US Navy's El Centro - a Diamond in the Desert
Naval Air Facility El Centro resides in the Southern California desert, in what is known as “Imperial Valley”. Its surroundings are minimal. Travelling approximately 4-5 hours from LA to get there, the vast open space of the USA becomes very apparent.
The base at El Centro was originally established in 1943 as Marine Corps Air Station El Centro. During this time it was used to train fighter pilots as well as the location of the Marine Corps Aerial Bombardment and Gunnery school. The astronaut John Glenn passed through here on his way to the Pacific Theater and aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh was an instructor here for a short time. The Navy took possession in 1946 and since then El Centro has been the home to many testing and evaluation programs.
Parachutes are probably the best thing the base is known for, since the recovery systems for the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo and Space Shuttle booster rockets were all designed and perfected here. Ejection seats and related parachute systems for jet aircraft were also tested here.
At the entrance to the base is El Centro’s version of “gate guards”, a historical collection of the Blue Angels historic aircraft types. Four aircraft are on display representing the aircraft flown by the demonstration team here since 1967. Even though we are in a hot Californian desert, and the weather here is usually very harsh in terms of dust and heat, the aircraft are all immaculately painted as if they will be rolling down the runway any minute towards their current F-18 C/D brethren.
In addition to the Blue Angels, El Centro hosts many Navy squadrons responsible for the basic and advanced training of young pilots and oversees their various combat qualifications. The El Centro Facility has a large firing range in close proximity to the base that allows for various inert ordinance and payload deliveries.
Additionally El Centro is considered to have much sunnier weather when comparing to other Naval Facilities and this draws units from Naval Air Station Lemoore located farther North to El Centro’s ranges, something which occurred while we were on site
El Centro looks to return to its early greatness of the 40’s and 50’s. While today it is a relatively small installation, it gets a large amount of transient traffic en route to its ranges. This will most probably affect the Navy’s decision regarding where to place the Navy’s new F-35C, since its proximity to the range will undoubtedly be a cost saving measure.
El Centro additionally serves as a refueling “pit stop” for various Navy units either utilizing its ranges or transitioning around the US and abroad. One of the bigger novelties surrounding the facility is the fact that it provides a home to the Navy’s famous demo team, “The Blue Angels”, during the winter months and allows for them to practice their famous maneuvers in quiet, away from the public so they are best prepared for their annual tour which commences with the “El Centro Airshow” which is one of the area's annual attractions. The Blue Angels started their winter practices in 1967. The annual air show draws crowds of up to 50,000 people.
As a show of support to their neighbors, the El Centro personnel volunteer in the community and participate in several educational programs that promote literacy among youth.
This is one of the base’s ways of giving back to the community.
During my tour of the base I was offered by the Facility’s Deputy PAO Kris Haugh to visit their chapel. He informed me that El Centro’s Chapel was unique in the sense that it was well ahead and extremely unique for the time of which it was established.
Upon entering the chapel alongside the chaplain, we enter the sanctuary to find a large wall with a decorated solid wood façade that stands approximately 25 ft tall. It has a standard Christian decoration on it. Then, the chaplain leads us to a door behind the façade. That’s when I realized why Kris had said it was so special: the wall in the backroom has Stars of David all across it and in its center is an “Aron Kodesh” (sanctuary) designed to hold a Sefer Torah.
Inside the room you can immediately see that the façade is actually a triangle of walls, on top of a rail which allows for you to with relatively little effort to push the façade along the rail and change it to the faith that is conducting a service in the chapel. Interesting enough, the 3 faiths which were fitted as a triangle were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.
In essence you could “convert” the Chapel to your faith in a matter of minutes which could allow you to have multiple services for religions on the same day with very little effort, something that is very accommodating to people seeking spiritual guidance while serving in the Military.
This is a strong indication to the fact that during the Second World War, many Jews had enlisted into the US Armed Forces and were obviously in such numbers which called for their religious beliefs to be accommodated.
As part of my never-ending quest for knowledge I would love to know if anyone has ever been at a Jewish service on the facility in the distant past, and it would be especially interesting to know if the base ever had an on-site Sefer Torah.
When asking Kristopher K. Haugh, the deputy public affairs officer at NAF El Centro how he foresaw the future of the facility, he answered:
"NAF El Centro is critical to the future of naval aviation training. With nearly 365 days of clear flying weather, the close proximity to ranges and incredible local community support, El Centro is and will be the premier training location for both new and experienced pilots. Not only do we provide facilities for our country's armed forces, but many of our allies come here frequently to train as well. With the introduction of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to America's arsenal, El Centro will play a role in the training and operation of the next generation of aircraft and her crews."
So maybe in the not so distant future some IAF pilots on exchange for the F-35 will get a chance to utilize its chapel.