One of the first items mentioned by the tour guide was the size of Edwards Air Force Base: it is 308,000 acres and spans 3 counties. It is 12 sq. miles larger than Los Angeles. Kirk county, which covers the majority of the base, is larger than Rhode Island. It features 22 runways, 4 of which are paved. One of the main runways is 100 yards wide, 10,000 ft long and was poured in one continuous pour. Unfortunately, the first runway had problems with corrosive soil. A second runway, 200 ft wide and 10000 ft long was built as a result. Most of the runways are located in Rogers lakebed, which is the reason for Edwards’s existence at this location, as the lakebed provides a unique ability to provide a landing zone for emergency landings. This is critical for Edwards’s primary function as a flight test and development base.
As we entered the base, the first thing we passed was a water tower. The reason for its existence in such a remote location is the 20000 ft long rocket sled track it is positioned on. To our left we were able to see an oasis, with a pond amongst the trees which provided fishing for the base’s inhabitants.
Edwards Air Force Base is named after a WWII ace, Glenn Edwards, who was killed in a crash while testing the YB-49 Flying Wing. Traditionally, Air Force Bases are named after distinguished individuals who are native to the state in which the base is located. In 1949, the Muroc Air Force Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base, in honor of Glenn Edwards. Major Daniel Forbes was the co-pilot who was also killed in the crash. A major street on Edwards AFB is named in his honor.
The first major item on the list for the tour was the flight line. As we strolled in, we saw the B1 building, where a scene from Transformers II was filmed. In addition, the air and space management building was the same building that was portrayed as “Stark Industries” in Iron Man.
Seeing the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base is the dream of anyone who loves planes: it was absolutely awesome, and the tour guide was sure to fill our heads with facts. F-22’s, F-16’s, F-35’s and F-18’s were among many of the aircraft stored on the runway that day. We also saw the gattling gun test area. The aircraft control tower is rated for 8.0 scale earthquakes. One of the hangers covered 9.4 acres under one roof. This building is used for aircraft maintenance and repair. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
Of course the tour guide was sure to elaborate on the specs of the F-22 Raptor. This amazing bird is more stealth than the F-117 Stealth Fighter. It’s engines are so powerful that it can cruise at Mach 1.5 without afterburners. There is more surface area on this aircraft’s tail than there is on the entire F-16. Finally, the vector thrust capabilities of the plane give it unparalleled maneuverability.
Across the lakebed we were able to see the Air Force Research Rocket Lab, which was about 10 miles away and still on the Edwards Air Force Base property. Even from that distance, the rock that it was atop of and the 20 story rocket test stands we’re clearly visible. These same stands were used to test the Saturn V F-1 engines back in the Apollo era. Up until Spaceship 1, every propulsion system that has flown into space has been tested at this facility.
Before entering one of the hangers where the Global Hawk was stored, our excellent tour guide made a joke about parachute testers. Parachute testers are people who jump out of an airplane to make sure the parachute doesn’t fail.
Global Hawk Hanger
The second order of business for the Edwards Air Force Base tour was the Global Hawk hanger, where 3 Global Hawk vehicles are stored. The Global Hawk is a remotely piloted, high endurance reconnaissance aircraft. There are several types: the block 10, block 20, block 30, and block 40. Most of the tour discussion focused on the Global Hawk Block 20, which is distinguished by two white stripes under the nose of the aircraft which indicates where the camera is supposed to be located.
The Global Hawk Block 20 has incredible reconnaissance capabilities. Its massive aspect ratio and 17000 lb fuel tank allow it to remain suspended in the air for 36 hours. The two primary capabilities of this aircraft are the infrared camera and radar that it provides. The aircraft has a 3rd capability in that it can act as a communication rely point if necessary. A Global Hawk with this modification is a Block 30. It can be controlled from a distance from a keyboard and mouse, operated on a line of sight, or operate autonomously. 40-100 people work behind the scenes to operate the Global Hawk, hence why it is considered remotely piloted, and not unmanned.
Despite the Global Hawk’s amazing capabilities, it does have a few issues. While it can operate autonomously for reconnaissance operations at an altitude of 60,000 ft, it does not have obstacle avoidance capabilities. Thus, the plane has to be operated manually as it spirals down for its landing approach. In addition, the plane’s massive computer is an asset when it comes to maintenance, as it can help identify problem locations. However, constant updates for the computer can be a major hassle.
Air Force Flight Test Center
The Flight Test School presentation by Bill Gray was absolutely incredible. A few of us left the presentation feeling very motivated to join sometime in our upcoming careers. It sounds like flight test school is a lot of hard work, but it also sounds like it would be very rewarding and a total blast.
The presentation started with an overview of some of the aircraft that are specially outfitted for training. The oldest supersonic trainer jet on the planet, the T-38 is located here. This jet is unique in that it does not achieve supersonic flight through a super powerful engine, but, rather, it is aerodynamically designed for optimal supersonic performance. For example, jets experienced control problems when the sound barrier was first being broken because of flow separation over the elevators. This jet does not have an elevator control surface. Instead, the entire horizontal tail moves to give it the necessary control.
Bill Gray next introduced Edwards’s F-16 trainer, which he claims is a blast to fly. The F-16 is the world’s first fly-by-wire aircraft. The trainer that they had on base was outfitted with both instructor and trainee seats. The trainer version was also unique in that it has programs and computers that could interface with the control surfaces to simulate uncharacteristic turbulence and side loads. It allows students to learn things in the air that they simply can’t learn in a simulator on the ground.
The goal of the flight test school at Edwards Air Force Base is to educate test pilots and engineers, NOT to train. The flight test school is a Masters degree granting institution. Its highly competitive 48 week program allows students to choose from 3 different curricula: test pilot, test navigator, or test engineer. During a student’s 60-70 hour weeks, they will have to complete 13 academic courses, 85 flights, take 21 exams, and write 38 graded reports. Half of the students are typically pilots, and the other half are engineers. It was particularly inspiring for aspiring astronauts to note that 62 out of 272 NASA astronauts were once test pilots.
The school offers tons of topics and plenty of subdiscplines. One can learn about system dynamics, take part in 700 mph tower fly by tests, and even learn about test management. The school teaches pilots why planes react the way they do, and it teaches engineers the necessary sensors, management, and diagnostic skills needed to perform an effective test flight.
The best part about the school is that students get to fly all sorts of aircraft. Students will go from being introduced to an A-10 one week to firing its gattling guns the next. Students will also have opportunity to fly everything from Migs to water airplanes to C-130. This way, students can compare how certain airplanes meet certain specifications and why.
Ridley Mission Control Center
After lunch at NASA Dryden, we rode the bus to the Ridley Mission Control Center which serves as the command and control center for the air space above Edwards and the surrounding area, the largest restricted air space on the planet. This control center was responsible for helping to guide the shuttle Columbia when it landed for the first time in 1981 on Roger’s Dry Lake Bed! Today, the center serves as a data processing and transport center for the numerous test flights that are performed there and can help prove aircraft systems. One such test going on at Ridley is the ACTFAST simulation which is testing a way to let aircraft text information to air traffic control centers as a means of faster and more reliable communication. I find it ironic that texting while driving is illegal, but texting while flying is cutting edge technology!
Later, we went into the Air Traffic Control room and watched as people manned bays of computer screens which displayed the map of the air space as well as all the air traffic in the area. Each person was overseeing individual missions in real time on their own large dual monitors. One such mission involved a Global Hawk tracking a smaller fighter plane. On the screen as well were over 20 other unrelated aircraft that the person overseeing the mission had to be aware of! It was apparent from watching those screens just how many people had to come together to manage the airspace; The Navy, Air Force, and FAA all had planes flying in the area!
We entered the dedicated F -35 JSF Control Center and sat behind the 3 rows of screens look up at a wrap around array of displays on the front row. These displays show the ground tests, the weather in real time, the air traffic, and more. The back row is where the test conductors would sit, who are responsible for everyone in the room. All of the computers in the room are responsible for data collection. The JSF pushes more data than any other aircraft to date. This data is processed by the 50 workstations in the room. Slightly disappointed that we did not get to see the JSF take-off from the control room, we continued our tour.
Benefield Aneholic Facility
Our final stop was the Benefield Aneholic Faciliy where tests are done on antennae and different antenna patterns. The large room full of pyramidal shaped foam blocks, called RAM (radar absorbent material), and was also the setting for a scene in the movie Transformers II. In the center of the room is a large hydraulically-cooled 80-ft turntable that can hold over a million ponds. This turntable is computer controlled and has an accuracy of 0.25°. The room blocks out all outside radiation for the most pristine test possible with the permanent 18 inch RAM covering all walls and the ceiling of the facility. Even night vision goggles will not work when the lights in the facility are turned off because there is no incident light. The RAM that covers the floor can range from 12” to 72” and is stackable. The larger ram is used from lower frequencies, but does not work well below 500Hz. The room also has temperature and humidity control and all the air in the room is replaced in a matter of 45 minutes. This is a huge feat for the largest anechoic chamber in the world with dimensions of 250’ x 264’ x 70’. Standing in this epic facility where the F-15, F-22, and B-1 had been tested, seems to be the perfect conclusion to an informative and inspiring day at Edwards Air Force Base.