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Las Vegas Aviation History

May 7th, 1920 could have been just a regular day along the vast, parched plains of Las Vegas, Nevada, but it turned into a day that would change Las Vegas history forever. It would be the day that Las Vegas was introduced to the world. It was the day modern flight came to Las Vegas.

Randall Henderson, who was better known as a newspaper publisher, flew a borrowed JN-4 and landed in Las Vegas, becoming the first pilot ever to do so. It didn’t take long for Las Vegas residents and community leaders to realize the potential in having an airfield. In that same year (1920), and not long after Henderson’s flight, Las Vegas officially had their first airfield.

It was owned by the Anderson family and appropriately named Anderson Field. Opening on Thanksgiving Day in 1920, the airfield was inaugurated with spectacular fly-ins from well-known aviators at the time, such as Clarence Prest and Emery Rogers.

The field was designed by Robert Hausler and is located precisely where the parking lot for the Sahara Hotel and Casino stand today.

The infant years of the airstrip were a dismal failure. Hausler leased the land up until 1925 and operated it as well. During that time, both Prest and Rogers attempted to launch successful aviation businesses from the field but, alas, they were not successful. Walter Varney, who later founded an airfield in Northern Nevada, also tried to profit from the airfield by launching an aviation school, but ultimately this too was not successful. Aviation is a tough business!

It was to be Earl and Leon Rockwell who truly brought commercial flight and air travel to Las Vegas. They purchased the Anderson Field in 1925 and immediately began negotiations with Harris Hanshue to bring his new airline to the field. It became known as Rockwell Air Field. Western Air Express (the name of Hanshue’s airline) played a pivotal role in the early days of the US Postal’s air-mail delivery. A contract was duly signed and the first Western Air Express flight headed to Las Vegas on April 17, 1926.

The first flights by Western Air Express were not passenger flights but rather mail flights. It was not until May 23 that the first passengers arrived in Las Vegas by air. The first passengers were Ben Redmen and J.A Thompson, and the pilot was C.N James. The two passengers sat perched on the mailbags in the forward compartment of an M-2 biplane as they flew into Las Vegas aviation history.

The first female passenger to arrive in Las Vegas by air was Maude Campbell, who arrived in Las Vegas on June 10th of the same year. She is reported to have paid $160 for a roundtrip ticket from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles via Las Vegas.

Western Air Express continued to use the airfield successfully until 1929, when they then moved to the new McCarran Field, which is now Nellis Air Force Base.

Nellis Air Force Base houses more squadrons than any other base in the USA. The Air Force Base was named after Lieutenant William Harrell Nellis. Nellis flew over 70 World War II missions, his aircraft was shot down three times, the last of which was fatal.

On April 30, 1950, with Nellis’ family in attendance, the Las Vegas Air Force Base was renamed Nellis Air Force Base.

McCarran Field was also known as Western Express Airfield and was little more than a dirt runway, a water well and an operations shack. The field was shared between the commercial flights of Western Air Express and the US military. However with conflict and war becoming inevitable throughout the world and considering that the military’s gunnery was under construction, commercial flights there became few and far between.

There were however a few commercial flights operating at McCarran Field in 1942, when George Crockett established Alamo Airport, the site of the now illustrious McCarran International Airport.

One such flight to still leave from McCarran Field (not McCarran International) was one of the earliest Las Vegas aviation disasters. It happened on January 16, 1942, when TWA Flight 3 crashed 15 minutes after take-off. The flight was bound for Burbank, California, when the aircraft thudded into a sheer cliff on Potosi Mountain. There were 19 passengers on board and all presumably died on impact. The most famous passenger on board was Carole Lombard, who was married to Hollywood legend Clark Gable. There were also three crewmembers that died in the crash, bringing the total death count to 22.

Crockett owned the Alamo Airfield until 1948. Commercial operations at the old McCarran airfield were at an almost stand still.  It was at this point that Clark County was desperate for a public commercial airport of their own. Clark County bought the airport from Crockett and moved all commercial flight operations there.

It was known as the Clark County Public Airport for a short time until December 20 of that same year, 1948, when it was renamed as McCarran Field. Upon its dedication as the new McCarran Field, there were 12 daily commercial flights leaving the field.

McCarran Field was named after U.S Senator Pat McCarran. McCarran was a long serving senator in Nevada and a champion of the Civil Aeronautics Act, which he authored. McCarran played a major role in not only developing Las Vegas and Nevada aviation but also the development of aviation nationwide.

George Crockett was still a fixture around McCarran Field Airport as the owner of Alamo Airways, which he managed together with his wife and family. Alamo Airways supplied the needs of commercial, private and general aviation up until 1968. One of the most enjoyed fixtures around the airfield was Crockett’s 1956 red, Ford Thunder convertible. The vehicle is a unique part of Las Vegas aviation history and a replica is now on display at McCarran International Aviation Museum. It was an oddity on the runways but it was highly successful in arriving at emergency scenes a lot quicker than other rescue vehicles. It was literally a lifesaver on many occasions.

By April of 1957, McCarran International Airport was already a considerably large airport operation. It had 33 weekday daily departures. By 1959, the number of flights had more than doubled with 73 flights and a total number of passengers totaling 959,603.

Local businesses and casinos had realized the impact that commercial travel had on their businesses as they continued to advertise vociferously throughout the United States, causing massive growth to the airport passenger numbers and flight schedule at the airport.

The boom for Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport still has not stopped. By 2010, McCarran International was processing over forty million passengers a year from all over the globe. This includes a direct flight from Paris.

George Crockett’s dust bowl of an airport has turned into the 5th busiest airport in the United States of America and the 10th busiest airport throughout the world.

Las Vegas though has a newer chapter in their history. It is a history that runs alongside the illustrious tales of commercial aviation and it is the history of private jet charters. Las Vegas is one of the busiest private jet charter destinations in the world. The thrills and exhilaration of Las Vegas Strip attracts the world’s most affluent and influential. It is with this in mind that Las Vegas is set to open yet another airport.

As McCarran International gets busier and busier, plans have been set in place to build a new airport by 2017, in the Ivanpah Valley. The Ivanpah Valley facility will almost exclusively be for private jet aircraft that suffer delays caused by commercial congestion at McCarran International Airport.

Today, the best private alternative to McCarran International Airport is Henderson Executive Airport. The airport was originally known as Sky Harbor Airport and was purchased in 1996 by Clark County. The purpose of the purchase was to provide much needed relief for the air-traffic saturated McCarran International Airport. It is located about 13 miles from the Las Vegas Central Business District.

By 2008, this relief airport was already serving an average of 193 flights a day. 86% of these flights were attributed to private jet charter flights with the much larger majority still opting for Las Vegas McCarran International Airport due to its close proximity to the Las Vegas Strip. This provides just a slight insight into the staggering amount of daily private jet flights to Las Vegas.

From its humble beginnings on that Spring-Summer morning of early May in 1920, Las Vegas aviation history continues to be made each and every day. From large commercial airliners that jet down the beautiful runways at McCarran International to the executive private jets that land in all their luxury at Henderson Executive Airport, there is no doubt that everybody would love to get a piece of the magic that the world loves to call Las Vegas.



ElJet acts as an agent for private air charter services on behalf of our clients. ElJet does not own or operate any aircraft nor is ElJet a direct or indirect air carrier. All charter flights booked with ElJet will be operated by FAR Part 135 air carriers "Operators" or the international equivalent, who will maintain full operational control of charter flights at all times.