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.
Naval Air Facility, 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 country flights.
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 1943.
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 base.

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 over 1,000-sq.-mi.
Naval Air Facility Inyokern
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 until 1952.
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 work in
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 Engineers
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 property.
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 Inyokern Airport.
Extract, US Army Air Forces Directory of Airfields, January 1945
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Extract, US Navy and Marine Corps Installations - Domestic (1985)
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Updated 8 February 2016