Salton Sea Test Base

The Navy began to conduct seaplane target bombing operations at the northwestern corner of the sea during the late 1930s. By 1942, a larger, more remote facility was established at the southwestern corner of the sea about ten miles south of Salton City. As planes, boats, and buoys were hauled over from the coast for military training maneuvers, barnacle infestations began to appear—apparently introduced by foreign ballast water released during operations. In later years, barnacles blanketing the beaches and docks made the sea increasingly unpleasant for recreational users.

The Navy base doubled as a Hollywood film set for Paramount Studios 1942 WWII themed film, Wake Island but served mainly as an active military weapons test site throughout the 1940s. Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets led the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron during 1944-45 in a series of classified B-29 practice flights from Wendover, Utah to the Salton Sea where his crew dropped dummy atomic bombs onto a floating white raft and other targets. [1] A Los Angeles Times article noted that a Fat Man prototype was dropped accidently near the town of Calipatria but failed to explode. [2] It is said that the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 by Tibbets’ Enola Gay crew was based on a prototype first tested at the Salton Sea.

The base was taken over by Sandia Corporation, the principal contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war ended and was renamed the Salton Sea Test Base (SSTB) in 1946. During its tenure, Sandia continued weapons testing operations with space capsule parachutes drops, drone airplane tests and Nike missiles launches. About 150 tests were conducted annually over a ten year period with some using depleted uranium. [3] Sandia ended operations at the Salton Sea facility by 1961 when the corporation moved the facility to a newer, more remote site near Tonopah, Nevada.

Largely abandoned by the late 1960s, the base was occasionly used for military live munitions practice during the 1970s and as a consequence base buildings suffered extensive damage. Although listed as inactive by 1987, the facility found renewed use as a site for Gulf War training maneuvers conducted during the early 1990s. With most of the original buildings destroyed, the base was decommissioned by the mid-1990s with the land holdings turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The site was used in the early 2000s for a Salton Sea salinity control pilot research project incorporating “enhanced evaporation systems.”


[1] Salton Sea AuthorityWebsite. See:
[2] Eric Malnic, “Pilot launched Atomic Age over Hiroshima,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2007. See:
[3] Rudy Yniguez, “Nuke lab used Salton Sea base,” Imperial Valley Press, October 22, 2005. See: