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An eye opening experience

 

April 11, 2020

Mark La Ciura

SR-71A #61-7955 is on display at the Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum.

The Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum will open in December 2020. It is moving from its 8,500-square-foot space on base to a new 75,000-square-foot location just outside the West Gate located in the Rosamond area.

There will be more space for the current aircraft collection, plus a STEM Education Center, which will focus on youth education. The new location will also allow for easier public access.

The new museum is going to be very interactive. The STEM Education Center promises to interest our youth in Aviation/Flying, Engineering, Math and Science. Edwards AFB today has approximately 500 openings for engineers in all disciplines, many of which cannot be filled, so there is a fantastic need here. Edwards is working to involve local schools to encourage students to get an early start in studying aviation and the sciences.

On a very hot 104 degree day in July 2019, I got a "fabtastic" tour of the original Edwards AFB Flight Test Museum. We participated in a several hour, very eye-opening tour ... even for me, a former independent photographic contractor with Edwards. When touring Edwards, bring lots of water as it is so easy to get dehydrated in the desert. Bottled water is a must as the tap water is considered "no good to drink."

With the new location it will be very easy for anyone to see all the aircraft tested during the early days of flight. My background is post-production for motion picture film work and motion picture restoration of films from the 1940s and 1950s. In 1985 I started flight training in sailplanes here in Tehachapi. I have 1,000 hours of flight time logged in sailplanes and a fair amount of power time logged as well. My first contact with Edwards AFB test pilots was at the glider port in Tehachapi where they have to perform solo and flight quality evaluations with the sailplanes. All pilots who have flown the Space Shuttle had to fly these sailplanes as well. They had to go through the Edwards AFB Test Pilot School training to fly the shuttle back in the day. It's kind of fantastic that our little town was and is a gateway to outer space with our glider port.

Our tour began outside the West Gate. We were transported by bus to a briefing on Edwards AFB where history was provided by George B. Welsh (Director/Curator of the Museum) and Steven Zapka (Edwards Public Affairs). We resumed our bus tour going first to North Base to view some of the 308,000 acres and then to the Museum's maintenance hanger to see aircraft like the F-117 Stealth aircraft No. 4, built for one of the super secret test programs. This was so secret, that the canopy windows are not in the aircraft ... they are whited out and covered up. The window design material is still very secret.

Many incredible aircraft are still here in this very sensitive location of the AFB: F-16 XL, X-15 Mockup, F-15 early Navy Aircraft tested at Edwards AFB, to name a few. They have one of the first SR-71 Blackbird tested aircraft that was never used for normal operations. This aircraft was designed by Kelley Johnson of the famous Skunk Works in Burbank.

The largest aircraft out in front of the North Base location is the second prototype, XB-47 StratoJet (XB-47 46-066). My main interest on the tour was seeing the B-47, but that was housed in a location where the tour group could not take pictures. The Stratojet was one of the most influential aircraft designs of all time and its legacy can be seen in almost every jet airliner built since the 1950s. However, there was a viewing of the aircraft that was showcased in the film, "Strategic Air Command," a 1955 military aviation film starring Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was a WW2 bomber pilot and was personally an aviation advocate all his life. Another of his aviation movies is "The Spirit of St. Louis." When I saw these movies as a child, I was inspired to get a Commercial Sailplane license. They also inspired me to get involved at Edwards AFB and work as an aviation photographer.

There were 2,032 B-47s built by Boeing, which served the United States Air Force from 1951-1977. The very last B-47 flight took place on June 18, 1986 when B-47E-25-DT, serial number 52-166, was flown from the Naval Air Weapons Center China Lake to Castle Air Force Base to be placed on static display.

Chuck Yeager (a pilot famous for breaking the X-1 sound barrier) flew the XB-47 Stratojet later in its development cycle, and years later noted that the aircraft was so aerodynamically clean that he had difficulty putting it down on the lake bed at Edwards. Both XB-47 prototypes were test flown at Edwards, however the number one XB-47 (46-065) was disassembled and eventually scrapped by the Air Force in 1954, thus making the number two prototype (46-066) the sole surviving XB-47. This information was mentioned on the tour. I do know that General Yeager was head of the Test Pilot School so I am sure he flew in everything that was being flight tested during his time out at Edwards. The second prototype, XB-47 46-066, should be out for everyone to see at the new location. The XB-47 has been at Edwards for about three years now and is being restored by volunteers from all over California. If you have some talent with this kind of work, the Air Force Flight Test Museum sure can use your volunteer efforts. For more information Contact George Welsh at (661) 277-8050.

In 1992, I had the honor of meeting astronaut Neil Armstrong here in Tehachapi. At the time, he was working on his documentary series for A&E Network titled "First Flights." Armstrong flew the X-15 rocket airplane in the early 1960s and went on to be the first man on the moon. I feel very lucky to have spoken with him. He was very nice, down to earth and loved to talk aviation.

As many do, I have great respect for all our military service people who work at Edwards and all over the world. They put their lives on the line each and every day as do many of the contract people who work at Edwards. Case in point, I was on the 15,000-foot runway at Edwards back in 1992 and had a Navy T-45 Goshawk go offline and off the runway due to a nose gear issue. It came within 10 feet of a TV camera remote truck I was operating. I was running for cover and saw a full blown ejection of a Martin Baker ejection seat. It was very impressive to see a pilot eject safely. No one got hurt as the aircraft rolled up by the B-2 area near the runway. The T-45 went off the runway at about 150 knots. By the way, I kept a section of the canopy glass from the ejection, which has burn marks on the glass from the rocket motor on the ejection seat. I was allowed to keep that to commemorate my exciting day at Edwards.

A tour of Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum is a truly educational experience; call (661) 277-8050 for tour information.

 
 

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