Salton Sea Test Base History

This background and history of the Salton Sea Test Base is taken from a report commissioned by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in 1994.


The current boundaries of the Salton Sea Test Base include 7,945 acres of land and 13,462 acres of water. The Salton Sea Test Base is located along Highway 86 at the southwest corner of the Salton Sea in the northwestern quarter of the Imperial Valley, approximately 10 miles south of Salton City and 40 miles northwest of El Centro.

The Salton Sea Test Base is an inactive facility with no working population. The base is under the command authority of the Eleventh Naval District, San Diego, California, with local coordination authority under SWDIV. With the exception of three buildings and two bunkers, the buildings, utilities, and infrastructure at the facility were salvaged, demolished, or abandoned in place prior to 1994. The security guard and all working personnel terminated activity at the base in September 1987.

Access to the site is uncontrolled, and the site is subject to limited unauthorized public use for the variety of recreational activities such as off-road vehicular activity, fishing and shooting. The site provides the sole local unrestricted access to the shoreline of Salton Sea, and people visit the site as tourists.

History – Salton Sea Test Base

The U.S. Navy conducted a preliminary inspection of the Salton Sea in January 1940, and the Salton Sea Test Base was initially commissioned as the Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Salton Sea, in October 1942. The Salton Sea Test Base originally functioned as an operational and training base for seaplanes. Additional activities at the base have included experimental testing of solid-fuel plane-launched rockets, jet-assit take-off testing, aeroballistic testing of inert atomic weapon test units at land and marine target areas, training bombing at marine targets, testing of the effects of long-term storage on atomic weapons, testing of the parachute landing systems of the Project Mercury space capsules, parachute training and testing, and military training exercises.

Word War II

During World War II, the base comprised 2,780 acres and included the Paramount Runway, a 4,000-foot clay surface airstrip built in early 1942 by Paramount Studios for the movie “Wake Island”. The U.S. Navy and the Army-Navy Z-46 group conducted activities on the facility during this period. During the war, 56 squadrons serving on aircraft carriers received rocket training at the base.

U.S. Navy Operations

The original function of the base was to serve as an operational base for seaplanes. The Navy used the base as a torpedo and skip-boming range. The facilities at the base consisted of the Paramount Runway, a marine railway, hanger, shops, barracks for 64 enlisted men, a shower building, galley, bachelor officers quarters, operations building, garage, power plant, storehouse, four magazines, ready ammunition lockers, and water and sewage lines. Improvements were made to the base in 1948.

The East-West Runway, a parking area, and additional magazines were constructed to support rocket development and training conducted between March 27 1944 and March 15 1945. The term “rocket” referred to anything that was different from ordinary bombing practice. Solid propellants were used in the rockets of that era.

The station was also used for experimental testing of Jet-Assist Take-off equipment by the BAR Aerojet Engineering Corporation in cooperation with the Navy in July of 1944. A stand was constructed for tests of propellant mixtures.

Aeroballistic Testing

Between December 1944 and June 1945, the Army-Navy Z-46 group (also referred to as “Project Y”) conducted aeroballistic tests of inert atomic weapon test units at the base. The Site 10MA Marine Target was constructed to support these activities. The goal of the group was to assist in gathering data to give true readings of the flight characteristics of the test units. The test drops were recorded using motion picture cameras mounted at various locations on the base. Project Y involved a total of 150 drops throughout the course of the program. Four full-sized “Fat Boy” models were made of cast steel filled with concrete were dropped during December 1944. Other test units associated with Project Y contained lead filler.

A target consisting of a 30-foot diameter bull’s-eye within a 600-footd diameter ring was installed at the site in April 1945. The purpose of this target was to allow for aeroballistic testing and recovering of “1491-type” units. A total of six test units were dropped on the land target in April 1945. Due to the depth of penetration, only two of the units were recovered. For more in-depth documentation see: AEROBALLISTIC TESTING.

Post World War II

The Navy relinquished control of the base for use as an aeroballistic atomic bomb test range in June 1946. The base was operated by entities involved with nuclear weapons development including the Manhattan Engineering District, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Sandia Corporation, from June 1946 through March 1964. The Navy also used the Salton Sea Test Base as an emergency landing area for it’s seaplanes operating along the Pacific Coast.

Existing facilities at the Salton Sea Test Base in January 1947 included the control tower located at the intersection of the Paramount and East-West Runways) and three camera stations. Telemetry ground station equipment was installed in a trailer positioned northwest of the control tower. The former Navy operations building housed the field test offices, an electronics maintenance shop, and the control tower. An old hangar was used as a camera maintenance shop and property office. The photo lab and machine shop were set up in  former aircraft maintenance buildings. The original firehouse, carpentry shop, and officers quarters built by the Navy were retained for their original uses.

The base was renovated between October 1948 and November 1949. The new facilities included seven camera stations, two radar stations, radio transmission and receiving stations, road improvements, a trail park, eight apartments, and two three-bedroom houses. The San Felipe Lodge, a hotel-type building comprising 54 rooms, six apartments, and dining and recreational facilities was constructed in the main base area. A water treatment plant was built south of the base to process water withdrawn from the Trifolium Extension irrigation canal. By 1951, there were 60 full-time resident employees and additional commuting employees occupied with technical and maintenance matters at the Salton Sea Test Base.

Camera stations were operated on two small islands in the Salton Sea, designated South Island and North Island, between 1950 and 1952. The islands were abandoned due to rising water levels in the Salton Sea. The equipment and fuel tanks were removed from the islands, but the buildings remained and are currently underwater.

The Paramount and East-West runways south of the main base and some small buildings near the water were abandoned prior to 1955 due to encroachment of the Salton Sea caused by rising water levels. A new airstrip was constructed west of the main base, and a dike was constructed during 1954 and 1955 to protect the buildings and the main base area from the rising water.

Beginning in August 1957, certain facilities at the Salton Sea Base were returned to the Navy. The Navy was provided use of the Salton Sea Test Base as an emergency seadrome as well as quarters and subsistence for a four-man Navy crew based at the Salton Sea. The Navy also used dock space and seaplane mooring buoys at the base.

The Navy reassumed custody of the Salton Sea Test Base on March 19, 1964, with the understanding that the Atomic Energy Commission material not recovered from the marine target during the test unit recoveries would remain the properly of the Atomic Energy Commission. The base was used for parachute training and testing by various military units. Between 100 and 200 hours of parachute drops were scheduled yearly on the test base. The base used for various military training exercises since 1964 limited small arms live-fire training.

The San Felipe Lodge and water treatment facility were abandoned due to extensive damage from hurricanes during 1976 and 1977. Full-time base security was discontinued in September 1987. The Salton Sea Test Base was designated for closure in accordance with the Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1988. Public Law 100-526, 10 United States Code 2687. For several years beginning after 1977 Marines and SEALs used the location for live-fire training exercises.


  1. i was born and raised there from 1945 to 1956 and moved to Brawley.

  2. Is it safe for people to live near the west side of the salton sea, near thermal or salton city?

    • Mostly yes, but not recommend for people with lung or breathing problems because of the dust. It’s a problem now and will be getting much worse over the next few years as Salton Sea shrinks more and more, exposing more lake-bed to the wind.

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