USAF at 75, and also the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the sound barrier and, last but not least, an almost exclusive guarantee of sunshine and bright blue skies in the middle of the Mojave Desert promised a spectacular air show at Edwards Air Force Base. Over the week-end of 14th-16th October 2022, more than 100.000 visitors used the rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at Edwards.
Celebrating with Sonic Booms
The Friday of the event exactly coincided to the day of Chuck Yeager’s historic flight in the Bell X-1 75 years ago on October 14, 1947. To commemorate this event, a formation of F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet and F-22 Raptor opened the show with three sonic booms. And even more booms should follow over the weekend. Titled “Breaking tomorrow’s barriers today,” and as such with a clear reference to breaking the sound barrier, this show was the first event of its kind on the historic grounds of Edwards AFB in 13 years.
Upon arrival, Edwards AFB presents himself as spacious and impresses with his size. Even without a traffic jam, it takes around 20 minutes from the airbase entrance gate to the air show ground. The huge area of Edwards covers 1200 square kilometers and therefore offers ideal conditions for any kind of flight test activities. Almost 9km of asphalt runways and around 100km of runways on the dry lake bed, impressively illustrate the sheer size of the area.
Setting your foot on Rogers Dry Lake
During the airshow, the visitors had to park on famous ground, the lakebed of Rogers Dry Lake. This natural, rock-hard and flat surface was used for the X-1 landings over 70 years ago, and also the Space Shuttle regularly landed there. Shuttle busses then quickly took the visitors to the actual exhibition area on the impressive apron at Edwards Air Force Base. Not only was a large STEM exhibition set up in a hangar to get young people interested in aviation, but on the apron you could get up close and personal with the USAF’s most modern and historic aircraft sitting next to each other.
The three different versions of the F-35 Lightning, the first prototype of the F-35A, a test aircraft of the F-35C carrier variant and, last but not least, the British Royal Air Force’s vertical take-off aircraft F-35B were standing side-by-side. All three of the USAF’s large tankers, the KC-10, KC-135 and the most recent KC-46, were also represented in the static display. They were supplemented by an Airbus A330 MRTT of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). This aircraft was apparently on site for tests with the F-35. Also flying in from nearby Mojave was the world’s last flying Lockheed L-1011 TriStar “Stargazer”, which has been converted into a satellite launch platform.
The NASA Show of Force – and B747SP SOFIA for her first and final time
Another unique aircraft is SOFIA, the Flying Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It is a modified Boeing 747SP, and the world’s only remaining flying ‚shortened‘ Jumbo Jet. After the end of her official research missions on September 29th 2022, she was also on site in Edwards for a final public farewell. Despite a rather short flight demonstration, NASA’s and DLR’s Jumbo Jet was certainly the star of the flight program. The flybys, one of them with the hatch open and a clear view of the 17-ton infrared telescope, having an impressive diameter of 2.70 m, were the first, and last, airshow appearance for SOFIA. And they were also one of her last flights after this project was discontinued.
Along with the US Air Force, NASA was one of the major participants in the event and, in addition to SOFIA, was represented with many other aircraft. The Armstrong Flight Research Center, located in the Northern part of Edwards AFB, presented many of its test aircraft in the ground exhibition and was also responsible for the sonic booms that made this show so unique. At an altitude of about 12km, a NASA F-15D Eagle and F/A-18D Hornet accelerated above Mach 1, demonstrating the sonic boom to spectators on the ground. The Hornet performed a special diving maneuver to noticeably reduce the level of the noise. These tests and studies are performed for the upcoming X-59 QueSST (Quiet SuperSonic Technology), which received special mention during this demonstration. It is the latest American “X-Plane” and underlines the current importance of supersonic research at NASA. It was scheduled to have its first flight at the end of 2022 and will be used for research to reduce sonic booms from 2024 onwards. In the long term, this might enable civil supersonic flight even over inhabited areas.
Luckily NASA at Edwards strongly supported this event at Edwards for the 75th anniversary of the USAF, as the flying display would otherwise have been very limited.
Edwards AirPower Demo – F-16, F-22 & F-35 turning and burning
Edward’s “home team“, a fine collection of current USAF Flight Test aircraft was presented as an airpower demo. Along with lots of pyrotechnics, the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, the B-1B Lancer, C-17A Globemaster II and the KC-46 Pegasus were in the air and circling the spectators. Still on Saturday the venerable KC-135 had to replace the KC-46A due to technical issues…
Additionally to the military fast fast, a few civil acts (T-33 Acemaker, and jet-powered gliders and biplanes…), but considering the amount of military aircraft they were just a nice addition to the overall program, and (luckily) did not take too much time from the overall schedule. The demonstrations finally concluded in the afternoon with the USAF Thunderbirds.
Even if the flight program could not offer the number of participants from previous events, the visit to Edwards was once again worth the trip for those interested in aviation. The unbroken interest was not only shown by the seemingly endless queues of cars heading towards Rogers Dry Lake this weekend, but also visitors from all corners of the world took the opportunity for a visit to these holy grounds. All despite the fact that flying displays are backlit throughout the whole day, heat haze prevails, and flying displays were very, very far away.
And also looking at the sheer size of the area and the available space however I still did not understood why all departures and landings used the far runway instead of the one being closer to the public. These difficult photographic conditions did not come by surprise, but they still had a bad aftertaste, as all of the aircraft also taxied directly from the apron onto the runway without using the taxiway directly in front of the spectators. It seemed that despite having an Open House, the Test Wings were shy showing off their aircraft to the public, which was in my opinion a real shame, for aircrews and enthusiasts alike.
Edwards Open House and plans for an annual Aerospace Valley Airshow
Hopefully it won’t be another 13 years before Edwards opens its doors again. However, the organizers didn’t want to make any precise statements during the show. Plans for an annual “Aerospace Valley” air show, held alternately at Edwards and nearby Lancaster, were announced beforehand, but no more news emerged about it during the show. It was even rumoured that the flight tests of the Northrop B-21 “Raider,” which are scheduled to begin this winter (edit: originally posted in 2022, this has shifted to 2024), could make Edwards inaccessible to the general public again for the next few years. Therefore, it was good to grasp the chance to visit Edwards AFB, an opportunity that seems to happen only about once every decade.
Edwards AFB Flight Test Museum and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center gateguards
Further to the show the possibility to be at Edwards was also a great opportunity to have a look at the local Flight Test Museum. It is still located about halfway between the West Gate entrance and the the main facilities, but about to move outside of the Western Gate close to the current „Century Circle“ exhibition. This move will offer a larger exhibition space, further visitors will not need to request on-site access to go and see many of the very interesting exhibits, including unique aircraft such as the YF-22, the prototype of the F-22 Raptor.
Additionally to that, when leaving Edwards AFB to the North I took the chance to go and see the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center gateguards. The impressive collections includes the HL-10 lifting body, the Northrop X-29, F-8 Crusader testbeds for fly-by-wire and the heavily-modified version for the supercritical wing, F-104 Starfighters, the F-15B ACTIVE testbed and even an SR-71 Blackbird.
Finally and last but not least, NASA’s famous B-52B „Balls 8“ Mothership Launch Aircraft, was ticked off the list at the Northern Gate. See further down this page for that particular photo gallery.