WHERE: California’s Mojave Desert
WHAT : Tour A Restricted Air Force Base
I’ve been fascinated with Edwards Air Force Base ever since I saw Sam Shepard play Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. The legendary pilot took off from Edwards, situated deep in California’s Mojave Desert, when he first broke the sound barrier in 1947. The base has played a vital role in the space age ever since. Edwards test pilots were the first to fly high enough to see the curvature of Earth, and NASA used the base’s runways for 57 of the 135 space shuttle landings.
The shuttle will never touch down there again and Yeager’s flying days are long past, but Edwards remains the nation’s premier aerospace testing facility. As a travel destination, it’s a must-see for aviation buffs and for people like me who are simply curious about the history and future of the country’s military and civilian aerospace programs. The vast majority of U.S. military planes must prove their worth at Edwards. The base is also home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Test Center, a civilian research station established in 1946 to develop new aerospace designs, including the X-1, the craft Yeager piloted. Today NASA maintains a fleet of aircraft there with a decidedly nonmilitary focus, investigating the science of climate change, atmospheric chemistry, and astronomy.
The base is just two hours northeast of my home in Los Angeles, close enough that from my patio I could hear the sonic boom of the space shuttle as it re-entered the atmosphere. This spring, using the “enrichment” of my 5-year-old stepson as added motivation, I signed up online to attend one of the free, twice-monthly tours of Edwards. Short of enlisting with the Air Force or becoming a crack NASA engineer, these tightly controlled visits are the only way to access the base.
The tour began at 0900 hours at Century Circle, a small park right outside the western gates of the base, where six 1950s-era Century-series jets sit on display. The jets were the first planes capable of flying faster than the speed of sound in level flight and are, as I learned, the direct descendants of the X-1.
Joining 30 other tourists, my stepson and I hopped on a tour bus at the gate and proceeded past the headquarters of the 412th Test Wing, a building shaped like the triangular B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. The officers inside coordinate all the planning, reporting, and analysis of the Air Force’s test flights. After a security inspection and camera check (photography is strictly forbidden for many parts of the tour), we drove to a series of hangars and runways to see some of those planes. Yeager’s legacy was everywhere: The tour guide pointed out the runway from which he took off to break the sound barrier.
On a nearby runway we spotted a pair of Global Hawks. The $37.6 million surveillance craft is the unmanned successor to the venerable U-2 spy plane made famous in 1960 when one was shot down over the Soviet Union. An operator can sit in a comfortable swivel chair hundreds of miles from a hostile target and pilot the drone to an altitude of 60,000 feet for a bird’s-eye view of enemy terrain. But it’s not just for war zones: The Global Hawk flies humanitarian missions as well, most recently in Japan, where it was used to help coordinate post-quake rescue efforts.
The Pentagon has increased its fleet of remotely piloted aircraft from 127 in 2002 to an estimated 1,400 today, but manned planes still loom large. Our tour included a glimpse of the famous F-22 Raptor, one of the latest generation of stealth fighter jets, screaming off a runway. In a push toward greener fuels, the Air Force has modified some of these jets to fly on a biofuel derived from camelina, a relative of the mustard plant.
Moving on from the F-22, our guide pointed out two test parachutists walking along the runway. The Air Force is ditching its nearly five-decade-old parachute design and replacing it with a new one called the Guardian Angel Advance Parachute System. The new chutes are intended to make landings safer at higher altitudes, such as in the mountains of Afghanistan. As with any new piece of gear, it must be thoroughly tested before it goes into service. I do not envy the job of the test parachutist.
Next up was NASA’s Dryden Center, where camera crews once filmed a scene for the opening credits of the 1960s hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, in which astronaut Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) walks into the center’s main building. Of course, Dryden’s real claim to fame is the space shuttle. Even though the craft is newly retired, the facility continues to serve as a test site for every NASA prototype that might take flight. Most recently, Dryden engineers helped design and test the Orion crew module, which may serve as a lifeboat aboard the International Space Station.
Of the 20 or so research aircraft at Dryden, only its two Gulfstreams, lightweight executive jets, were in the center’s hangar. One of the jets is equipped with a radar system used for earth science research, such as studying the retreat of the Arctic ice cap. The other Gulfstream carries out aeronautic experiments to improve aircraft design. Dryden also operates three Global Hawks. Like its military counterparts, NASA’s fleet perform long-duration, long-range reconnaissance missions, only instead of spying they monitor greenhouse gases.
Flight efficiency, I discovered, is a big theme at Dryden. While the Air Force experiments with camelina-based biofuels, the engineers here have tested chicken fat as a jet fuel. The oil has been tested on a DC-8 passenger jet that collects remote sensing data, mostly for climate researchers, oceanographers, and geologists. Meanwhile, a chicken fat–free 747 doubles as a flying observatory, carrying an eight-foot telescope to an altitude of 45,000 feet, where it rides above the atmospheric water vapor that hampers Earth-based telescopes. The experimental aircraft is expected to eventually complement the Hubble telescope and other space-based observatories.
Just beyond Dryden we could see the Rogers Dry Lake Bed, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 in honor of all the history-making flights that took off and landed there. This arid clay plain features seven emergency runways, including one that stretches 7.5 miles, the longest runway in the world. The space shuttle touched down here until 1985, when NASA engineers determined the much shorter, paved strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida was safe for landings, although Edwards remained a back-up option.
The final stop on our five-hour tour was the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum. Inside I instantly gravitated to Chuck Yeager’s flight suit. Also on display was a Norden bombsight, used for high-altitude bombing during World War II, and glassware from the “Happy Bottom Riding Club”—the legendary 1940s watering hole where Edwards test pilots gathered to blow off steam. My stepson was fascinated by a display of miniatures called the First Flights Wall, which features the 149 aircraft that made their debut at Edwards. Many of the actual craft can be seen, including the sleek SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet and a Seabat, one of the Sikorsky helicopters that recovered the Mercury astronauts after their splashdowns.
Before we left, a docent helped my stepson jump into an ejection seat from an A-10 Warthog, a fighter designed to target ground forces. When I saw his eyes light up, I could have sworn he looked like Chuck Yeager.
LeeAundra Keany coaches public speaking to support her writing habit. www.thecontrarypublicspeaker.com
While You’re There
Every October, Dryden celebrate the space shuttle at the center’s annual Gathering of Eagles Benefit. Check out edwardsmuseum.org for details. The military facility popularly known as Area 51 is technically part of Edwards Air Force Base. Located in Nevada, 300 miles from Edwards, Area 51 (officially referred to only as “the operating location near Groom Lake”) is an Air Force installation that conspiracy theorists insist holds alien technology recovered from a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. You probably have to be the president to arrange a tour, but you can reach Area 51’s security perimeter from Nevada’s Route 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. A climb up nearby Tikaboo Peak will give you a glimpse of the mysterious base.
The clear, sunny skies that make the Mojave desert ideal for test flights also make it a center for solar power research. In nearby Lancaster, you can see the Sierra SunTower plant. Its 24,000 mirrors reflect the sun’s heat onto two 160-foot, water-filled towers. The resulting steam runs turbines that produce 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 4,000 homes. See esolar.com for more information. —L. K.