The Secret of Salton Sea Naval Base

Salton Sea Base Sign
Welcoming visitors to Salton Sea Base while it was run by the Sandia Corporation.

Salton Sea Naval Base is not known as one of the famous military test sites in the United states. Although it isn’t as revered as places like White Sands or Edwards AFB it is still the location of some of the most important testing during the second world war. It aided in the development of the Fat Man, the bomb that eventually ended the second world war by destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. With many aerodynamic testing, and target practice for the bombers, at one point it was one of the most secret places in the United States, now it is basically a desert, with broken buildings, occasionally being found by urban explorers.

Building from the pier
A building found 100m up from the pier, showing signs of wear. Found by urban explorers recently. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Salton Sea is a shallow saline lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault. The U.S. Navy inspected the site in January of 1940, and commissioned it as the Salton Sea Naval Auxiliary Air Station in October 1942. The base was designed as a training base for seaplanes, and was located just to the south east of Salton city. Although it only initially took claim of the northern end of the Lake, it eventually controlled part of the southern end too. Technically speaking it is a Naval Station and not a Navy Base, but most references refer to it as a Test Base.

Overhead view of Salton Sea in 1947
An overhead view of Salton Sea base in 1947.
View of Salton Sea base
Aerial view of Salton Sea boat docks, showing how remote the place is. Credit: Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Throughout the 1940’s it functioned as an active military weapons test site. Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets led the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron during 1944 and 1945 through a series of classified B-29 practice flights from Wendover, Utah to the Salton Sea, where they would drop dummy atomic bombs onto a floating white raft. This was used as the testing site for the fateful atomic weapons attacks that ended the second world war for Japan. It is said that Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb himself on Hiroshima in a plane named after his mum, Enola Gay. The prototypes were tested at Salton Sea.

instrument lab 1951
Image of the instrument lab of the Salton Sea Navy Base taken in 1951.

The crews made hundreds of practice runs over the Mojave and Salton Sea. The bombs they used were full size mock-ups, sometimes filled with concrete, other times containing everything except the nuclear part. This often meant being filled with explosives. During one Salton Sea run, an engineer dropped one of the Fat Man mock ups too soon. It narrowly missed the town of Calipatria. The bomb buried itself 3m into the ground, but luckily didn’t explode. Bulldozers rushed to the scene to erase the evidence.

UXO sign at Salton Sea
A sign warning of Unexploded Ordnance around the Salton Sea base area, with all the testing over the years it is understandable. Credit: Saltonseawalk.
Area Closed
A sign telling all visitors that the area is closed to all users.The guys who took the pictures ignored this warning though. Credit Saltonseawalk.

During the 1950’s the base was used by Sandia National Labs as a range for missile testing, with over 1,100 missile tests being conducted there. Sandia was the principal contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war, and they renamed the site Salton Sea Test Base in 1946. They used the site to test weapons, space capsule parachute drops, drone airplane tests, and Nike missile launches. 150 different tests were conducted annually over a ten year period some using depleted uranium. Sandia ended operations in 1961 when they moved to a new remote site. The main reason for moving was a fight with rising waters of the lake.

Building A1
Located a few hundred meters into the base, Building A1 is one of the more interesting surviving buildings, you can see that it has not been looked after. Credit: Saltonseawalk.
Building A1
The building marked A1, one of the only buildings still standing. On top an Alaska Pedestal, used to hold tracking equipment for missiles. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

During the 1960’s it was mainly abandoned, and in the 1970’s it was occasionally used for live munitions practice.  Most buildings suffered substantial damage. The site was listed as inactive in 1986, but the facility found renewed life as a site for Gulf War training maneuvers during the 1990’s. As most of the original buildings were destroyed, the base was decommissioned and turned over the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the mid-1990’s. The Site was used during the early 2000’s as a research site for salinity control. There are no plaques or monuments to the achievements of Salton Sea, and the parts it played in winning the second world war, and very little online about it.

Pier at Salton Sea
A great picture of what used to be the pier at Salton Sea base. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

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When Planes Need an Eye Test: NOLF Webster.

webster overall map
From Google Maps. the locations and distances between the 4 photo resolution markers. Taken in 2007.

In a previous post, I put together lots of images of photo resolution markers, from across the USA. This post is about the four markers found at a little known airfield named Naval Outlying Field Webster in Maryland. In posts on this subject in other blogs it is often incorrectly named Walker Field, just to make things confusing. The four markers are in a straight line, with an almost exact 2000ft between them. This is likely for some sort of calibration testing, so the planes have an exact known distance to calibrate their cameras from. They are in parallel with one of the main runways to make it easy to maintain them, and as another reference for the planes.

Photo res marker 1
The most eastern photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

NOLF Webster is located 12 miles south west of Naval Air Station PAX River. It was bought by the military from a set of jesuit fathers during WW2 for just $96,000. It was bought as a auxiliary airfield for PAX River, to send aircraft to on busy days. PAX River is a very famous aircraft testing base, with lots of history associated with it. Part of the history is the photoreconnaissance training school found there. That explains the reasoning for the photo resolution markers just 12 miles to the SW.

Photo res 2
The second photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

NOLF Webster is good as an air base due to it’s great location. It has a good approach by water from two sides, especially good for testing and training. The other approaches were mainly woodland and fields. The three runways are built in accordance with the prevailing winds, with two of the runways being 5,000ft long. The base was heavily used in the 1950’s as a ‘touch and go’ site for training at PAX.

photo res 3
The third photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

In the 1960’s the former electronics test division moved in, now known as Naval Air Navigation Electronics Project (NANEP). They helped develop many air navigation systems. They stopped the interference with operations at PAX River. They may also have been a big part on the development of the photo resolution markers found there.

photo res 4
The fourth photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

Most of the images I have used are taken in 2007, but the final one (of the fourth marker) is taken in 2015, where it has a slightly different pattern. This is maybe to define markers between each of them, so the planes know the final one. There don’t seem to be any other changes according to the images found on Google Earth.

photo res 4
The fourth photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2015 by Google Maps.

Hope you enjoyed this short post, If you enjoy stories and posts on space and electronics, take a look at some of the other posts on my blog. Thank You for reading.

Pioneers in Aviation: William Boeing

William Boeing was an aviator with a different upbringing than what you would imagine, nothing to do with engineering or even military. Aiming to profit from the Northwest timber industry from an early age, yet he went on to create one of the biggest aerospace companies ever known, one known in almost all households.

William Boeing

Born October 1st 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to a wealthy mining engineer Wilhelm Böing and Marie M. Ortmann. From Germany and Austria. Boeing Sr had made his fortune through timber and mineral rights near Lake Superior in North America. Up until 1899 young Boeing was educated in Vevey, Switzerland, when he returned he changed his name to William Boeing. Studying at Yale University, Boeing left before graduating in 1903. Starting a new life in Grays Harbour, Washington, he aimed to profit from the lands that he had inherited from his father, who had died of Influenza in 1890. He learned the logging business on his own, eventually buying more timber land and adding more wealth to the approximately $1 million estate left to him (around £26.8 in today’s money) by his parents. This included expeditions to Alaska. One of the main reasons for his success was due to him shipping lumber to the east coast using the Panama Canal.

In 1908 he moved to Seattle, to establish the Greenwood Timber company. He started off by living in an apartment hotel, but after just a year he got elected as a member of the Highlands, a brand-new, exclusive residential suburb. During this time, Boeing was interested in boats, and often experimented with boat designs. So much so in 1910 he bought the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish River. This was so he could build a yacht, named the Taconite, after the mineral that made his father’s fortune. His love of aircraft came from a trip while in Seattle in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair publicizing development in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing was visiting as he had interests in the area. While there he saw a manned flight, and he became fascinated.

The Taconite, the 125ft teak yaght built by Boeing

In 1910 Boeing attended an aviation meet in Los Angeles, where he tried to get a ride on a boxy biplane, he didn’t succeed. This didn’t deter him though, he took flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Fling School in Los Angeles, and even purchased one of his planes, a Martin TA Hydroaeroplane. James Floyd Smith, a Martin pilot travelled to Seattle to assemble Boeing’s plane and teach him how to fly it. Smith assembled the plane in a tent hanger on the shore of Lake Union, and so Boeing became a pilot. At some point, Boeing’s test pilot broke the plane enough for it to be unusable. Martin informed Boeing that the parts would take months to become available, obviously this was an inconvenience. In 1915, Boeing was introduced to Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad Westervelt, and they soon became close friends. When a mutual friend brought a Curtis-type hydroplane to Seattle later that year, they took turns flying it over lake washington. After just a few trips, Boeing and Westervelt felt that they could build a better airplane. Boeing decided to buy an old boat works on the Duwamish river in Seattle for his factory and set up shop, he was now in the aircraft business.

Boeing Plant
The Boeing Plant on the Duwamish River around 1917

Together with Westervelt they built and flew the B&W seaplane. This was an amphibious biplane that had outstanding performance compared to it’s competitors. This sealed the deal for him, and Westervelt. Together they founded Pacific Aero Products Co in 1916. Their first plane, basically the B&W Seaplane was named the Boeing Model 1. At this time, the world was in the middle of World War 1, and on April 8th 1917, the United States joined the fight. Suddenly there was a need for defence manufacturers. A month later, The name was changed from Pacific Aero Products, to the Boeing Airplane Company. The United States Navy ordered 50 planes from Boeing. When the war ended, the need for military aircraft dwindled, and Boeing started concentrating on the lucrative supply of commercial aircraft. He secured mass contracts to supply airmail, and also created a passenger airline that would later go on to become United Airlines.

B&W Seaplane
The B&W Seaplane, sitting on the water

In 1934 the Boeing company had become massive considering the time. It had an airmail business, commercial airline, manufacturing of planes and many other branches of interest. This sparked controversy in the US government, and he was accused of monopolistic practices. That year the Air Mail Act forced airplane companies to separate flight operations from the manufacturing of planes. At this point Boeing separated himself from the company, and divested himself of ownership. The company was then split into three sections. The United Aircraft Corporation a manufacturing arm, based in the east, Now United TechnologiesUnited Airlines which handled flight operations, and still functions as such, and Boeing Airplane Company which was manufacturing based in the west, this went on to become the Boeing Company that we all know today. By 1937 he had started spending most of his time breeding horses, and the new Boeing Company would not become truly successful until World War 2.

Boeing spent the remainder of his life in property development, and the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He was said to be worried about the tensions in the Pacific Northwest due to WW2. This led him to purchase a 650 acre farm east of Seattle. He called it “Aldarra”. He would go on to die September 28th, 1956 at the age of 74 (a year before the release of the release of the 707). He died of a heart attack while on his yacht. His estate was eventually sold off and turned into a golf course in 2001, but parts still remain today, including Boeing’s main home, and two smaller houses. His house in the Highlands was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a creek running near his house in the Highlands was renamed Boeing Creek after him.

Boeing Creek
The Creek named after Boeing, running near his house in the Highlands