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Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Salton Sea
Naval Air Facility, Salton Sea
History by Richard E. Osborne
History by M.L. Shettle
by Richard E. Osborne
The Navy first used the northeast corner of the Salton Sea in 1939 as a seaplane operational area with bombing targets and for emergency landings.
After the start of World War II, a larger facility was needed, and the Navy constructed a seaplane base on the southwest shore of the sea, commissioned as Naval Air Facility in 1942.
The base was initially equipped with PBY Catalina twin-engine seaplanes, and was used for seaplane training & as a seaplane ferry stop. The seaplane base had a 2,100' long asphalt parking apron, a seaplane ramp leading down into the water, and a small group of buildings. As the parking apron resembled a runway, it was painted with a large "DO NOT LANDING HERE" warning.
In an odd choice to portray a south-Pacific island, in late 1942 Paramount Studios chose Salton Sea NAF to be the set for location shots for the movie Wake Island. They constructed a 4,000' clay airstrip in the desert, one mile west of the seaplane base.
In 1944, to support a new mission of conducting air-to-ground rocket training for carrier-based aircraft, a landplane airfield was built one mile to the south of the seaplane base. The airfield consisted of two clay runways (4,900' & 4,000' long), a parking apron, and a taxiway connecting to the seaplane base. Torpedo Squadron (VT) 20 was the first of 57 squadrons to deployed to Salton Sea for air-to-ground rocket training. Along with this new mission, Salton Sea was upgraded to a Naval Auxiliary Air Station in 1944. Barracks were present for a total of 638 personnel.
Tests were also conducted of Jet Assisted Takeoff rockets (JATO) in 1944. In that same year, the 509th Composite Squadron from Wendover Army Air Field, Utah made over 150 drops of prototype atomic bomb shapes at Salton Sea.
NAAS Salton Sea was disestablished in 1946. However, it was maintained & manned at a lower level as a emergency seaplane facility until 1967, when seaplanes left the naval inventory.
The Salton Sea facility was then taken over by NAF El Centro, which conducted parachute drop tests for the manned space program & other military systems until 1979. In the postwar period, the continuing rise of the waters of the Salton Sea were a perpetual problem, and a series of dikes were built to prevent the Test Base from being flooded.
The Marines & Navy SEALs have also used the isolated location for exercises.
Source: World War II Sites in the United States: A Tour Guide and Directory by Richard E. Osbourne
by M.L. Shettle
The Salton Sink was a depression in the Imperial Valley of California, 280 ft. below sea level, containing salt marshes and seasonal shallow lakes. In 1905, during the construction of irrigation canals, the Colorado River broke through dikes flooding the Sink. By the time the Colorado was returned to its original course two years later, a lake 42 miles long, 10 to 16 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 93 feet, had been created. The lake, known as the Salton Sea, receded until 1920, when it stabilized to the size of 30 miles long, 8 to 10 miles wide, with a maxi mum depth of 37 ft.

The Navy first came to the Sea in 1939, when the northeast corner of the lake was used as a seaplane operational area with bombing targets and for emergency landings. Navy crews utilized Eiler's Salton Sea Resort, near Mecca, California for overnight lodging. Eiler's employees provided a boat to bring the Navy crews ashore from the moored seaplanes. In 1940, the Navy and the Coast Guard agreed to share the cost of constructing a facility at a better location. After the outbreak of war, the Navy constructed a seaplane base on the southwest shore commissioning an NAF there on October 8, 1942. Planned as a training base for 12 seaplanes, the first four PBYs arrived three weeks later. The Navy also used the facility as a seaplane ferry stop and as a weather alternate for seaplanes when San Diego became fogged in. Later that year, Paramount Studios built a 4,000-ft. clay airstrip at the site for the filming of the motion picture Wake Island.

A change of mission occurred in March 1944, when VT-20 deployed to the base for rocket training. An additional 56 squadrons received rocket training. Along with the carrier squadrons came a detachment of CASU 53 from Holtville in support. Meanwhile, the station upgraded to an NAAS and added another runway. In July 1944, the Navy conducted the testing of rocket assisted takeoffs (JATO) at the base. Rocket training continued to the end of the war. In December 1944, B-29s of the 509th Composite Squadron from Wendover AAF, Utah made over 150 drops at the facility, testing the prototype atomic bomb shapes. The Navy finally disestablished NAAS Salton Sea on November 13, 1946; however, an emergency seaplane facility consisting of a radio - beacon, a light beacon, a boat house, and a lighted 10,000-ft. seadrome was manned and maintained. The facility was active until 1967 -- as long as sea planes remained in the Naval inventory.

With a field elevation of 245 ft. below sea level, Salton Sea was the second lowest elevation airfield in the U.S. with a 4,000 by 200-ft. and a 4,900 by 300-ft. clay runway. In March 1944, base personnel numbered 85 officers and 465 enlisted men with bar racks for 72 officers and 566 men. The station operated a Piper AE ambulance plane, a GH Howard transport, a Grumman J2F Duck rescue amphibian, and 12 crash boats. CASU 53 used one SBD and up to 13 TBMs in its rocket training support role.

Following the Navy's departure, the base was taken over by the Atomic Energy Commission and used to test inert nuclear weapons drops from 1946 to 1961. NAF El Centro then took over the facility using it for parachute tests of the manned space program and other military systems until 1979. In the meantime, the Marines and Navy Seals also conducted training exercises at the location. Today, the former base is abandoned and will probably become a wildlife refuge in the future.
Copied with the permission of the author from United States Naval Air Stations of World War II.


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