Naval Air Facility El Centro
5th-6th February 2008

Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro is located in the heart of Southern California's Imperial Valley, less than two hours drive away from San Diego and fifteen minutes from the Mexican border.

Thanks to an excellent climate record, vast unobstructed desert terrain, limited non-military air traffic and the proximity of several instrumented bombing ranges, this small, but busy facility serves as an integral part of Naval Aviation Training. Frequent deployments are also supported from the USMC, US Army and USAF. It is also not unusual to see aircraft from other NATO or Allied nations at El Centro; in particular British, French, German and Italian aircraft with parachutists for various phases of their training.  

A startling statistic from 1999 provides an illustration of how busy El Centro can be; the number of flight operations (landings and take-offs) exceeded 167,000 during the year and flight operations on a typical day reach over 450 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

El Centro has two operating runways; the 9,500 foot east/west runway handles 96 percent of all traffic and is equipped with a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System at each approach end, in addition to lighted carrier deck landing areas, allowing pilots to simulate carrier landings. The nearby desert ranges provide the opportunity for practice ordinance delivery, the complex utilises the Weapons Impact Scoring System – this microwaves target images to a range master control building for immediate verification of weapons delivery accuracy.

The addition of the Display and Debriefing Subsystem, known as DDS, expanded the role of NAF El Centro to include air combat training by utilizing remote television, acoustical and laser scoring systems. The DDS is linked with TACTS to provide a computerized record of the tactics employed by individual aircrews and to evaluate the effectiveness of each manoeuvre.

Operating from El Centro at the time of the reporters visit were elements from VFA-106 Gladiators. As the US East Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron, the Gladiators current role is to train US Navy and US Marine Corps F/A-18 Replacement Pilots and Weapons System Operators.

Also visiting was VT-9 with a pair of T-45C Goshawks (165458/A-115 & 165459/A-116). Goshawk 165458 crashed whilst on approach to NAS Meridian on 4th March, both crew members safely ejected.

A pair of MCAS Miramar VMFAT-101 Sharpshooters Hornets also dropped in for a 'gas n go'. Noteworthy on F/A-18C 163502 SH/237 is an Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 kill marking on the nose, dating back to 17th January 1991 when the Hornet took part in Operation DESERT STORM from USS Saratoga with VFA-81.

Also making a welcome appearance for gas were VMA-214 Blacksheep with the AV-8B Harrier II.

Naval Air Facility El Centro History

Naval Air Facility El Centro was commissioned on 1st May 1946 as a Naval Air Station, prior to that the base had served as a Marine Corps Air Station.

For the first 35 years of its history, the mission of NAF El Centro was devoted to aeronautical escape system testing, evaluation, and design. In November 1947, the Parachute Experimental Division from Lakehurst, New Jersey moved to El Centro. In 1951, the Joint Parachute Facility was established and consisted of the Naval Parachute Unit and the Air Force 6511th Test Group (Parachute). The Air Force remained part of El Centro's test organization for the next 27 years. In 1959, an ejection seat designed for pilot escape from a high-speed jet at altitudes less than 1000 feet was successfully tested. The Mercury Space Program parachute system, used for the first US manned satellites and the Apollo re-entry system, was also tested at El Centro.

In 1964, the US Naval Aerospace Recovery Facility was designated and on 1st July 1973 it was combined with NAF El Centro to form the National Parachute Test Range. Exactly six years later, the parachute test mission was transferred to Naval Weapons Center China Lake; and El Centro once again became a Naval Air Facility.

NAF is the winter home of the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, who arrive from NAS Pensacola, Florida, just after the New Year holidays. The Blue Angels then conduct over two months of intense flight operations prior to the start of their air show season – historically the El Centro Air Show hosts the Blue Angels' first public display, traditionally held in March.

The Blue Angels

The United States Navy's Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, was formed in 1946 and is the world's first officially sanctioned military aerial demonstration team, as well as the oldest currently flying aerobatics team.

Over the decades the Blue Angels have flown a variety of front line US Navy aircraft - in front of an estimated 427 million spectators - starting with the F6F Hellcat in June 1946, two months later the team moved on to the F8F Bearcat. By the end of the 1940’s the Blue Angels were flying their first jet aircraft, the Grumman F9F-2 Panther. In response to the demands placed on naval aviation in the Korean Conflict, the team reported to the aircraft carrier USS Princeton as the nucleus of Fighter Squadron 191 (VF-191) "Satan’s Kittens" in 1950.

The team reorganized the next year and reported to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, where they began flying the newer and faster version of the Panther, the F9F-5.

The Blue Angels remained in Corpus Christi until the winter of 1954 when they re-located to their present home base at NAS Pensacola, Florida. It was here that they progressed to the swept-wing F9F-8 Cougar. The next 20 years saw the Blue Angels transition to two more aircraft; the F11F-1 Tiger in 1957 and the F-4J Phantom II in 1969. During December 1974, the Navy Flight Demonstration Team began flying the A-4F Skyhawk II and was re-organized as the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. On 8th November 1986, the Blue Angels completed their 40th anniversary year and unveiled their present aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet.

Located at the entrance to El Centro is the Blue Angels Heritage Park. Access to this area is by prior arrangement and contains preserved examples of the Blue Angels previous jet powered display mounts.

Grumman F-11A

McDonnell Douglas F-4S

Douglas TA-4J

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A

TA-7B Corsair II 154476 is preserved well inside the main gate, behind the Blue Angels Heritage Park and located off base, at the near-by Pioneer Park Museum, is F-14A 159620.


On Target wish to thank the El Centro Public Affairs Officer, Ms Michelle Dee, for her kind assistance in the preparation of this report.



Back to the top


© On Target Aviation 2008