During the early 1940s, the base was chosen as the site to flight test the nation's first jet aircraft, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet. As the flight test program progressed, it became evident that the lakebed coupled with year around flying weather was an ideal place for all phases of aircraft testing and permanent facilities began emerging.
In 1949, what was then called Muroc Air Force Base was renamed Edwards AFB in honor of Capt. Glen Edwards, copilot on the YB-49 jetpowered flying wing which crashed near the base June 4, 1948.
The Air Force Flight Test Center was activated at Edwards in 1951, and with the increased number of flight test programs carried out at Edwards in recent years, the natural surfaces of Rogers and Rosamond dry lakebeds have taken on even greater roles as emergency landing sites and sites for test and research.
Edwards Air Force Base occupies territory once explored by Spanish colonists and settled by pioneer homesteaders. The military base began as a stark and remote bombing range in 1933 and went on to become a major bomber training base in World War II. The Air Force Flight Test Center originated during the darkest days of the war, and has since achieved more major milestones in flight than anywhere else in the world.
Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range, within the confines of present-day Edwards AFB, was first established by then-Lt. Col. H.H. "Hap" Arnold as a remote training site for his March Field squadrons in September of 1933. It continued to serve in that capacity until July 1942 when it was activated as a separate post and designated Muroc Army Air Base. Throughout the war years, the primary mission at Muroc was to provide final combat training for aircrews just prior to overseas deployment. In the spring of 1942, however, the immense volume of flight test already being conducted at Wright Field, in Ohio, was one of the factors driving a search for a new site where a "Top Secret" airplane could undergo tests. The highly classified nature of the aircraft compelled program officials to find an isolated site "away from prying eyes." The urgent need to complete the program without delay dictated a location with good, year-round flying weather. And the risks inherent in the radical new technology to be demonstrated on the aircraft dictated a spacious landing field. After examining a number of locations around the country, they selected a site along the north shore of the enormous, flat surface of Rogers Dry Lake about six miles away from the training base at Muroc. The aircraft was America's first jet, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet.
On October 2, 1942, Bell test pilot Bob Stanley lifted the wheels of the jet off the lake bed for the airplane's first "official flight" (it had actually lifted off for the first time on the previous day during high-speed taxi tests) and the turbojet revolution belatedly got underway in this country. Like all of the early turbojets, the Airacomet was woefully underpowered and it required extremely long takeoff rolls. This, plus the fact that the new turbojet engines had a nasty habit of flaming out, confirmed the wisdom of selecting the vast 44-square mile expanse of the lake bed to serve as a landing field. In years to come, it would become a welcome haven to countless pilots in distress.
The XP-59A introduced flight test to the Mojave...but the testing that took place at the small Materiel Division test site (now known as North Base) bore little resemblance to what has evolved since. There were no aircraft flying chase for the Airacomet's first flights, for example. There was no telemetry or mission control center, just a portable two-way radio and a voice recorder which were set up on the ramp outside the hangar. The most important sources of data during those first few flights were the pilot's kneepad notes and perhaps the most critical instrumentation was still the seat of his pants; not too scientific but, by latter-day standards, relatively inexpensive and affording a means of real-time data acquisition which was certain to yield immediate analyses of any problems. Ultimately, an instrumentation panel, filmed by a camera activated by the pilot, was installed and the aircraft was instrumented to collect data on about 20 different parameters. Much of the instrumentation, however, remained primitive, to say the least. Control stick forces, for example, were measured with a modified fish scale. It was an age when old-fashioned common sense and improvisation still ruled supreme...and slide-rule data reduction and analysis took days of painstaking manual effort.
As with virtually all of the test programs conducted during the war years, most of the actual flight test work on the P-59 was conducted by the contractor. Although Army Air Forces (AAF) pilots flew the aircraft from time to time, and flight test engineers from Wright Field reviewed the data, the formal preliminary military test and evaluation program did not commence until the Fall of 1943, a year after the first flight. Designed to validate the contractor's reports, this preliminary evaluation consisted of a very limited number of flights and was essentially completed within a month. Formal operational suitability and accelerated service tests did not get underway until 1944, well after the AAF had decided that the airplane would not be suitable for combat operations and would, instead, be relegated to a training role.
The P-59s were tested at Muroc from October 1942 through February 1944 without a single accident and, though the aircraft did not prove to be combat worthy, the successful conduct of its test program, combined with the success of the Lockheed XP-80 program which followed it in early 1944, sealed the future destiny of the remote high desert installation. Muroc would thenceforth become synonymous with the cutting edge of the turbojet revolution in America.
All of America's early jets--both Air Force and Navy--underwent testing at Muroc and the successful conduct of these programs attracted a new type of research activity to the base in late 1946. The rocket-powered Bell X-1 was the first in a long series of experimental airplanes that were designed to prove or disprove aeronautical concepts--to probe the most challenging unknowns of flight and solve their mysteries. On October 14, 1947, Capt. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager became the first man to exceed the speed of sound in this small bullet-shaped airplane. By latter-day standards, the X-1 flight test team that accomplished this feat was extraordinarily small, never numbering more than about 15-20 Air Force, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later NASA), and contractor personnel. The seat of the pilot's pants remained important but onboard instrumentation now covered about 30 different parameters, the use of radar for tracking was first introduced and there was even some very preliminary, experimental use of telemetry. There was no formal safety review process as we know it today, however; not even for the most hazardous programs such as the X-1's envelope expansion tests. Beyond the simple maxim, "don't go too far, too fast," Captain Yeager and project engineer Capt. Jack Ridley were on their own. They sat down just prior to a mission and decided "how far and how fast" and then Yeager went up and flew the mission. With the X-1, flight testing at Muroc began to assume two distinct identities: highly experimental research programs--such as with the X-3 X-4, X-5 and the XF-92A--were typically flown in conjunction with NACA and conducted in a very methodical fashion to answer largely theoretical questions; the bulk of the testing, then as now, however, focused on highly accelerated Air Force and contractor evaluations of the capabilities of new prototype aircraft and systems proposed for the operational inventory.
Not surprisingly, the rather informal approach to safety that prevailed during the late 40s--and even into the 1950s--was one of the factors contributing to a horrendous accident rate. There were, of course, a number of other circumstances: the corps of test pilots at Muroc remained very small and thus they commonly averaged a hundred or more flying hours per month, year after year. And they flew an enormous number of different types and models of aircraft, each with its own cockpit and instrument panel configuration. Chuck Yeager, for example, once flew 27 different types of airplanes within a single one-month period. The year 1948 was particularly tragic, as at least 13 fatalities were recorded (surviving records are very incomplete). One of them was a young captain, Glen W. Edwards, who was lost in the crash of a YB-49 flying wing. In December of 1949, the base was renamed in his honor. By that time it had already long since become the de facto center of American flight research and, on June 25, 1951, this fact was finally given official recognition when it was designated as the U. S. Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC).
That same year, the USAF Test Pilot School moved to Edwards from Wright Field. The curriculum focused on the traditional field of performance testing and the relatively new field of stability and control which had suddenly assumed critical importance with the dramatic increases in speed offered by the new turbojets. Increasingly, as the aircraft and their onboard systems became evermore complex throughout the 50s, those selected for admission to the school would have to be far more than just outstanding pilots; they would also have to have the type of formal technical backgrounds which would enable them to thoroughly understand all of the systems they would be evaluating and permit them to translate their experiences into the very precise jargon of the engineer.
By any standard, the 1950s was a remarkable period in the history of aviation and there was no better evidence of this than what transpired at Edwards where, if a concept seemed feasible--or even just desirable--it was evaluated in the skies above the sprawling 300,000-acre base. When NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield first arrived on base in 1950, he found it "hard to believe that this primeval environment was the center of aviation's most advanced flying." He likened it to an "Indianapolis of the air." "But it was more than that," he concluded: It was "an Indianapolis without rules" because the test pilots at Edwards "lived with the feeling that everything we were doing was something that probably had never been attempted or even thought of before." Crossfield would become most closely identified with the series of experimental aircraft that had been launched with the X-1 and certainly the most publicized activity at Edwards throughout the 50s continued to be in the realm of flight research where the limits of time, space, and the imagination were dramatically expanded. The experimental rocket planes, for example, continued to expand the boundaries of the high-speed and stratospheric frontiers. As the decade opened, the first-generation X-1's Mach 1.45 (957 mph) and 71,902 feet represented the edge of the envelope. These marks were soon surpassed by the D-558-II Douglas Skyrocket. In 1951, Douglas test pilot Bill Bridgeman flew it to a top speed of Mach 1.88 (1,180 mph) and a peak altitude of 74,494 feet. Then, in 1953, Marine test pilot Lt. Col. Marion Carl flew it to an altitude of 83,235 feet and, on November 20 of that year, the NACA's Scott Crossfield became the first man to reach Mach 2, as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of Mach 2.005 (1,291 mph). Less than a month later, Maj. Chuck Yeager obliterated this record as he piloted the second-generation Bell X-1A to a top speed of Mach 2.44 (1,650 mph) and, just nine months later, Maj. Arthur "Kit" Murray flew the same airplane to a new altitude record of 90,440 feet. These records stood for less than three years as, in September 1956, Capt. Iven Kincheloe became the first man to soar above 100,000 feet, as he piloted the Bell X-2 to a then-remarkable altitude of 126,200 feet. Flying the same airplane, just weeks later, on September 27, Capt. Mel Apt became the first man to exceed Mach 3, as he accelerated to a speed of Mach 3.2 (2,094 mph). His moment of glory was tragically brief, however. Just seconds after attaining top speed, the X-2 tumbled violently out of control and Apt was never able to recover it. With the loss of the X-2, the search for many of the answers to the riddles of high-Mach flight had to be postponed until the arrival of the most ambitious of all the rocket planes--the truly awesome North American X-15.
Meanwhile, the turbojet revolution reached a truly high plateau at Edwards during the 50s, as aircraft such as the famed "Century Series" of fighters--the F-100 Super Sabre , F-102 Delta Dagger, and the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief and F-106 Delta Dart--made supersonic flight almost commonplace. Incorporating many advances made possible by the experimental research programs, each of these aircraft were dazzling technological achievements and, indeed, as a group, they defined the basic speed and altitude envelopes for fighters which are still in effect to this day. Because they represented a virtual quantum increase in performance and capabilities, the job of testing them was correspondingly far more difficult than anything ever before encountered. It is a truism that, throughout the history of flight test, the performance and complexity of the aircraft have driven the technologies required to evaluate them. Thus, during the 50s, oscillographs and strip charts began to replace barographs and photo panels, as the number of parameters examined edged upward toward a hundred. We also began to see the first appearance of precision optical trackers for time-space-position information (TSPI) and, by the late 50s, more extensive use of primitive telemetry systems, the limited use of magnetic tape to record data and early generation mainframe computers to process it. Flight testing also began to require greater numbers of people and to consume much more time, as well. The P-80 had entered operational service by March of 1945, just 14 months after the first flight of the prototype aircraft. Most of the Century Series fighters underwent flight testing for at least four years before they even began to enter the operational inventory...and, in reality, each of them still required several more years of testing before all of their deficiencies were corrected. This meant that the operational users were not receiving fully developed airplanes and the result of this circumstance was extremely drawn-out and costly retrofits.
A major part of the problem stemmed from the organization of flight test. By the 1950s, the test process had evolved into no less than eight distinct phases, each performed by different organizations and frequently at different locations (Fig. 1). Significant Air Force involvement did not commence until Phase IV and operational testing by the Air Proving Ground Command did not get underway until Phase VII, long after large quantities of production aircraft had already left the assembly line. This resulted in frequent and costly duplication of test efforts, expensive retrofits, and extremely late deliveries into the useful Air Force inventory. As a result of these problems, flight testing was finally consolidated into a three-category structure in 1958 (Fig. 2). Under this structure, Air Force participation spanned all three categories, its management control commenced much earlier and, increasingly, virtually all developmental testing was concentrated at Edwards. Nevertheless, operational testing still came very late in the process--in fact, frequently after the acquisition process was all but complete--and thus much of the problem remained.
The 1960s were ushered in with a new emphasis on space flight. The Test Pilot School, for example, was redesignated the Aerospace Research Pilot School as it got into the business of training future astronauts. Down the flight line, the X-15 was beginning to explore hypersonic and exoatmospheric flight. Indeed, within an eight-month span in 1961, it became the first aircraft to exceed Mach 4, -5, and -6, and it later went on to become the first--and, so far, only--airplane to fly in near space as it soared to a peak altitude of more than 67 miles (354,200 feet). With Maj. William J. "Pete" Knight at the controls on October 3, 1967, the highly modified X-15A-2 ultimately reached a top speed of Mach 6.72 (4,520 mph) which remains, to this day, the highest speed ever attained in an airplane. As always, the extraordinary capabilities of this vehicle drove the technologies required to test it. The X-15 covered a lot of space in a short time and thus NASA and the Air Force developed the "High-Range," a 400-mile chain of radar and data acquisition sites. Equipped with radio and telemetry systems capable of relaying continuous voice communications and up to 600,000 data bits per minute (or 1250 bytes/second) back to Edwards, this range network permitted flight controllers and test engineers, for the first time, to monitor each mission in real time by following raw data trends on strip charts.
While space-related activities captured the public's imagination, test pilots at Edwards were also continuing to expand the frontiers of atmospheric flight in air-breathing jet-powered aircraft such as the XB-70 Valkyrie and the YF-12 and SR-71 Blackbirds. The mammoth, 500,000-pound Valkyrie proved itself capable of sustained triple-sonic flight operations at altitudes above 70,000 feet while, in addition to being what has been described as first-generation "stealth aircraft," the mysterious Blackbirds provided even more dazzling performance, as they cruised at speeds in excess of Mach 3 and at altitudes well above 80,000 feet.
The 60s also witnessed the arrival of total package procurement (concurrent development, testing and production), the Vietnam conflict and a new generation of increasingly complex aircraft destined for the operational inventory. One of them was the trouble-plagued F-111. By far the most sophisticated design of its time, the F-111 pushed the state of the art and, in doing so, it opened up a Pandora's box of surprises. For example, integrating all of those new little black boxes, in a "fly-fix-fly" fashion, proved to be an extremely laborious and, more important, time-consuming process. And this was only one of many problems encountered in the program. First flown in 1964, the F-111A's initial operational testing finally came during its much-publicized Combat Lancer deployment to Thailand in 1968, an episode which demonstrated, tragically, that the aircraft was far from combat ready. Indeed, it was still undergoing Category I tests in 1972 and Cat II tests in 1973. Category III testing was ultimately skipped, altogether. In short, a minimally satisfactory "product" was seven years late in getting to its customer.
Based on this experience, in 1972, the Air Force again restructured testing into a two-part process by simply splitting it into development test and evaluation and initial operational test and evaluation and then combining the two so that meaningful operational test and evaluation could be completed at Edwards prior to any production decisions (Fig. 3). The vehicle for accomplishing this was--and has since remained--the combined test force (Fig. 4). The advantages offered by this approach have been substantial, permitting each organization to define requirements and report independently while taking advantage of common-use facilities, joint-use aircraft, combined maintenance and aircrews, combined missions, and common data bases.
With the decline of the military manned space mission in the early 70s, the Aerospace Research Pilot School was once again redesignated the USAF Test Pilot School and the change was more than symbolic. Based on a survey of graduates still active in the flight test business, the school completely revamped its curriculum to reflect major changes which had recently taken place. Experiences with aircraft such as the F-111 had demonstrated that the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated onboard avionics, sensor, and fire control systems would be a constant and that the supervision of test programs would increasingly require strong management skills. Thus the school replaced the space-oriented phase of its curriculum with a whole new battery of courses which focused on systems test and test management.
The aircraft that arrived in the 1970s--the F-15, with its advanced engine and fire-control system; the B-1, with its multitude of highly sophisticated offensive and defensive systems; and the F-16, with its "fly-by-wire" flight control system--more than bore out the prophecy concerning the ever-increasing importance of systems testing and integration. Needless to say, the complexity of these aircraft and their systems forced yet another revolution in the Flight Test Center's data acquisition and processing capabilities. The F-15 and F-16, for example, were each originally instrumented for about 300 different parameters and onboard telemetry systems were capable of transmitting data to ground stations at a rate of about 160,000 bytes per second. Moreover, a major new element of complexity was introduced into the flight test process in the late 70s. At a remote location, in 1978-79, the AFFTC's Lt. Col. N.K. "Ken" Dyson and a pair of flight test engineers from the Center were engaged in proof-of-concept testing with the Lockheed Have Blue low-observables technology demonstrator. The successful conduct of these tests led immediately to the development of a new subsonic attack aircraft which was designated the F-117A and a new revolution--the stealth revolution--was underway.
The eighties opened with one of the major episodes in all of Edwards history as, at 10:20:57 (Pacific Time) on April 14, 1981, the base was once again the scene of high drama, as the Space Shuttle Columbia's wheels touched down on historic Rogers Dry Lake. Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen had just successfully landed the first orbiting space vehicle ever to leave the earth under rocket power and return on the wings of an aircraft; and a new era--the era of reusable space vehicles--had dawned. It seemed only fitting that Columbia should make its first landings at Edwards where so many major milestones in flight had been accomplished and where so many of the shuttle's antecedents had proven the concepts which had made it possible. It had only been a little over 30 years since Chuck Yeager had first penetrated the sonic "wall." Within two years, pilot-astronauts were almost routinely flying an operational space vehicle at speeds in excess of Mach 24. In that relatively short interval between the X-1 and the shuttle, the mysteries of hypersonic flight, lifting reentry, and aerothermodynamics had all been fathomed and mastered by flight researchers at Edwards.
Spectacular events have become almost commonplace at Edwards over the years but, once again, they have always represented only a small part of the AFFTC's workload. The primary job has always been to assure that, if and when the need arises, American aircrews will go into combat with the most effective and reliable operational aircraft in the world...and it has continued to meet this challenge since the early 80s as the capabilities of existing aircraft--such as the F-15 and F-16--have been continuously refined and expanded and as totally new aircraft and systems--incorporating radical new technologies--were developed for future operational use. The 80s, for example, witnessed the development of the new F-15E dual-role fighter--which went on to demonstrate truly remarkable combat effectiveness in the Persian Gulf conflict of the early 90s--and the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (or LANTIRN) system--which, in that same conflict, helped revolutionize air-to-ground combat operations by denying our adversary the once comforting sanctuary of night.
The late 80s witnessed the arrival of the first giant flying wing to soar over the base in nearly 40 years. The thin silhouette, compound curves and other low-observable characteristics of the B-2 bomber represented third-generation stealth technology (following the SR-71 and Have Blue/F-117) and it was, by far, the most sophisticated and complex airplane ever built.
The early 90s saw the arrival of a pair of prototypes which offered a glimpse of the future--a future which would give a new definition to the term "air superiority"--as the YF-22A and the YF-23A squared off in a brief demonstration and validation (DEM/VAL) risk-reduction flight test program. In contrast to the F-117A and the B-2, both of which had been point designed for stealth, these two prototypes were the first airplanes ever to blend stealth with agility and high-speed, supersonic cruise capability. As this is being written, the AFFTC was making preparations for engineering and management development (EMD) testing of the F-22A which was selected to become the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter. The EMD program will pose perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by the AFFTC because, in addition to all of the advanced features of the original prototypes, the EMD airplanes will incorporate a state-of-the-art, fully integrated avionics and sensor suite which will employ a family of common hardware and software modules linked to a single computer capable of up to 10 billion signal processing operations per second. The time-sharing capability of this system will enable it to fuse and analyze diverse streams of data from each of the fighter's highly advanced sensor systems into a synthesized and highly readable "glass cockpit" display. The successful integration of this system, alone, will be a daunting challenge, indeed.
In an age of spiraling technology, flight testing has become a remarkably complex process and this has forced an ongoing revolution in the Flight Test Center's data acquisition and processing capabilities. Today, systems-intensive fighters are instrumented for up to 6,000 different parameters--and the number increases to 9,000 for the B-2--and millions of bytes of data per second can be telemetered to the ground for near-real-time reduction and analysis before the aircraft touches down. In fact, the heavy load of data and the extraordinary number of costly flying hours required to test and integrate all of these new systems under the old "fly-fix-fly" method forced the AFFTC to rethink its whole approach to the business of testing. As a result, in the 1980s, the development of facilities such as the Integration Facility for Avionic Systems Test, the Benefield Anechoic Facility, and the Test and Evaluation Mission Simulator (which now comprise the Avionics Test and Integration Complex) permitted the testing of these software-intensive systems--and even their integration--on the ground before they were taken up and put through the time-consuming and resource-intensive ordeal of flight test.
Flight testing at Edwards AFB has come a long way since the XP-59A first lifted off from the lake bed more than five decades ago. Over the years since, the U.S. Air Force and, indeed, the world of aerospace, in general, have continued to meet their future in the clear blue skies above the base's sprawling expanse. Every aircraft to enter the U.S. Air Force's inventory (and a great many that failed to do so) has first been put through its paces at Edwards and, arguably, more major milestones in flight have occurred at the base than anywhere else in the world. During the past half-century, the ever-accelerating pace of technological change has been daunting, to say the least, but the Edwards flight test community has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to adapt to such change and to master the many challenges it inevitably imposes. The turbojet revolution, the supersonic and hypersonic revolutions, the space revolution, the systems revolution and, now, the stealth revolution, each has imposed seemingly insurmountable obstacles--obstacles that have been overcome through a combination of technical skill, daring, ingenuity, and skillful management. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center's unique blend of natural, technical and human resources have transformed it into something much more than just an Air Force asset; it is, indeed, an irreplaceable national asset.
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Extract, War Department Inventory of Owned, Sponsored and Leased Facilities, December 1945
Muroc Army Air Field
Muroc Flight Test Base