombers landed on Airport Lake,
east of Little Lake. Much later it was learned that the atomic
bomb building was underway in remote areas of the China Lake
facility during that time. There is some truth to this rumor,
it would seem.
In 1952, the first commercial passenger
flight from Inyokern to Burbank was initiated. The fare was $5.00
each way and the aircraft was a DC-3, with a stewardess on board.
The aircraft was named "City of Inyokern." A small
parking lot was paved near the terminal to accommodate the new
business. The author remembers using this service many times
during the late 1950s and 1960s.
The control tower was removed in 1959. The remaining Navy-built
building became the airport terminal.
Improvements were made to the airport
in the 1970s and 80s in the form of new landing Radar, fire department,
new roads and runway repairs. In 1985 the Indian Wells Valley
Airport District was formed.
In 1998, Skywest Airlines, United Parcel
Service, Federal Express and others used the airport on a daily
basis. Many new facilities have been added.
Armitage Field at China Lake became the
new Naval Air Station, China Lake in 1955. Its mission was to
provide support for research, development, and test and evaluation
connection with guided missiles; aircraft weapons delivery systems,
aircraft rockets, rocket launchers, underwater ordnance, and
aviation fire control and target drone operations.
References: History of
the Indian Wells Airport District by Nancy Bass, Manager
of the Indian Wells Airport District; Historic California Posts,
The California Center for Military History, Sacramento, California.
US Army Corps
of Engineers History (1994)
Los Angeles District, US Army Corps of
Inyokem Airfield was initially acquired
by the War Department as an auxiliary field for Muroc Army Air
Field. The US Army Corps of Engineers leased 1135.28 acres from
the County of Kern on 24 May 1943 through Lease W 2972 eng 1129.
The U.S. Army Air Forces acquired 184.74 acres from four private
owners: By Declaration of taking 81.53 acres from Otis H. Vanderford
and 41.32 acres from Alice M. Henry and by direct purchase 40
acres from George Michael and 21.89 acres from the Estate of
Jesse H. Taylor. The DOD therefore acquired a total of 1320.02
acres and the entire area was known as Inyokern airfield.
The U.S. Army Air Forces used 184.74 acres
as an airfield, from the 13 August 1943 to 15 October 1952. Improvements
by the Army included a storage shack and latrine. The U.S. Navy
used 1,135.28 acres as a temporary airfield known as the Naval
Ordnance Test Site (NOTS) from the 24 May 1943 to 15 October
1952. Improvements by the Navy included terminals, barracks,
hangar, fueling facilities including 11 underground storage tanks,
and ammunition bunkers (magazines). In the late 1940`s (exact
date unknown) the U.S. Navy received permission from the U.S.
Air Force to extend a runway onto part of the their airfield
The U.S. Navy terminated the lease with
Kern County for 1,135.28 acres on 15 October 1952. The U.S. Air
Force conveyed 184.74 acres to Kern County by Quitclaim Deed
on 15 October 1952. A total of 1,320.02 acres was disposed of
by the Department of Defense. On 15 October 1952 Kern County
deeded 44.75 acres to the U.S. Navy, who currently uses the property
as a well field for China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Kern County
deeded 35.71 acres to private firms for an industrial park. The
remaining 1239.56 acres was deeded to the Indian Wells Valley
Airport District and is currently used as an airport known as
US Army Air Forces Directory of Airfields, January 1945