42 Years Ago: The MGM Fire of 1980 and the Air Force Response

  • Published
  • By Daniel Wheaton
  • 57 Wing

Forty-two years ago, on the morning of November 21, 1980, Red Flag training operations at Nellis AFB became disrupted when a fire swept through the luxury MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Although 85 people perished in the blaze and 650 sustained injuries, more may have died from fire and smoke inhalation if not for the quick response of Air Force personnel and equipment diverted from the training exercise. At the time of the fire, the 26-story building’s 2,000 rooms contained about 5,000 people.

At 7:38 that morning, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police contacted the base command post for assistance. Nine Air Force helicopters involved in Red Flag, including UH-1Ns of the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing and CH-3Es of both the 1st Special Operations Wing of Hurlburt Field, Florida and the 302nd Special Operations Squadron of Luke AFB, Arizona, quickly responded with the first taking off for the hotel at 7:55, less than 20 minutes after the initial notification. 

Soon after arriving, the helicopters began evacuating people from the smoke-blanketed building as city police helicopters at the scene coordinated rescue efforts by radio. The Air Force helicopters quickly rescued 93 people from the hotel roof, taking them to a nearby parking lot serving as an improvised landing pad and triage area.

In its efforts, the Air Force helicopters transported about 75 firefighters to fight the fire and took exhausted firefighters from the roof to the safety of the landing site. The helicopters conducted 38 total trips back and forth during the rescue efforts.

The heroic actions of the USAF units received national attention for saving lives in the days following the tragedy, as the MGM fire resulted in the worst disaster in Las Vegas history and, at the time, the second-worst hotel fire to occur in the United States.