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El Centro became known as the "Pearl of the Desert". It is the gem that all aviation people look for given its near perfect location and all-year-round good weather - ideal for the training of future pilots, airmen and ground crew.

A Navy pilot may pass through El Centro 3 times in his career. The first time will be when he completes primary flight training in light prop aircraft. When a pilot reaches fast jet training he will return with the T-45 Goshawk. From here he'll then convert to his primary aircraft, whatever he has been selected to fly, and then re-visit El Centro for further advanced training using the nearby ranges. 

El Centro is a naval air facility - not an naval air station. The difference is that there are no aircraft based on site. Kris stated that "you're going to disagree with me when you go visit the ramp but I'm going to counter with that those aircraft do not belong to our station".

"There are no permanently assigned aircraft here which means we are a facility for training purposes. Squadrons will come out with their own training syllabus and they fly sometimes during the day, sometimes during the night, sometimes it will be a classroom day, much like today, and the next day will be a flight day. So, unlike NAF Fallon or NAF Lemoore for example, that have flight ops going on all the time - this is because they have permanently assigned aircraft", Kris added.

El Centro is therefore, essentially similar to a conference facility. The space is rented and the conference or training is delivered in the appropriate format. El Centro also portrays a 'truck stop' where aircraft going across country will stop by for some gas and then keep going.

Naval Air Facility El Centro, California, USA

'The Pearl of the Desert'

El Centro started off as a Marine Corps base. In 1943 the Marines were looking for a small base where they could train fighter pilots prior to deploying to the Pacific theatre. They founded several small bases in the California and Arizona desert for this purpose.

MCAS El Centro (as it was known at the time) was supposed to be a temporary base - to last no more than 10 years. A lot of the original structures where built for that duration. On 1st May 1946, at the conclusion of the war, the Navy took possession of El Centro when the Marines decided they didn't need it anymore. At that point El Centro became a depository for aircraft while decisions were being made as to where they would be positioned after the war. At the same time El Centro was used as a training facility for cargo planes.

El Centro has been involved in some of the most exciting and pioneering developments in civil, military aviation and space projects. Across the other side of the country parachute systems were being designed in New Jersey. Needing a location in the US where there would be continuous good flying weather and limited environmental issues where they could test a recovery system, El Centro was selected as a parachute test facility. Nowadays it's a familiar sight to see a C-130 flying low and pushing out crates suspended by parachute as they float down to earth. From here the ejection seat was also developed. The B1 Bomber (Lancer) ejection capsule was a further derivative of such systems.

With the development of the space program (Gemini, Mercury, Apollo missions), the booster rockets and recovery systems were designed and procured at El Centro's facility.

Operation 'Skyhook' is another example of an exploratory project whereby a Hercules would be fitted with metal arms which could hook a rope attached to a balloon (or more interestingly military personnel), and transport it to another location - all of these techniques were developed and perfected at El Centro.

​This type of mission was held until about 1978, and then El Centro was reduced in capacity until the 1980s when El Centro became once again a training facility.


That's one of the reasons we exist out here as a flight facility - for 360 days of the year we have almost perfect flying weather. The skies are beautiful and bright, there's not a lot of wind" Kris advised.


In the summer temperatures can generally peak at 120 degrees plus which is extremely warm. Kris added that "the weather is why so many armed forces and units come out here. It's also the environment and the UK for example are keen to come out here and train with their helicopter squadrons which operate out in similar terrain and climate such as the Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan. The type of dirt we have out here on our ranges and deserts perfectly mimics the type of dirt they have in Kandahar. So to come out here and do dust landings is perfect training prior to deployment".

"Changes in elevation are also important for training.  El Centro is 42 ft below sea level, however the nearby mountains are at 4,500 ft. Pilots and airmen experience the rapid transition from low to high point. We've had Lynx, Apache , Chinook, and Merlin helicopters out here and we have a very close relationship the UK".

Enabling El Centro to be a leading military aviation training facility there are two ranges nearby. There are a total of 56,000 acres of range space. The base facility itself is contained within only 2880 acres. Kris stated that "we are here to help people do whatever they need to do. So, when we have pilots here training on jets or learning air to ground combat for the first time - they'll load up with little mk76 bombs on the trainer aircraft and then they'll go practice dropping those. Once they graduate and go on to the more complex aircraft they will go over to the ranges in Yuma too. Everything here is for a specific training purpose".

El Centro is multi-national. On the ramp upon visiting were Lynx from the UK, F-18's and AV-8 Harriers from the Marines. "It's always possible we may have a transient come in. The C-2 guy's like to come down from NAS Whidbey Island and 'bounce' for a while, that is to perform a series of touch and go's" Kris noted.

"In terms of climate, we are having an unseasonably cool spring. Normally by this time (mid-March) we are in the mid 90's heading towards 100 degrees. 

Kris Haugh was interviewed by Frontline Aviation to discover what takes place at El Centro and highlight it's mission and role within the US Armed Forces.


Kris has a prestigious career. He served four years in the White House under two different Presidents - two years under Clinton, and then a further two under Bush (no.2). A line of work very suited to his abilities, Kris later became the Public Affairs Officer at Naval Air Facility El Centro.

Kris lives off base in the small city of Imperial, 7 miles from NAF El Centro. Imperial has its own airport and serves as a gas and go facility for military helicopters. Imperial is home to 1800 residents and this suits Kris and his family, having been grown up in communities of similar size. "You get to know everybody and the only traffic jams getting to and from work are if my timings are wrong and the local farmers are herding sheep from one field to another. It's a nice and friendly environment to be in. The military is not the biggest employer by far in the Imperial Valley. Agriculture is number one and we fully respect this".

One of Kris's hobbies is dressing up in star wars outfits. Along with a large group from the 'Imperial' base this brings some Comic-Con (held in San Diego) interest to the area and local community.  Those attending the annual El Centro airshow in early March will see this spectacle first-hand. Kris stated that "this is a lot of fun and helps to raise charity funds for important community projects that we support". 




The ranges reside about 5 miles North of El Centro. The moment an aircraft is 'gear up' and cleared the airfield the pilot is making their call in to the range. Mark Willis (Range Manager at Flight Operations) advised that the designated ranges are; 25/10 (Target 101, code name Shade Tree and Target 103, code name Loon Lobby) and 25/12 (Target 95, code name Kitty Baggage and Target 68, code name Inky Barley).

Air to air, air to ground, basic aviation handling and training are the generalised mission types. However, each squadron that uses the facility will have their own unique objectives. These are also determined by aircraft type and what role they play in the theatre of war. Squadrons will bring their own ordinance, support and maintenance crews to El Centro.

Attached to NAF El Centro is a personnel count of little over 50 people. These people make up the security forces, air traffic controllers, and then a few members of staff and officers are assigned to the general running and administration of the base.

However, upon Frontline Aviation's visit to El Centro there were approximately 300 military personnel on base. There were also some tenant commands. One of the tenant commands is the weapons detachment and they handle all of the ordinance loading for example.

There is a medical clinic which handles health matters. A small supply department oversees the contractors on site such as those which supply fuel. There is also a maintenance detachment from 122 whom are a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). Kris advised that this unit is out here frequently. "It's cheaper for them to have a detachment out here of about 120 sailors and that way when they fly in with the aircraft and aircrew, the maintenance people are already here", Kris added. Although a small base, El Centro has the capability to grow upward of 2000 extra people - this is when the detachments are present. "For the people that work in the galley for example, its challenging. One day they may have to produce a few meals, then another day they may have to provide 2000+ meals. There is no

more staff available, it comes down to planning and efficiency. Each person out here is an expert in their field and it is therefore very easy to work together as a team. As a small base we work together pretty much like a family. Everybody helps one another, and everyone knows what's going on across the facility".

Everyone who wants to live on base receives either a three or four bedroom house. The housing is the same for officers as it is enlisted personnel, only they are geographically separated with an officers section, and an enlisted serviceman's section. There is space and amenities with about 100 families on the base. "We have a very high quality of life out here with great outdoor amenities, although parks are not always used that much in the summer due to the heat".

On average El Centro hosts between 50-60 squadrons visiting throughout the year. 60,000 aircraft operations per year takes place. Kris emphasised that "as an airfield with no resident aircraft we are fairly busy. Summer time may see the slowest periods due to the excess heat, but we have peaks and troughs. A peak is beginning now with the marines coming out for the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course which takes place end of March through to end of April. This operation is in conjunction with Yuma. Sometimes we 

act as the staging area with some aircraft launching out of another base to keep units separated. What with the Blue Angels arriving in January, February, March and April are a fairly busy period of training for us. There will then be a more relaxed period before the fall". Kris advised that training squadrons from NAS Meridian and NAS Kingsville also visit several times a year bringing future Navy pilots in the process of completing their flying qualifications. "They fly the T45 Goshawk and bring about 20 aircraft or so per detachment. They're always tearing up the skies".

El Centro is surrounded by agricultural fields and not a lot of flying takes place over towns. Therefore noise is not much of an issue day or night. If a sustained period of night flying takes place Kris may notify the local community of such activities. "Night flying is part of our mission, delivering training to the aircraft carrier fleet. The dark agricultural fields simulate perfectly the inky black water of the sea at night, allowing the pilots to hone their skills and practice landing on small strips of runway that look like the deck of an aircraft carrier. The pilots learn the 'hit' area of the runway where a wire would be. Arrestor landings are not part of the practice, as this would close our runway down while aircraft are 'un-hooked'. However, we do have arrestor gear by the runway should an emergency require a trap landing". 

The Blue Angels is the United States Navy's flight demonstration squadron, with aviators from the Navy and Marines.


The Blue Angels team was formed in 1946, making it the second oldest flying aerobatic team (under the same name) in the world, after the French Patrouille de France.

Flying the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the Blue Angels use El Centro for their pre-season training. They generally arrive in January and train at the facility until March.



Kris confirmed that no major developments or expansions are planned for El Centro at this time. However, with the F-35 coming into use at places like NAS Lemoore, there is going to be a need for a place to train and Kris expects that once everything is fully set up at Lemoore there could be a little bit of growth at El Centro to accommodate their future training and special needs. 

"Right now we're fully set in the mission that we do and the facilities that we provide here at El Centro. There are always infrastructure improvements taking place. Upgrading of buildings and things like that. Recently the Marines added a TPS-80 G/ATOR radar on site to complete their ground picture as coverage was limited prior to installation", Kris added.


They complete 120 flights during a 10 week visit. Introducing new pilots requires a flying schedule with 2-3 flights per day. 

Kris stated that "everything they do is a practice, from maintaining the aircraft to walking out to the jets, take-off and performing their routine. When they step out at another airfield the training is locked-in to the mindset and they perform it perfectly without effort. They perform their first show at El Centro and then they hit the road".

Source: NAF El Centro Joint Land Use Study

Frontline Aviation would like to thank the following personnel for their dedication to duty and assistance in creating this article:

Kristopher K. Haugh (Public Affairs Officer)

Rogers (Petty Officer)

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