Story by Ron Kilber
Photography by Bob Shane
When frontiersman Davy Crockett blazed a trail westward in the 1800s, he could not have known that a century later one of his descendants would become the founder of an airport that would not only go on to rank thirteenth busiest in the United States, but would serve the eventual gambling and entertainment capital of the world -- Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps. In 1942, not long after the bombing of Peal Harbor, George Crockett established a small airport on what is now known as Las Vegas Boulevard South (The Strip), which was then on the far outskirts of Las Vegas. His objective was to serve the refueling needs of early aviators flying between Los Angeles, California and Salt Lake City, Utah. He named the desert airfield Alamo Airport -- a fitting tribute to his great ancestor, Davy Crockett, the father of exploration leading to the opening of the American West.
Nearby Hoover Dam had been completed only years earlier, credited with not just jump-starting the southern Nevada economy, but providing a reliable source of badly-needed water -- and electricity -- if Las Vegas was to grow and become Sin City. The Strip's first major resort, the El Rancho Vegas, had already been open for a little more than a year when Crockett established Alamo Field. The western-style hotel had 63 rooms and reined until 1960 when it was destroyed by fire. Other hotels soon followed, such as Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo, opening in 1946, eventually followed by resorts like the Desert Inn, the Sands, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper and many more. By the year 2000, Las Vegas has become home to all but one of the ten-largest hotels in the United States (all but two in the world). The MGM Grand, with more than 5,000 rooms, can accommodote all residents of a majority number of communities in America.
In The Beginning
After World War II and the resulting growth in the local economy, attibuted in no small way to gambling, more and more visitors began traveling to Las Vegas. To meet the ever-growing demands of air travelers wanting to bask in the sun by day and gamble by night, Clark County, Nevada, purchased Alamo Airport in 1948. During that same year, the county airport became McCarran Field, named after Senator Pat McCarran who was instrumental in generating funds for development of the field and a new terminal building on The Strip.
Bonanza Airlines in 1948 was the first post-war airline to base not just at McCarran Field, but in Nevada. Western Airlines, United Airlines and Trans World Airlines soon followed, all together providing twelve flights daily for the growing gambling center marooned in the middle of the Mojave Desert. With passing years, more airlines arrived, totaling today twenty-six carriers serving eighty domestic and internation destinations. Now, approximately eight-hundred flights operate daily in and out of McCarran, providing non-stop service not only domestically but from Canada, Germany, Japan and Mexico.
To accommodate expansion, the airport terminal building on The Strip closed in 1963 and a new facility was contructed in the present-day locale off Paradise Road. In 1968, the field was renamed to McCarran International Airport. Throughout the years, McCarran grew along with Las Vegas, like siblings side-by-side, nourished predominately by tourism. With each new hotle room constructed, McCarran realized 320 additional passengers annually. On the corner of Tropicana Avenue and The Strip, within sling-shot range of the airport, there are more hotel rooms than in all of most cities -- more than 15,000 all totaled. These accommodations alone account for nearly five million passengers yearly passing through McCarran. Stated otherwise, this single corner, alone and incredibly, on The Strip is responsible for generating one in six of the thirty-million passengers flying annually in and out of McCarran.
Deregulation And Growth
Since deregulation of the airline industry and the early 1980s, McCarran has grown tremendously. Passenger numbers have gone from nine million in 1982 to more than thirty million today. To accommodate this unusual growth, McCarran has kept pace by buidling new terminals, adding runways and implementing many "firsts" in airport history.
There's a good reason why passengers flow more quickly through McCarran than at most other airports. Before McCarran implemented the Common Use Terminal Equipment (CUTE) system, each airline owned its own ticket counters, computer terminals and flight/baggage display systems. Now, instead, the airport owns all of this common-use equipment, making it possible for a busy airline to share ticket counters and terminals when not needed by another carrier. Who hasn't arrived at an airport in a huge hurry only to wait in a long line because the airline had, say, only five ticket stations operating? At the same time, twenty went unused because the neighboring airline had no flights scheduled for departure at the same time? CUTE is a clevor way to share space and equipment that otherwise goes unused. Who knows, maybe Common Use Terminal Employees are next.
All among us have probably been rushed onto a flight only to end up waiting a long time for push-back from the gate or clearance before actual takeoff. McCarran is the industry leader when it comes to ramp control, and does it with computers and software to track all activity on the airport. Like an FAA controller orchestrating en route air traffic, McCarran's Ramp Control knows in advance when there are conflicts on the ground. No need to load passengers -- or induce air rage -- if travelers will only end up waiting on the ramp in crowded quarters before takeoff.
McCarran has been able to keep pace with all this growth because Clark County ownes five other airports in the Las Vegas area. With the development of reliever fields -- North Las Vegas, Henderson Executive, Jean Sport Aviation Center, Overton and Searchlight -- the county has provided McCarran the environment and elbow room to concentrate on passenger and cargo activity. Thus, predominately all General Aviation activities take place at these satelite fields, away from busy McCarran, accommodating activities such as Grand Canyon tour flights, pilot training, private flying, aircraft parking/hangars and sport aviation (skydiving, gliders and aerobatic).
If they ever hand out a most-beautiful-concourse award, McCarran certainly would earn it with its "D Concorse" constructed in 1998. A pantheon-like steel-and-glass structure, natural lighting dominates its personality. The Great Window Wall stands five stories high, affording the most incrdible, panoramic view of the airport and east-west runways (I-Max, step aside!). School children have contributed artwork and murals depicting aeronautical themes and the personality of Las Vegas. The concourse even includes a children's play area -- complete with an interactive mini-control tower. With expansion already on the drawing borad, the D Concourse will eventually have 48 gates -- double the number now -- confurgured to resemble a giant "X" with the already-in-place 95-foot-high Rotunda as its hub.
For the aviation enthusiast, McCarran has its own museum located in the main terminal building above Baggage Claim. The Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum, the namesake of the Nevada senator during 1959 - 1983, may be one of few museums not only open 24 hours, 7 days a week, but FREE, too. It tells the history of aviation in Southern Nevada. Exhibits include donations from Mrs. George Crockett, spouse of Alamo Airport's founder, and Earl Hall's aviation artifacts he bequeated after helping to build McCarran from its beginning to 1998. The museum was developed through the Clark County Heritage Museum and the joint effort of the Clark County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Clark County Department of Aviation.
The most interesting exhibit is the vintage Cessna 172 suspended from the ceiling. It was used by Bob Timm and John Cook who together set the 1959 World Endurance Record by staying aloft non-stop nearly 65 days. Their record broke the City of Yuma record set ten yers earlier on October 10, 1949 in Yuma, Arizona. Their distance traveled was equivalent to circumnavigating the world roughly every thirteen days for a total of 6.5 trips around the globe. No one in all of human history had ever stayed aloft in an airplane longer, and their record still stands tdoay.
If These Concourses Could Only Talk
Imagine going back in time and listening to conversations
McCarran's Director of Aviation, Randall H. Walker, stresses this message to his 900 employess: "When people visit Las Vegas, their first and last impression is made by the airport." Like so much of what first began with Davy Crockett, McCarran International Airport lives on to serve millions traveling to the U.S. Southwestern desert for recreation and entertainment. There is so much Davy Crockett could not have known.
McCarran International Airport
Clark County Department of Aviation
PO Box 11005
Las Vegas, Nevada 89111-1005
An Airline Captain's Dream Airport
Not just airline captains, but pilots in general love McCarran Airport. Richard Glazar, friend and Delta Airlines captain, is especially fond of flying into McCarran. Glazar puts up with all types of weather to destinations like Billings, Montana and Buffalo, New York, but not in Las Vegas where he can always bet on the weather being CAVU (clear air, visibility unlimited) -- and win. Unlike many major metropolitan areas, McCarran is easy to locate, said Glazar. "At night, you just fly for the Black Hole". "You can't miss". Where the airport was once out in the middle of nowhere -- and darkness -- now McCarran is smack in the middle of urban sprawl with lights on all sides, making it tougher to land on the wrong airport. And there is the world's most powerful beacon (40-billion candlepower) on top of the Luxor, the pyramid-shaped hotel immediately adjacent on the west end of McCarran.
There are other McCarran amenities that pilots like. With parallel runways, controllers can clear airliners to land on one runway while simultaneously clearing others to depart on another. At Chicago's O'hare Airport, for example, where the runways once crossed, only one could ever be used at a time. What resulted were the famous holding-patterns-from-hell over O'hare and backlogs on the taxiway, sometimes lasting hours, while landing and departing traffic waited their turn on an airport without parallel runways. McCarran has two sets of parallel runways, which not only provide plenty of peace of mind for pilot and crew, but added safety for passengers -- without any of the delays of a lesser airport.
With so many airport noise problems in the world today, McCarran has a tremendous advantage with its Cooperative Management Area, which basically restricts the type of development underneath takeoff paths of departing traffic. Applying the theory: "If they can't hear noise, they can't complain", McCarran's negative feedback is held to manageable levels.
McCarran's Director of Aviation, Randall H. Walker, summed it up this way for me: "Do we have noise problems? Yes."
"Like other airports? No."
Nobody likes complaints, especially airline captains who are trying to fly an airplane. At McCarran, chances are slim any captain will be called on the carpet for vibrating the saucers on takeoff during Aunt Millie's tea time.
Just as tourists love to travel to the gambling and entertainment Mecca, so too do pilots and their crew. If your job required a lay-over, what better place than in Las Vegas where the food buffets are the best, the accommodations superb, the entertainment always new and the weather always perfect?
And where else but in Las Vegas can you get married while on the job? Given the numerous wedding chapels, this option is not without possibilities, and surely has been exercised a time or two by airline personnel. Yes, someone has to fly us to the greatest gaming Mecca in the world. No wonder the airline crew is always so happy whenever we're on our way to Las Vegas.
McCarran Is Gateway To Much More
While McCarran is well known as the gateway to gambling and entertainment, there's so much more available beyond its gates. Rock climbers from around the world travel to an area just west of Las Vegas to pull on some of the finest sand stone available anywhere on earth. There's skiing, water sports, hiking, bird-watching, just about anything a heart desires -- all near by. One option I stumble upon while visiting McCarran is Heli USA's helicopter ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
As a pilot myself, I've always thought it was forbidden to not only land at the bottom of this Natural Wonder of the World, but to even dare to fly below its rim (excepting operations to and from airports such as, for example, Marble Canyon near Page, Arizona). I'm surprised, however, to learn otherwise while talking with ex-Brtish Commando and helicopter pilot Nigel Turner and Robert Graff, CEO and VP respectively of Heli USA. Like so much of life, it's who you know that opens doors to the many exceptions to so many rules. The Hualapai Indians live on a reservation encompassing a million acres along 108 miles of the Colorado River, much of it lying within the western bounds of the Grand Canyon. As a soverign nation, the Hualapai Tribe commerically grants Heli USA the right to fly into and land at designated locations at the bottom of the canyon right along side the Colorado River. Short of a mule ride, there's no other way to reach the bottom of the Grand Canyon in comfort.
A Helicopter Ride to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
It's 4:30 p.m. on this beautiful October day, and my Heli USA chopper is scheduled to depart in minutes. I'm already in the front seat with pilot Mike Johns besides me; in the back seat are passengers Tom Ludtke and Rick Heimsoth of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Like me, they want some fun and adventure beyond a crap table or buffet line.
At the appointed time, Johns ignites our turbine engine, and within minutes we lift off with four other French-built A-Star helicopters loaded with fun-seeking tourists, many from as far away as Germany and Japan. Once all five helicopters clear the airport traffic area, we fly en échelon heading east, maneuvering low over the terrain. Seeing so many helicopters airborne with us conjurs up scenes from the movie "Apopcolypse Now".
Within minutes, we fly low over mountains on our way to Hoover Dam, a 725-foot structure holding back the Colorado River formimg Lake Mead. It's the largest man-made lake in the Western Hemispere, surpassed only by a larger body of water in Egypt, according to Johns. Just as the dam comes into full view, the background music fades to the soundtrack from the movie, "2001, A Space Odyssey". It's fitting for such a majectic site as Hoover Dam from this perch.
The river here streches more than a thousand miles upstream to its source in Colorado. Along the way it passes through the mile-deep Grand Canyon, then to Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back water creating Lake Powell whose shoreline surpasses in length that of the entire US Pacific Coast. From here, the Colorado River flows south to Davis Dam and Lake Mohave, and farther on is Lake Havasu and Parker Dam, and finally through Yuma and beyond the Mexican border is the Mouth of the Colorado River, which empties into the Sea of Cortez, more than 400 miles downstream.
It's about an hour ride from the airport to our destination on the Hualapai Reservation. Johns climbs the helicopter as we traverse huge Lake Mead, not only to enable gliding to shore in the unlikely event of engine failure, but to clear the higher terrain farther along the way.
According to Johns, some of the terrain below served as location for the movie "Breakdown" (1995?), starring Kurt Russell. In fact, Johns tells me that he ferried Russell back and forth to Las Vegas during the filming of the movie. If you've seen "Breakdown", which was on network television only days ago, you already know how visually stunning and geologically fascinating the country below me is.
Something else interesting, Johns tells me Clint Eastwood ownes an A-Star helicopter. At a million bucks a copy, who else besides a movie star could afford one?
We're coming up on our destination now. Once we clear the rim of the Grand Canyon, Johns descends rapidly towards a clearing, thousands of feet lower, on the banks of the Colorado River. Soon, we're on the ground with all other heilicopters, then each pilot produces a picknik basket complete with champaign. Whoa! My thoughts are that I just traveled in time back to a primitive era. I can have champaign anytime, but not experience the Colorado River. So I prefer the 500-foot hike to the river's edge, joined by the Wyoming passengers I'm traveling with.
Our return flight is more spectacular than the outbound. In fact, we pass not far from the location where Evil Kineivil successfully jumped the Grand Canyon ŕ la motorcycle earlier in 1999. Our forward airspeed is much slower so that we can climb first above the walls of the Grand Canyon. Once clear, we fly close-ground-manueuvers along the canyon's rim all the way to Lake Mead. What fun it is to ride up and down over hill and valley. Playing in the background is the theme music to "Bonanza", the Western serial still aired on television. You'd have to have a recent tragedy in your life to keep the smiles away. This is that much fun.
It's already dark when we approach Las Vegas. Flying west over Charleston Avenue(?), we pass by the incredibly tall Stratosphere with its once-an-hour rotating restaurant near the top. Skirting at eye-level with patrons having dinner, the super structure continues to rise higher from our present elevation, which, according to the altimeter, is 2,700 feet above sea level. Turning south and descending, WOW, is the view of The Strip ever incredible. Just before the Luxor with its brilliant beacon on top, we turn east to the Black Hole, still descending and now below the roof line of another hotel along side. It's a narrow corridor to Heli USA's landing pads at McCarran, and we arrive safe and sound. What an incredible adventure -- all in the space of hours.
Hotel Adventure Nearby
Every time I come to Las Vegas there's always something new on the resort front. If a new megaresort isn't going up, an old hotel is coming down. In recent years, we've seen major properites such as The Dunes, The Landmark, The Sands and The Hacienda, all imploded right on network television. Of course, more are built than are demolished or that I've been able to keep track of during the 90s. In recent years, a dozen or so megaresorts have opened along The Strip, including the Tropicana, Excalibur, MGM Grand, New York-New York, Paris in Las Vegas, Stratosphere and Mandalay Bay.
But no resort has intrique as does the Luxor for me. Incredibly, architects managed to design a 300-foot-tall resort that not only looks like a pyramid, but actually is a hollowed structure whose slanted, 39-degree walls encapsulate guest rooms and suites. What's left over inside is the world's largest pyramid-shaped atrium spanning an incrdible distance -- without vertical walls. Elevators (termed "inclinators") travel diagonally to move guests from the atrium to rooms.
As I study this fascinating structure, I'm reminded of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The world's oldest, largest and most mysterious structure is so advanced that it can't be duplicated today, even with modern technology. Its base is large enough to build a neighborhood of fifty homes, back yards and all. Its features are so huge that they can be seen from the moon.
More astonishing is the relationship between the length of the sides of the pyramid and the length of our solar year. When you divide these dimensions, you get 365.24 -- the exact number of days in our year.
Just as interesting is the relationship between the circumference of the pyramid and twice its height -- 3.14159, or Pi -- the universal relationship between the diameter of a circle and its circumference.
And, finally, each side of the Giza pyramid is concave. When you extend the arc from the pyramid to produce a closed circle, it turns out to be the exact circumference of the earth. In other words, the pyramid's surface is a duplicate of the earth's curvature.
Whatever powers of a pyramid or the Luxor, indeed, they force one to ponder magical thoughs.
Area 51, Where Are You?
In conjunction with my assignment to write this story, I checked into the Luxor and my 14th-floor room with a beautiful view of The Strip and McCarran to the east. I couln't help noticing a huge parking lot full of cars marooned on the west end of the airport. Who would park in the middle of no where -- and why? Later that night, I noticed that all the cars were gone, but in place were five or six Boeing 737 airliners. In the morning again, the cars were back and the all 737s were gone. Hmmm. Area 51-bound employees parking their cars and commuting to work, right?
Well, to this day, I can only guess what actually is going on there with that parking lot and the 737 staging area. Ask an airport official and it's like pulling teeth; ask the federal government and they say, "What Area 51?" No one, it seems, will or can confirm the rumored super-secret facility supposidly in the middle of Nevada. I even asked radio talk-show host Art Bell, the Area-51/UFO/government-conspiracy specialist/aficionado, but he didn't respond to my curiousity. Maybe he was too tired after staying up all night talking to insomniacs about the next asteroid strike that's going to reshape mankind.
Unhappily, I'm sorry to report that I can't confirm if the Park'n'fly is actually used by Area-51 commuters. Like me, though, don't you think it's pretty obvious?
Writer Ron Kilber (email@example.com) is a private pilot and flying enthusiast living in Arizona. His stories have appeared in many aviation publications.
Photography by Bob Shane (firstname.lastname@example.org)