For many tourists visiting the USA the City of Las Vegas is at the very top of their must-see list. This surreal, artificial creation in the middle of the Nevada desert not only offers something for gamblers, poker players and retirees with a penchant for blackjack machines, it also serves as a mecca for military aviation enthusiasts. Just over eight miles north-east of this gambling metropolis is Nellis Air Force Base, home of the United States Air Force Warfare Centre (USAFWC) along with the official aerobatic team of the USAF, the USAF Thunderbirds. Nellis AFB also serves as the venue for the annual RED FLAG exercise.
Encompassing more than 11,600 acres, Nellis is one of the largest air bases in the United States. The base was named in honour of 1st Lt. William Nellis, a World War II Republic P-47 THUNDERBOLT fighter pilot who was shot down during a combat mission over Belgium in December 1944. Nellis AFB also incorporates the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), a vast, uninhabited area of ??4,700 square miles (by comparison to Northern Ireland that has a total area of some ??5,344 square miles). Its interesting to note that more than 75% of all training ammunition used by the US Air Force is expended in this area.
Red Flag exercises have been conducted at Nellis AFB since 1975 under the leadership of the United States Air Force Warfare Centre and conducted by the 414th Combat Training Squadron, these comprehensive training courses have set the standard for realistic air combat training within the USAF and for participating allies. According to information provided by the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office, no less than 145,000 pilots and aircrew have participated at RED FLAG since its inception in 1975. Just like its navy equivalent, the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (SFTI program), better known under the synonym "TOP GUN". RED FLAG first came to being as a result of the bitter experience gained during the Vietnam conflict and was founded with the aim of providing pilots and aircrew with realistic training scenarios to improve their air combat abilities. The perfect environmental conditions of the range, the broad participation of different NATO air forces as well as the use of captured enemy equipment (i.e. various ground to air missile systems captured by US troops during combat operations such as in Iraq) make RED FLAG one of the major advanced air combat training programs for western air forces.
Nellis AFB is also home of the USAF THUNDERBIRDS (the official name: USAF Air Demonstration Squadron), the official aerobatic team of the US Air Force. The T-Birds were formed in 1953 making them the third oldest active aerobatic team in the world (only the US Navy BLUE ANGELS and the French PATROUILLE de FRANCE can look back on a longer career). The THUNDERBIRDS currently operate eight Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 52 FIGHTING FALCONS (six single-seater and two double-seaters as spares). The stated goal of the team and therefore the USAF is to demonstrate the capabilities of the current frontline combat aircraft of the US Air Force, a task which may no longer be possible in the future as the role of frontline combat aircraft types such as the Boeing F-22 RAPTOR or the successor to the Lockheed Martin F-16, the Lockheed Martin F-35 LIGHTENING II is now rather exclusive. Once already the THUNDERBIRDS have had to move away from the units intended role. After the oil crisis that came in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War the THUNDERBIRDS had to exchange their fuel-hungry McDonnell Douglas F-4E PHANTOM II to the much more economical Northrop T-38A TALON (from 1974). The future of the team is, as with many other aerobatic teams, still very much in the balance and in 2013 their entire flying program was suspended due to budget cuts. Regardless of this the THUNDERBIRDS still perform at major air shows in the US, and they do it as perfectly as they always have. No one really know what the future holds, but whenever you hear the team leader (THUNDERBIRD #1) saying over the loud speakers: Gentlemen, start your engines! , you can be sure you’ll be seeing a truly magnificent team in action!
The big event at Nellis AFB in April 1997 was a true milestone birthday as the United States Air Force celebrated its 50th anniversary as an independent branch of the US Armed Forces. Before 1947 the air force was a branch of the US Army (from 1926 to 1941: USAAC/US Army Air Corps, from 1941 to 1947: USAAF/US Army Air Force). Based on experience gained during World War II it was decided to establish the US Army Air Force as a separate entity. According to the National Security Act of 26 July 1947 adopted by Congress the Air Force received its independence on 18th September 1947 as equal part of armed forces. The National Security Act was approved and signed by the then President Harry. S. TRUMAN aboard the first Air Force One aircraft, a converted Douglas VC-54C SKYMASTER with the melodious name of Sacred Cow. In addition to the establishment of the Air Force as a separate branch, the foundation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was determined through this Act.
The USAF is divided into a total of 10 Major Commands and is headed by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force (usually a four-star general). General Carl A. Spaatz (former commander of the 8th US Air Force) served as the first Chief of Staff and currently the position has been held since 2012 by General Mark A. Welsh. At the moment, about 485,000 men and women serve in the Air Force – a little more than 60 precent of the number of employees that were serving at the time of its foundation! The ceremony itself was a terrific experience for everyone involved. In addition to the current state of the art aircraft of the US Air Force spectators also got to see a lot of exotic aircraft, presented in both flying and static displays. A very special experience was a demonstration by the Japanese aerobatic display team BLUE IMPULSE from No. 11 Squadron based at Matsushima AB. To date, this was the only demonstration of this team outside of Japan!
The highlight for all aviation enthusiasts was certainly a flypast of a Lockheed SR-71 BLACKBIRD. At this time, this legendary reconnaissance plane has just been retired from service with only two aircraft still (briefly) in use by NASA for testing. Therefore, this was one of the final opportunities to see this magnificent aircraft in the air again. Closing of ceremonies was presented the "Nellis landlords", the USAF THUNDERBIRDS, and in their usual masterly fashion too. The only drawback is the fact that you will have to wait a very long time until the next big celebration (in 2047) – however, whether we will see anything more than UAV's in the flying program, still remains to be seen :-)
Robert Kysela / CHK 6 (2015)
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