Tour provides unique glimpse at off-limits areas


January 26, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

The sky is filled with jets — Prowlers, Tomcats and Hornets — performing sharp 180-degree turns known as carrier breaks.

Other warplanes are lining up to land and immediately take off again in a touch and go move that teaches pilots how to land on an aircraft carrier deck and fire up again if they miss the hook that would stop the jet.

Meanwhile, rows of other fighters are powering up as pilots prepare to launch. The noise is deafening and constant.

Such is an average day at Naval Air Facility El Centro, a city unto itself that over the last 35 years has become one of the most unique bases in the Navy and has managed to survive rounds of base closures.

On Thursday, the Navy opened the base to local media, giving a tour of areas typically off-limits.

"We have a story; we have many stories I think you would be fascinated with," said Lt. Dave Scalf, who heads the Strike Fighter Wing, a maintenance unit at the base known as the Desert Rattlers.


The Navy base, near Seeley, operates six days a week. On any given day, the air control tower handles the flights of more than 450 jets. During the busiest season — January, February and March — that number can increase to over a thousand flights.

On Wednesday there were 1,351 flight operations, the term used for landings and take-offs.

The media was taken into the air control tower, which is about 50 feet above ground but only about 20 feet above sea level. Inside military and civilian controllers were watching the air field, their computer monitors and the skies. There appeared to be about a dozen jets flying over the base.

At any one time there are at least 1,000 personnel at the facility, including 250 military personnel who work there permanently and about the same number of permanent civilian employees. The rest of the personnel include those who come to the base for training stints.

There are crews at the base who assemble bombs and load those bombs onto jets for practice runs. There are small propeller planes taking off regularly to scout bombing ranges to make sure they are clear of people.

The base has all the amenities one might expect in a small city. It has a fire department, public works, recreation, stores and residential areas. There are baseball fields, tennis courts, gyms, an Olympic-size pool, racquetball courts, a go-cart racing course, a bowling alley, a dance club and a water park.

There is a chapel with an altar that swivels into three positions, depending on the type of service. In one position the altar has a Catholic cross on it, on another side it has a Protestant cross and another side it has a Star of David for the Jewish religion.

Base officials say Naval Air Facility El Centro is unlike any other base in the Navy.

That's because the base is the only one within the Navy that has a maintenance crew on base year-round that can service three types of jets — the F/A-18, the F-14 and the EA-6B.

Chief Petty Officer Tim Haman, a member of the Desert Rattlers — a name he concocted — said maintenance crews come here specialized in one type of jet and are cross-trained.

Capt. Larry Crane, commanding officer of the base, said the fact the base is unique has helped it survive base closures and he is hopeful that will continue.

The remoteness of the Valley and the weather also make it a sought-after training area.

"I believe we will be here, but I do not have a crystal ball into the future," Crane said.

Navy officials said last year the base generated $17 million for the Imperial Valley through use of local construction crews, local hotels and other services.

Base officials say they have had a positive relationship with the Imperial Valley communities and want that to continue.

The base is gearing up for the annual Blue Angles air show March 10. The show will be dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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