By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun
It’s hard to believe that right next door to the pristine natural surroundings of our Sierra Nevada valley with its Old West lifestyle lies the vast Mojave Desert that leads the world in aerospace technology. For over 75 years Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in Kern County has been the test site for hundreds of significant aviation ‘firsts’ from the first jets and space shuttle landing, to unmanned aerial surveillance systems.
The Kern River Valley Historical Society took advantage of the proximity of this historic base and arranged for a half-day bus tour of its facilities on February 27. The tour included a visit to the Flight Test Museum, Restoration Hangar, NASA Flight Research Center campus, ‘flightline’ runways, USAF Test Pilot School, and the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.
Edwards AFB is the second largest base in the Air Force (the largest is in Florida) with 481 square miles of land and over 10,000 military, civilian, and contract personnel. This base conducts all flight and ground testing of aircraft, weapons systems, and software for the Air Force so it can maintain world-dominant airpower for the United States. Edwards AFB was chosen as the testing site primarily because within its boundaries is the 44 square mile Rogers Dry Lakebed with 16 runways for emergency landings (one is over 7 miles long): a welcome sight for test pilots in distress.
Edwards AFB has formed valuable partnerships by working with other military branches and nearly 20 contractors, such as Boeing and Jet Propulsion Laboratories, in supporting their aerospace activities. On base is NASA’s Neil Armstrong Flight Research Center which includes its own space flight museum and visitor’s center.
With such a long history of aerospace ‘firsts,’ the Flight Test Museum has over 80 historic aircraft in its collection, with about half on display throughout the base and the remaining half in storage or undergoing restoration. The Restoration Hangar sits on what museum personnel calls “hallowed ground” where America’s first jet planes were tested in the 1940s. Tour guides described the process undertaken to restore some of the treasured aircraft stored there. They also shared stories of some of the test pilots, including Chuck Yeager who was the first to break the sound barrier by exceeding the speed of sound in 1947, and Neil Armstrong who was a test pilot at Edwards AFB before becoming an astronaut.
All pilots must graduate from the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB before they can become test pilots for the Air Force. This world-renowned program trains pilots, navigators, and engineers on how to safely and professionally conduct flight tests and generate data. Many other countries across the free world send their test pilots to the school so they can improve the testing process of their own country’s aircraft.
The tour bus traveled along the ‘flightline’ which is a set of six active runways, taxiways, and hangars used in aircraft testing. This famous area has been called the “Center of the Aeronautical Universe” where the future of the nation’s aerospace defense system can be viewed. Nine flight squadrons are each assigned several aircraft to test, including fighters (several F-35s were taking off during the tour) and bombers, transport, and unmanned aircraft (such as the Global Hawk.)
Being a test pilot is clearly dangerous work, as can be visualized by a memorial area on base to honor those who died in crashes. Tour guides shared emotional stories about the loss of some of the pilots who are considered heroes there. Historic aviation firsts came at a high human cost.
Using unmanned aircraft is one way to save lives of pilots so no one is placed in harm’s way during a dangerous assignment. The U.S. Air Force is currently operating and continually testing the Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft system at Edwards AFB.
The tour group was able to see several of these aircraft during a lecture given in a hangar along the flightline. The Global Hawk has been used extensively in the Middle East to fill a critical role in the U.S. war on terrorism. It conducts surveillance, does mapping, and collects intelligence to support military forces worldwide for precise weapons targeting.
The Global Hawk is operated by remote control using satellites and computers with human programmers who can pilot the aircraft from halfway across the world. The flight plan can be programmed prior to the start of the flight and changed along the way as needed. The Global Hawk flies at 60,000 feet or above where it remains unseen. It has a long 131 foot wingspan so it can glide and save fuel, allowing the aircraft to be airborne for up to 30 hours.
The Global Hawk is built by Northrop Grumman in nearby Palmdale. It is operated by USAF for its own use and for customers such as the FBI, CIA, and others.
Edwards AFB remains at the cutting edge of aviation technology by continuing to test the newest aerospace programs. Residents may be able to see one of the next ‘firsts’ there by joining a tour. Edwards AFB hosts over 100,000 visitors annually, so reservations for groups or individuals must be made months in advance. General public tours are offered on Fridays twice per month. Information and reservations are available at www.edwards.af.mil/tours.