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Video Vault | Tow targets on the Nellis Range

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 7/09/2014 7:10 am

LAS VEGAS (KSNV — For several decades now, the far north central valley floor has been littered with gleaming objects, notice only by people who fly low-level in helicopters or hike out in this forbidding stretch of desert with no easy road access.

Finding the answer to what these mysterious objects are involves a trip back to the beginnings of the facility that eventually became known as Nellis Air Force Base.

Air Force historian Dan Wheaton starts the story back in 1941.

"You know, the war was raging overseas. We were getting ready just in case the United States should have to enter the war," he said.

Back then it was the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range, established for training during World War II.

"They would set up weapons in the back of moving trucks. And shooting up at the targets," says Wheaton. "And of course they would have pilots passing the targets and shooting at the banners."

The story picks up again in the early 1970s.

"That's when I learned to be a professional pack rat, like I am now," says John Knapp today from his Pahrump Home (which he dubs the "Wild Wild West Ranch").

Knapp was exploring the desert on his motorcycle back then.

"I started to find all this cable," he says, holding up coils about 3/8-inch in diameter.

What was it for? Knapp did some research.

"I read about what they called the WASPS, the Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots*. They would fly these tow planes for these target drones."

"Among many other things," clarifies Wheaton. "Driving trucks. You know, supply clerks. That sort of thing. But they were also very involved with flying the planes that towed the targets."

Long after the WASP program was retired in 1944, Air Force Col. Gaillard Peck was a Tow Target instructor utilizing F86 jets. He demonstrates how the program would work, through words and hand gestures.

"One airplane here and one airplane there and already, you ready, I'm ready ... start the turn, clear to fire."

This is partial explanation for these objects in the desert.

"They drug 'em off, and then they brought 'em and they parachuted 'em back onto the ground," says Peck.

From a distance, it's just a shiny piece of metal.  Up close, you're looking at something a bit more sophisticated. An aerodynamic structure on a wooden frame, with thin aluminum sheeting on a honeycomb support structure.

"About 16 feet long, has approximately a five foot wingspan, shaped like a dart," explains Peck. "It's like a pointy nose with a weight on the end of the nose to balance it. It has a radar reflector on the tail."

Once the Tow Target was detached from the F86, it would be connected by a long cable ... which appears to be  what Knapp discovered in the desert.

"And this cable right here, in this swing that I'm sitting on," John refers to the supports his swing hangs from. "It's that same cable. It's at least 70 years old, and it like it was made just last year. It's very high quality cable."

"The documentation says 1500-2000 feet," Peck explains the Tow Target statistics. "And the tether...I found reports saying at one time it was of a nylon or cloth type hemp rope. My experience, they were steel cables."

But there's still one more mystery. In the beginning, the training was right here in the Las Vegas Valley. 

"My research indicates that they only used cloth banners for World War II," notes Wheaton.

The switch to aluminum-covered dart for tow targets appears to have included a change of location.

"All of this was happening way up north," insists Peck. "This was north of Indian Springs."

But if that's the case, then the aluminum-covered frames should not be in the desert at the base of Gass Peak at all.

Peck has a theory.

"Unbriefed, unorthodox drops caused by some form of an emergency. Maybe a dart had a hit and they were bringing it back to drop it off, which they used to do. And the thing started flying unstably, and they jettison it off."

There is no record of how many tow targets landed in the northern valley.  But the remains of at least a few dozen are visible today on land which is part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

* Acronym correctly stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots


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