Yuma International Airport, Yuma, Arizona (NYL)
By Brian Schober
Yuma is truly a unique place steeped in history and lore. Yuma is the source material for countless movies and novels about the Wild West. It also has a rich history that spans centuries and was crucial to America’s power. The area got a head start on history with Europeans, with the first of them arriving in what became the city in 1540, about 80 years before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock. These early Spanish explorers had discovered a safe place to cross the raging Colorado River at what is now Yuma Crossing. Father Kino graced the area in his attempt to convert the locals to Christianity. Eventually, the US Army set up camp at Fort Yuma to protect American settlers traveling through Yuma hoping to strike it rich in the hills of San Francisco.
The proximity of Yuma to navigable waterways led the US Army to establish what became known as the 20-mule train. This amazing use of animals and wagons allowed supplies to reach even the most remote forts and encampments in the newly-acquired southwestern territories. The Transcontinental Railroad brought additional focus to Yuma as it passes right through the heart of the city. Yuma also housed the territorial prison whose rough and tumble reputation was feared amongst the criminals. Yuma had rightly earned a reputation for a rugged and tough Western town and the lore surrounding this history remains today.
In addition to this magnificent and wide-ranging host of historical events that took place in Yuma, the aviation scene in Yuma also predates all other Arizona cities. In 1911, Yuma became the site of the first aircraft to land in Arizona. In 1928, Fly Field (now Marine Corps Air Station Yuma) became one of the first airports in Arizona. That same year, Fly Field hosted 25 aircraft competing in a cross-country air race. In 1929, famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart ran her aircraft off the end of the runway in Yuma in the first women’s air race.
In 1941, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) established permanent runways at Fly Field and it became Yuma Army Air Base. Students trained in AT-6’s, T-17’s, and B-17’s in what had become one of the busiest flight schools in the nation. At the close of the war, flights ceased at the Army base and the post-war depression began to settle in. Not to rest on its laurels, locals banded together and set another aviation record with an Aeronca Sedan named “The City of Yuma.” This aircraft took off on August 24th, 1949, and touched down 47 days later on October 10th. Daredevil drivers sped down the runway and resupplied the pilots with fuel and food as the Aeronca flew low over the convertible. The air base was activated again in 1951, this time as part of the US Air Force. Eight years later, it was signed over to the US Navy and has been operated as the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma (MCAS Yuma) ever since.
MCAS is currently home to the US Marines Air Traffic Control training course, as well as a squadron of V-22 Ospreys, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, AV-8 Harriers, UH-1, AH-1, and CH-53E rotorcraft. Just sitting in the terminal watching these aircraft can consume a whole day. These aircraft are all based on the East side of the runways.
Just North of Yuma on US Highway 95 sits the Yuma Proving Ground and Laguna Army Airfield. This is the site of the Military Free Fall School and a small fleet of C-17s, C-130s, the C-23, and drones, as well as UH-1s and UH-60s. Though the Laguna AAF Class D airspace falls under several Restricted Areas, the flights can be observed from the highway. The YPG flights support missions such as payload delivery system tests, NASA drop tests, High Altitude – Low Opening (HALO) jumps, and test target tracking missions against state of the art sensors. This is truly a military plane spotter’s dream location.
Interested yet? Fortunately, the MCAS Yuma runways double as Yuma International Airport (NYL) – a dual-use airport supporting military and civil aviation. It is important to note that there are multiple Restricted Areas surrounding Yuma due to the amount of military activity. Though the Restricted Areas occupy much of the airspace around Yuma and YPG, there is a flight corridor between R-2301W to the South and R-2311 and R2307 to the North that allows an approach from the East.
Yuma International is in Class D airspace and operates on both UHF and VHF frequencies. It is important to closely follow controller direction as they are also simultaneously controlling sometimes dozens of military aircraft via UHF. See and avoid becomes critical as you enter the busy airspace over the Fortuna Foothills to the East of town. There are four runways at NYL, including a pair of parallel runways. Pay close attention to runway assignments and ensure clearance to land has been received. Runway 3L/21R is a whopping 13,300’ x 200’! This should be enough room for everybody.
Once on the ground, request your taxi to Million Air, the local FBO. They are located on the West side of the airport. Million Air is a full-service FBO offering a plethora of pilot amenities including fuel, pilot lounge, showers, courtesy car, coffee, etc… and are open 6am to 11pm every day of the week. At the time of this writing, 100LL and Jet A self-serve both were selling for $4.31. The Jet A Way Café located in the Million Air facility offers café style food at reasonable prices, though call ahead if planning a weekend meal as they may not be open.
There is a small, non-towered airstrip in Rolle (44A) that is used primarily for training and some military contractor work. There are no services at Rolle and you must overfly NYL Class D airspace to get there. Unless prior transportation has been arranged, we recommend landing at NYL. Getting into town is simple. Uber and Lyft operate in Yuma, as well as multiple taxi services. Million Air offers a courtesy car, but it is first come, first served. With so much to see in Yuma, it’s also best to come with a plan of attack. The downtown area is home to the Territorial Prison, Arizona’s most visited State Historic Site. Also downtown are monuments to the Transcontinental Railroad. The vibrant “old town” district retains the rustic look and feel of several decades ago, yet plays host to many boutiques, restaurants and shops.
If adventure is in the cards, ATV and side-by-side rentals are available to roam the spectacular Imperial Dunes just over the border in California. Paddle board, kayak, and canoe rentals are available in town for river tours, as well. Martinez Lake is just North of town near YPG and boat rentals are offered there for a day on the lake.
There are multiple farm stands open most of the year offering locally grown produce. Crops are grown year-round and the active agricultural impact is evident throughout town. If an overnight stay is required, be prepared for the onslaught of night crop dusting by fixed and rotary wing aircraft. This is a spectacular sight to watch as the aircraft dodge tall palm trees and power lines at night!
YPG offers an artillery museum at the Visitor Control Center just off base. On base, a Yuma Test Center museum houses more artifacts and details the wide-ranging history of the facility. Included in the static displays is a Cessna O-2A Skymaster in Army livery. This O-2A was one of the last two O-2s in active service in the United States.
Head on out to the southwest corner of Arizona and take in all that Yuma has to offer. With a history rich in Old West lore and deep-rooted aviation history, Yuma is a perfect getaway and shouldn’t be missed. We hope to see you there!