Tag Archives: Lockheed SR-71

Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AF Base

During the recent honeymoon trip to the USA, Luca and I managed to visit 5 aerospace museums, 3 airplane assembly lines, 2 US air force bases and 1 space observatory… be sure some of the coming posts will be related to that side of the trip.

Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AF Base

Since we were going to visit California and we would be around the desert of Mojave I thought that we could make a detour to visit Edwards Air Force Base, where the Flight Test Center of the USAF is located.

The Flight Test Center has got a museum which is open to the public, for which identification is needed and no carry on items able to take pictures of videos are permitted. The museum is free and opens 5 days a week. On top of that there is a monthly guided visit of the air base, flight line included. This tour is offered only once a month and you have to subscribe with some time in advance.

Several dozens of aircraft have first flown at Edwards and that, together with Rogers dry lake is what makes the place so special.

First Flights Wall at Edwards AFB (public domain image).

Some very famous flights at Edwards: the Bell XS-1 which first reached the speed of sound with “Chuck” Yeager at the controls, the test campaigns of the YC-130 (Hercules), C-17 Globemaster III (and the prototype YC-15 from which it got many features), testing of the Space Shuttle, testing of today’s state of the art fighters F-22 and F-35… take a look at the wall to get an idea.

Rogers Dry Lake is by itself a national historic landmark. The lake formed thousands of years ago, and today it’s mostly dry along the year and the strength of the ground permits it to have several unpaved very long runways in its lakebed. The longest one being over 12 kilometers long. It also has the world’s greatest compass rose marked into the lake to help flight test pilots guide themselves. It was there, in the lake, where the now retired Space Shuttle would land in its return from space.

Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards (public domain image).

The exhibit at the museum displays a replica of the XS-1, the first 2 F-22 prototypes, an exhibit about the formation of the lake, the history of the base, some remarkable test pilots, etc. The outdoors display has as a highlight a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (a classic in US aviation museums).

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird at Edwards (public domain image).

The area of the base is of 1,200 km2 (this is about 1/7th of the region of Madrid). The visit to it, museum included, lasts about 3 hours. There are veterans offering explanations at the museum and at one restoration hangar within the base. Our guided tour was led by a young aerial photographer, Jet Set  (what a name! :-)), who made if very enjoyable.

Along the flight line of the base, for the pleasure of European-based spotters (who don’t have the chance to see them often), were some test F-35s, F-22s, C-17s, Global Hawks, F-16s, etc. Apart from some aircraft flying around. I, however, missed seeing the B-2 that was somewhere “hidden” in the base (next time!).

Edwards AF Base entrance.

Edwards AF Base entrance.

Rosamond Dry Lake (a lake close to Rogers Dry Lake).

Rosamond Dry Lake (a lake close to Rogers Dry Lake).

YC-15

YC-15.

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Iowa Aviation Museum

“What made you come here?”

“We saw a sign at the interstate and decided to come.”

“Great, it’s nice to see that advertisement works”…

This was our first exchange with the clerk at the Iowa Aviation Museum. We had just bought our tickets for 7$ and registered our names in a pristine visitors’ list. I guess we were the first visitors of that day, probably of the week, conceivably of the month, who knows if even in the year.

Luca and I were in our way from Des Moines to Omaha. I thought it would take 4 hours but soon discovered that we would arrive much earlier than we wanted. Having already passed the exit for the John Wayne birth place, when I saw the sign for the “Iowa State Aviation Museum” I didn’t think it twice. I turned the wheel and took the exit.

We had to drive another 10 miles on a more than boring road and then 2 more miles to reach the museum at the aerodrome or the Greenfield Municipal airport.

The museum had some unique pieces from the early days of aviation (e.g. the 1st airplane ever to carry the name “Piper”, the J-2… a one derived from it was the plane I flew in Poland). Nevertheless I wanted to commend the museum for 3 other things:

  • Diffusion of passion for aviation: I find it admirable that in such remote places, they do gather some resources, collect some assets and put up a museum for the delight of fans, to spread the passion for aviation and seed the souls of future engineers.
  • Scheme of contributors to the museum: to finance that museum they have in place a scheme in which both companies and individuals contribute to its sustaining. In exchange they get public recognition in the form of a golden plaque at the Hall of Fame of the museum.
  • Hall of Fame: I also admire the tribute paid to pioneers from the region and people who played a key role in aviation in the form of that Hall of Fame.

In that Hall of Fame you learn that an Iowan volunteer became the youngest aviator in US Army Aviation Section in WWI (Clifton P. Oleson); another Iowan built the 1st multi-passenger seaplane, the 1st twin-engine bomber, designed the 1st honeycomb structural supports and was the founder one of the companies behind today’s Lockheed Martin (Glenn L. Martin); another Iowan, this time a woman nurse, unsuccessfully sought a pilot position at Boeing Air Transport, but influenced the president with her idea of placing nurses on-board airplanes to make passengers feel more comfortable with flying (Ellen Church became the first stewardess in history); and another 2 Iowans were the chief engineer and the first pilot to fly the famous Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (William J. Fox & Louis W. Schalk).

In the hall you also find out that an Iowan lost the first ever race between a car and an airplane (Carl S. Bates) and that a cloth sewn by the wife of a first cousin of the Wright Brothers is worthy enough to make it to the Hall of Fame (especially if that cousin happens to be the great, great, great-grandfather of a fellow from Greenfield…).

Barnstorming is a term I learnt at the museum (well, you go to museums to learn, don’t you?) that refers to the entertainment that first aviators provided in different villages in the 1920s, where they would fly as in a circus to show the airplanes to villagers, perform some stunts and get some cash by carrying affluent citizens in short demonstration flights. This, also contributed to spread the passion for flight.

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PD: I join the legion of admirers of Luca for standing these #avgeek visits not only stoically but even enthusiastically.

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National Air & Space Museum at Dulles

Let me quote from the Wikipedia:

“The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” from a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), who never visited the new nation. In Smithson’s will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men”.

“The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, and many of its buildings are historical and architectural landmarks.”

During our last trip to USA, Luca and I visited both locations of the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian institution. I had already been at the one in the Mall and I already talked about it briefly in a previous post. I wanted to write about the museum at Dulles, close to DC international airport.

That museum is named after Steven F. Udvar Hazy, who is the CEO of Air Lease Corp, an airplanes leasing company. Previously he was chairman and CEO of ILFC, another leasing company, together with GECAS, one of the 2 biggest. The guy is a living legend or commercial markets: when he blessed or criticizes an aircraft it is seriously noticed by the manufacturers. He donated 65M$ to the Smithsonian to set up this museum and that’s why it carries his name. Thanks Steve! What a museum! The NASM is awesome!

The museum has dozens if not over a hundred of airplanes, satellites, rockets, helicopters, etc., in display, all tagged with small explanation of the aircraft.

On our visit we joined a free guided tour, another fabulous feature of the museum. Our guide was Bill Laux, a veteran pilot from the Navy. He was originally from Omaha where we would be going in a couple of days while he would be heading also in a couple of days to Belgium… crossing roads.

We stayed with Bill for about 2 hours, following one explanation after the other, one curiosity here, another detail there, etc. I remember visiting Ellis Island in NYC 2 years ago with a ranger who also filled the tour with stories. This is something I really like: instead of paying for a quick tour or audio-guide, they make use of the willingness of these volunteers to pass on their knowledge.

I have to admit that the session was for core aviation geeks, and I want to commend Luca for standing it. At the beginning we were a group of 10-12 people, wives and children included. The guide asked: “Who has got an aerospace background?” 4 or so of us raised hands… after 30 minutes of tour only Luca and those with aviation background continued with the tour (no sight of wives and children). After 1 hour 30 minutes, only Luca and me. After 2 hours the guide went “well, we’ve seen pretty much everything” :-). Thanks Bill!

I scanned one of the sides of the map of the museum to post it here. The map covers the Boeing hangar, but bear in mind that there is another hangar missing (James S McDonnell, which hosts a Space Shuttle), an IMAX cinema, the restoration hangar and the control tower.

I wanted to post it here so you can get a grasp of what we’re talking about. Airplanes packed side by side, one of top of the other… and not any airplane, some are unique pieces. Let me just comment on a few of them (of which below you can find the pictures):

  • The Space shuttle Enterprise: which never went to outer space as it was used only for training purposes, to let astronauts command the powerless flight after re-entry. Believe it or not, it was going to be named “Constitution”, trekkies had not stepped in.
  • A Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird: the reconnaissance aircraft which set the record as fastest aircraft back in 1976.
  • The Boeing 367-80 “Dash-80”, which as I already mentioned in a previous post, was the prototype Boeing built to test and market a new configuration for commercial jet aircraft, a configuration which all commercial aircraft have followed more or less ever since.
  • A Concorde.
  • The infamous B-29 Enola Gay.
  • The Langley Aerodrome A: a model that Samuel Pierpont Langley (a manned flight pioneer and secretary of the Smithsonian institution at the time) used to try to set the first heavier-than-air flight… he didn’t, as the model crashed in the Potomac river.
  • A Junkers 52 built by the Spanish CASA.
  • A Boeing 307 Stratoliner: the first pressurized commercial aircraft.

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I would only give one point of improvement for the museum: now you cannot get into the aircraft except for simulators, if they would just change that policy it would be just perfect (in the Mall you can actually enter in some models, e.g. Spacelab).

I forgot to mention some extras: the museum is free (free as in zero dollars), it has a transport leaving every hour to and from Dulles airport which costs just 50 cents, has lockers for big luggage free of charge, has a nice souvenir shop with plenty of aviation books and even a McDonald’s to recover some strength at half way of the visit…

In future posts I will comment some of the details of some aircraft… give credit to Bill, our guide.

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