Some years ago the Fencecheck website published a guide to photographing aircraft at Nellis Air Force Base. Sadly Fencecheck is no more, so here at GAR we felt it was time to publish an up-to-date guide. We should stress that the views and opinions in this article are entirely the author’s, and have no official sanction or input. They are based on many years of observing the activities at Nellis, mostly from outside the fence. The words ‘normally’, ‘usually’ and ‘appear’ will be used a lot, indicating that while the actions described are what ‘usually’ happens, sometimes the opposite is the case! Also, aviation is constantly evolving, so whilst what’s written may have been correct when the fingers hit the keyboard, things change. Any errors or omissions are entirely the author’s too – so let us know in the comments if you spot anything that might help others!
Situated on the north eastern outskirts of Las Vegas Nevada, Nellis AFB is the jewel in USAF’s crown, with its vast training area and easy access. For the aviation enthusiast it can be a mecca, with its varied and at times fast-paced levels of activity. In terms of based aircraft and visitors, it offers an unparalleled variety, with well over 150 aircraft of seven different types (A-10C, F-15C/D, F-15E, F-16C/D, F-22A, F-35A, HH-60G) based there. It is probably best known as the home of Red Flag, a large multi national exercise held several times a year. However there is a lot more that goes on at Nellis; it is also the home of a large number of flying units under the umbrella of the 57th Wing.
These are mostly a group of Weapons Squadrons making up the USAF Weapons School, comprising the 6th WPS (F-35A), 16th WPS (F-16C/D), 17th WPS (F-15E), 34th WPS (HH-60G), 66th WPS (A-10C) and the 433rd WPS (F-15C/D and F-22A), plus an Aggressor Squadron (64th AGRS, F-16C), a Test and Evaluation Squadron (422nd TES, flying every type that Weapons School flies), a Close Air Support training squadron (24th TASS, F-16C), a Rescue Squadron (66th RQS, HH-60G) and the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron the Thunderbirds (F-16C/D). Also now operating from here are a large number (around 20) of civilian contractor aircraft, currently A-4 Skyhawks and L-159 ALCAs belonging to Draken International. Later this year Draken are planning to introduce the Mirage F1 to their fleet.
Other aircraft visit to use the vast NTTR (Nellis Test and Training Range), which occupies the area north of Las Vegas up to Tonopah. Sometimes they’ll be working with the resident units, sometimes they’ll be doing their own thing. Nellis also hosts Green Flag West, which is a Close Air Support exercise that takes place regularly at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, which is roughly half way between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Virtually every type in the USAFs inventory can be seen at Nellis throughout the year, as well as aircraft from the other US armed services and foreign air arms.
Activity levels vary, with most weekdays being busy and occasional weekend flying; usually the Green Flag participants. A typical weekday will see the Weapons School fly a couple of times, morning and afternoon usually as ‘packages’ with a variety of types. They often have visiting squadrons working with them, and they often start early. The 422nd TES will do the same, usually after Weapons School as will the 24th TASS.
Red Flag normally flies twice a day, early afternoon and at night, while Green Flag usually flies early morning and early afternoon. The Thunderbirds fly regularly but usually practice elsewhere. During the airshow season they typically depart on a Wednesday or Thursday before a show, returning on the Monday after. They are frequently supported by a C-17A, and occasionally by a C-130J.
The Weapons School course lasts six months and runs twice a year; January to June and July to December. It culminates with a graduation exercise run from Nellis in mid-June and mid-December, which sees aircraft from all the other Weapons Squadrons deploying to Nellis, plus additional aircraft from other units. It gets quiet at Nellis in the second half of June and December. More information can be found on the official Nellis website.
Surrounded on three sides by public roads, Nellis is an easy place to watch the activities. Cheyenne Avenue runs along the south side of the base, Nellis Boulevard the west, and Las Vegas Boulevard the northwestern perimeter. The southern side is bordered by industrial units and housing, the north by industrial units and the north east by open desert. Air Force land extends a long distance out on the northeast side, so the boundary fence here is also a long way out.
It does therefore offer plenty of opportunities to photograph the aircraft, but these do come with numerous challenges! (sometimes referred to as ‘Nellis rules’!) When it works it can be very good, but it doesn’t always work and at times it can be very frustrating! You can’t get close on the eastern side, so mornings don’t offer many opportunities for anything that’s not back-lit, unless the aircraft are landing to the north. The aim of this article is to highlight some of the challenges, and suggest ways to improve the aviation photographers’ chances of success.
First some simple ground rules. The Air Force seems fairly relaxed at Nellis and will usually leave you alone to watch their activities. However they do regard the verge by the fence as their territory, so ALWAYS park on the opposite side of the road to the base fence. It’s not unusual to see the Security Police arrive and move on people parked by the fence, while completely ignoring the people on the other side of the road with big lenses!
It is also widely believed that the Air Force don’t like people looking at their installations, so pointing your lens on base might get you some unwanted attention (despite the fact that we are in the era of Google Earth!). There are housing estates around the base so please be mindful of the local residents and also be aware that your activities could be misconstrued. The USAF runs a programme called Eagle Eyes and if you see any suspicious activity the details of who to contact at Nellis are here.
A useful guide can be found on the Scramble website, which is available to non-members.
A quick look at the Scramble guide or Google Earth will show the layout of the base. Nellis has two parallel runways 3L/21R and 3R/21L. The majority of the aircraft park on the main ramp on the western side of the base, and generally use 3L/21R. The resident A-10s park on the eastern side, in an area known as the LOLA (Live Ordnance Loading Area), as do the heavy bombers. Also on the eastern side, in the south eastern corner, are 25 revetments, which are usually used by aircraft carrying live weapons. Green Flag participants usually park here. Aircraft operating from the LOLA and the revetments usually use 3R/21L. There are two north-south taxyways; Foxtrot on the west side and Golf on the east side, and several east-west ones that cross the runways; Alpha, Bravo, Delta and Echo. Alpha is at the southern end, Echo at the northern end.
The main factors affecting your photographic results (apart from the weather!) are:
1) What’s flying
2) Which runway is in use
3) The time of day
4) The time of year
To get a view of what’s on the base and therefore likely to be flying, if you head up through the housing estates on the southeastern side you will find Alto Avenue, which goes up between some quarries (spot 10 on the Scramble guide). This offers an unrestricted view of the main ramp, so allows you to work out what you’ll be chasing. It’s also popular with those of a ‘numerical disposition’. Working down the hill there are also various other points that give you a view (spots 7, 8 and 9), but it’s all too far away for decent photographs.
Departures and arrivals
Aircraft departing north (off 3L and 3R) will either climb straight ahead or perform one of the low level departures. These see the aircraft staying low and effectively flying around the back of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and these provide some of the most dramatic photo opportunities.
You will hear aircraft cleared for a FLEX departure (FLEX is actually a waypoint, north of the airfield), but recently they have also started flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) departures, which seem to be very similar.
Aircraft departing south (off the 21s) will normally over fly the end of the runway then make a hard right turn before either heading out to the north west or north. This can also provide excellent photo opportunities. However they appear to have started flying FLEX departures off the 21s in recent years and they also now fly VFR departures.
The major difference with these seems to be an earlier turn, with most of the aircraft staying inside the fence line, staying low and turning on to the downwind leg of the circuit (pattern), before heading up to the ranges.
Most fast jet arrivals will involve a run and break, usually the break will be in the direction that they are landing (ie left break for the left runway, and right break for the right runway). A clue as to which way they are going will be the way the aircraft are lined up in formation as they run in.
However, occasionally the landing runway will be changed at the last minute, sometimes as late as when the aircraft are in the turn on to their final approach. Occasionally they will be given the opposite break to the runway, ie left break for the right!
Most large aircraft (heavy) arrivals are straight in approaches, however there will be occasions when you see big aircraft (B-1B, B-52H etc) perform a run and break.
Large aircraft usually circuit (fly the pattern) to the west of the airfield, regardless of which runway they are using.
Unless there is a strong wind blowing down the runway, the preferred way of operating seems to be to use the 3s for departure, and the 21s for recovery, and it’s not unknown to see aircraft departing off 3L while some are landing on 21L! (known as SODO – Simultaneous Opposite Direction Operations). For Red Flag they invariably use the 3s for the launch phase, and once everything has gone, they switch to the 21s for the recovery phase. There is always a runway in use promulgated on the ATIS (Aerodrome Terminal Information Service = the airfield weather, updated hourly), but aircraft will on occasions use the opposite direction runway, for a variety of reasons (ie aircraft carrying live weapons launch north (off the 3s), presumably to stay away from the built up areas. Similarly, aircraft returning with live weapons land to the south (the 21s)).
To photograph the aircraft there are two main areas to go to; the area around Cheyenne Avenue (spot 5 on the Scramble guide) or Las Vegas Boulevard, outside the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (spot 1). The area around Cheyenne is not the best part of town, so a little caution is advised.
Your success depends mostly on being at the right place at the right time. A scanner is a very useful tool, to give you a heads up of what’s departing and arriving, and give you the best opportunity to get to the right spot. A list of frequencies, and other airfield information can be found here.
However it’s very easy to get caught in the ‘Nellis shuffle’, driving between the Speedway and Cheyenne Avenue, trying to catch everything (and missing it!) It should be noted that the journey time from Cheyenne to the Speedway is a good ten minutes (right turns), and the return can take longer (left turns!)
There are some clues as to which runway is being used by particular aircraft, apart from what’s being broadcast on the ATIS. Aircraft given a heading in their departure clearance are usually heavies, and a north or northeasterly heading (050 degrees) would suggest a departure off the 3s. A westerly or northwesterly (300 degrees) would suggest departure off the 21s. Aircraft taxying on Foxtrot are usually on the main ramp, those on Golf are on the eastern side of the airfield. The inbound route from the north goes via GASS PK where it splits, aircraft inbound to SIMNS and CRAIG are landing on the 3s, aircraft going to APEX are landing on the 21s.
Some aircraft (B-2A, E-8, RC-135) require the runway cables to be de-rigged for their take off and landing. Usually 3R/21L is the one used, which has the advantage of pushing all the fast jet traffic on to the westerly runway. It seems to take about 30 minutes to de-rig and re-rig the cables.
Runway 3 departures
The Speedway is the place to be for these, there is a wide verge so plenty of space to park. There are ten gates in to the Speedway, numbered 1 to 10, with 1 being the most southerly.
To have a chance of getting shots of departing aircraft with the mountain in the background, Gate 1 or further south, is the place to be.
For aircraft doing the FLEX or VFR departures, somewhere between Gate 6 and 7 is usually the best spot.
It should be noted that in the mornings you’ll be shooting in to the sun, but the light gets progressively better as the day wears on.
Some people have tried entering the Speedway grounds to find a better spot, but it is private property and they have invariably been asked to leave by security.
It is possible to get on the eastern side of the runway centre line, but you have a go a long way north of the base and go off road.
Runway 3L arrivals
When the 3s are in use, most traffic seems to land on 3L and the area around Cheyenne Avenue is the place to be. For aircraft landing on 3L in the morning, go as far east as you can on Cheyenne, and then turn right on to Devry Lane.
There are various places to park. Some aircraft will present a lot of belly, but in the mornings this is the only place to get shots down sun.
In the afternoons, the corner of Cheyenne and Ringe Lane (first right coming from Nellis Boulevard) offers a better position.
It gets better as the day wears on, and is best close to mid-summer as the sun is further round.
Runway 3R arrivals
In the mornings, the eastern end of Alto Avenue is the place to be. Head south from Cheyenne on Betty Lane and then left on Alto, as far as it goes (it’s a dead end with a turning circle). If you’re on Devry in position for 3L, you need a bit of time to get there (when they’re overhead it’s too late!).
It’s also a good spot for any heavy arrivals, on either 3L or 3R. Be aware that some aircraft will turn in tight for 3R, so belly shots are all that you’ll get of those ones.
In the afternoons, Ringe or Betty heading south from Cheyenne will offer reasonable shots, depending on the size of aircraft and your lens.
Devry will put you almost underneath them.
There is another spot on Cheyenne, just west of Nellis Boulevard at Nellis Meadows.
However the light is really only any good late in the day in mid-summer.
Runway 21 departures
Cheyenne is the place to be, the corner of Cheyenne and Ringe is one of the better spots, especially for traffic departing off 21R. However you’ll be shooting in to the sun until late in the day, especially in the winter months, and there are overhead cables to ‘negotiate’.
Cheyenne and Betty is probably a better spot for traffic departing off 21L, and around the corner on Devry in the mornings is a good spot for heavies that aren’t climbing well, provided they don’t turn too early.
For VFR departures and most heavies, a better spot can be found by heading north up Nellis a short distance from Cheyenne, between Cheyenne and the Nellis West Gate.
There are a couple of places where you can park, and again, these are better later in the day and in the summer months.
You can also get distant shots of aircraft landing on the 3s from here, again this is best late in the day.
Runway 21R arrivals
Aircraft landing on 21R provide the ‘classic’ Nellis topside shot of aircraft turning on to finals and the Speedway is the place to be, the only question is where. You can have a flight of four where they all follow the same line, or one turns early, the next ones perfect and the next two go long. Or any combination of early, perfect and long!
It’s noticeable that Navy and Marine Corps jets go wide and short, sometimes you have to be at Gate 1 to catch them. Other times they’ll come back close behind other traffic and be told to extend downwind! As a generalisation, fighters (F-15C, F-22A) and slower aircraft (A-10C, AV-8B) seem to turn earlier, but it can be a lottery.
Somewhere between Gates 3 and 4 seems to offer the best compromise.
Runway 21L arrivals
This is the photographers ‘nightmare’ scenario, aircraft landing on 21L!
They are a long way away, so whilst photos are possible, you’ll need a lens with a lot of mm and you wont get those lovely banking topside shots, unless they break right to land on the left (which does happen).
Nellis is home to around a dozen HH-60G Pavehawks, and they have their own ramp and landing strip, known as the Jolly Pad. There is an area of rough ground opposite their complex (spot 3), which is a good spot to catch them, as a lot of their departures and arrivals are over Las Vegas Boulevard.
Other visiting helicopters quite often depart and arrive over the Pavehawk complex, so this can be a good spot to catch them as well. Late in the day it can also be a good spot to catch heavies launching off the 3s, especially in the summer months.
Just because it’s dark, it doesn’t mean you have to pack up and go to the casinos!
If you head north past the Speedway you will cross the extended centre line of the runways. There is plenty of room to pull off the road and with a tripod (or car roof!) it is possible to get shots of the jets departing with the city in the background.
The size of lens you’ll require varies, but something with 300-500mm would seem the best option, depending on the magnification factor on your camera’s sensor. For fighters landing on 21L you’ll need a lot more, or you’ll be cropping heavily!
All the photographs in this article were taken with Canon cameras with sensors with a 1.6 magnification factor. The time of year, time of day, and lens magnification are included in the captions for the photographs, where relevant.
For food there are a number of convenience stores close to the base (you’ll pass three 7/11s between Cheyenne and the Speedway!) and for rest room facilities there are a number of fast food restaurants, including a McDonalds on the corner of Nellis and Las Vegas. Long standing Nellis institutions, the Blueberry Inn and the Memphis Championship BBQ have closed. There used to be a large Walmart next to McDonalds, but this also closed a few years ago.
We hope you find this useful, and would welcome any feedback.