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Video Vault: Book focuses on McCarran, other Southern Nevada aviation pioneers

U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada (Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collection)

Talk has come up again in recent weeks of possibly renaming the airport we know as McCarran. Pat McCarran, the Nevada senator who passed away in 1954, definitely played a role in aviation here.

McCarran’s contributions as well as those of many other Southern Nevada aviation pioneers are gathered in the book "Landing in Las Vegas."

“Ever since I was 6 years old, I wanted to be a pilot and fly,” says the book’s author, UNLV History Professor Daniel Bubb.

In fact, Bubb spent time as an airline pilot before finding his calling in academia. His book combines the two, beginning with a key event in local aviation.

“The first mail plane landed April 17th of 1926,” he recounts.

To become a part of the transcontinental airmail route from New York to San Francisco, our area benefited from geography.

“Originally Elko and Ely and other little towns competed with Las Vegas for it,” explains Bubb. “But the problem was that flying over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the wintertime was just too treacherous. And so Las Vegas was deemed to be a safer place for airplanes to take off and land.”

In the 1930s, Western Air Express operated out of what would later become Nellis Air Force Base, and a now-familar name got involved.

“Pat McCarran was critical to aviation in Nevada and nationally,” declares Bubb.

McCarran sought regulation at a time when many planes were still largely wood and cloth. Crashes were not uncommon.

“All that stuff makes the newspapers,” says Bubb, and front page examples from the Las Vegas age bear him out. “People read the newspapers and they get really nervous about air travel. And aviation had its skeptics.”

While McCarran pushed through the civil aeronautics act of 1938, a man named George Crockett saw an opportunity.

“In those days, private planes had to take any type of a landing spot they could find near town,” Crockett told News 3 in 1985. “Oft times there was no telephone, no transportation and no service. And as I saw the future of aviation developing — even in those days in the late ‘30s — you could see the need for more airports and more facilities.”

“Crockett was Alamo Field, which is where the Mandalay Bay is,” explains Bubb. “That’s where it used to be. And then they built the jetport across, which is where McCarran is today.”

George and his wife, Peg, built Alamo from the ground up while Sen. McCarran brought home the bacon that eventually allowed local government to take over.

“So I gave it like a lease up, and the county compensated me to the amount of money that a three-man committee decided I had put in it, which was $125,000,” remembered Crockett. “And that's what that site cost the county. That's where McCarran International is today.”

The Las Vegas tourist economy helped built the airport, and the airport helped grow the tourist economy.

“Especially within the broader context of the west, with having cities so distant from each other,” observes Bubb. “The airplane was able to effectively shrink the west through space and time.”

George Crockett passed away in 1990 and is remembered in the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame.

So what happens with the name?

“Las Vegas International”?

“Crockett Airport”?

“Alamo Field” (again)?

Or is it just left “McCarran”?

The debate continues, but there are definitely others beyond politicians who have contributed to the aviation history of Southern Nevada.

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