Celebrating 80 years of elite simulated warfighter training

  • Published
  • By Christie Vanover, 57th Wing Public Affairs
  • 57th Wing

From wooden rifles to virtual reality, Nellis Air Force Base has used simulation to train warfighters for decades.

Today, Nellis Airmen can step inside the new Virtual Test and Training Center, which uses advanced computer-generated models to simulate in-flight combat, and they can take advantage of artificial intelligence and algorithms to predict competitors’ actions.

On the contrary, during World War II, technology was much more rudimentary, but the demand to develop proficient warfighters was great.

On March 24, 1941, the War Department granted $2.2 million for the construction of an aerial gunnery school, which is now known as Nellis Air Force Base. The gunnery school was the nation’s first school aimed at teaching men how to shoot from fast-moving aircraft for combat operations.

While some of the men had recreational experience shooting weapons, for many, holding a rifle was completely new, as was shooting it with precision from one fast-moving target to another. 

“There was a need to train a complex activity that you couldn’t mimic anywhere,” said Jim Flook, 99th Air Base Wing historian.

Within one month of appropriations, construction for the gunnery school was underway, and Lt. Col. Martinus Stenseth was assigned as commandant. On May 5, 1941, Stenseth began his command from the basement of the Las Vegas Federal Building, which is now the Mob Museum, a tourist attraction in downtown Las Vegas.

“He focused on creating the infrastructure that was going to allow for the training of aerial gunners,” said Flook.

The school was designed to accommodate 2,800 service members and included barracks, administrative and operations buildings, mess halls, a hospital unit and recreational facilities.

By September 1941, more than 80 instructors graduated after mastering the training tactics and procedures. The post flag was raised Oct. 12, 1941, and the first class of student gunners arrived shortly after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.

The 1940s-era simulation training began by introducing the students to wooden guns, which provided them with the basic feel of a gun. Within five weeks, the men were expected to become expert marksmen prepared to occupy large bombers and observation and reconnaissance planes in support World War II.

“Flexible guns have to be used like shotguns, and the mere trick of aiming them is not to be mastered in haste,” U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Lowell Limpus wrote in a Dec. 11, 1941, article about the training. “After the enemy plane is spotted and recognized, the gunner has to be able to estimate its speed and course.

“Next, our gunner has to figure out where the plane is going to be when his stream of bullets get there, and that means learning to aim at a distance and empty hole in the sky, and to aim there as carefully as any rifleman drawing a bead on a stationery target,” he added.

To achieve this level of proficiency, Limpus said the training involved six steps that increased in difficulty as the students’ skills increased.

“Shooting BBs at a toy airplane is the first step; drilling a flying target with machine-gun pellets from a speeding plane the last – and between them a crack aerial gunner is produced,” he said.

After mastering the BB gun shooting gallery, the students trained with skeet shooting to garner the experience of unpredictable aerial targets. Next, they added another element of motion by shooting aerial targets from the back of a moving truck.

Flook said the trainers simulated the experience of shooting from a B-29 airplane by creating a mobile platform with a turret. The aerial gunners would maneuver the turret from the mobile truck while the tracks were whizzing by. 

“Trainers developed aerial gunner skills without needing students to climb into a B-29 or B-17 until they were overseas,” he said.

In three-and-a-half years, the schoolhouse trained around 45,000 aerial gunners.

At the 1942 first anniversary celebration of the gunnery school with a single candle on the cake, Stenseth said the work and training mission at the school would carry on. As Nellis celebrates an 80-year milestone and continues to train America’s elite warfighters, Stenseth’s words still hold true.

“The mission of the early gunnery school is carried on today by the USAF Weapons School,” said Daniel Wheaton, 57th Wing historian. “The school teaches graduate-level instructor courses that provide the world’s most advanced training in weapons and tactics employment to officers and enlisted specialists of the combat air forces and mobility air forces.”