Edwards Air Force Base (Muroc)
Edwards Air Force Base (Muroc)
Painting Date30th of November -0001
A water stop on the Santa Fe Railroad since 1882, the site was largely unsettled until the early 20th century. In 1910, Ralph, Clifford and Effie Corum built a homestead on the edge of Rogers Lake. The Corums proved instrumental in attracting other settlers and building infrastructure in the area, and when a post office was commissioned for the area, they named it Muroc, a reversal of the Corum name, because there was already a town named Coram.
Conscious that March Field was located in an area of increasing growth in Riverside County, and with the need for bombing and gunnery ranges for his units, base and 1st Wingcommander Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold began the process of acquiring land next to Muroc Dry Lake for a new bombing range away from populated areas in August 1932; the last tract was not acquired until 1939. The facility established to support the range, initially called “Mohave Field” for the nearby community of Mohave, was Muroc Field.In October 1935, five men under a Sergeant Folgleman were sent to the area from March Field. They pitched tents and then put out circular bombing targets in the desert. For the next two years aircraft shuttled back and forth between Muroc Dry Lake and March Field for Crew Bombing Practice.
At this time, another colorful character in Edwards’ history, Pancho Barnes, built her renowned Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch that would be the scene of many parties and celebrations to come. The dry lake was a hive of hot rodding, with racing on the playa. The runway on which the Space Shuttle landed follows the route that hosted racing in the 1930s.
The first major aerial activity occurred at Muroc in 1937 when the entire Army Air Corps participated in a large-scale maneuver. From then on, the bombing range grew in size.When Arnold became Chief of the Air Corps in 1938, the service was given a renewed focus on research and development. Muroc Field drew attention, because the nearby dry lake was so flat (Arnold described it as “level as a billiard table”) that it could serve as a giant runway, ideal for flight testing. Over US$120 million was spent to develop the base in the 1940s and expand it to 301,000 acres (470 sq mi; 1,220 km2). The base’s main 15,000-foot (4,600 m) runway was completed in a single pour of concrete.
World War II
On the afternoon of the Attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941), the 41st Bombardment Group and the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron moved to Muroc from Davis-Monthan Army Airfield, Arizona with a collection of B-18 Bolos, an A-29 Hudson and B-25 Mitchells. Then on Christmas Eve, the 30th Bombardment Group and the 2d Reconnaissance Squadron also arrived from New Orleans Army Airbase, Louisiana for crew training. Designation of the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range, Muroc Lake, California, as a separate post (Exempted Status) took place on 23 July 1942. The name of the facility at the time was “Army Air Base, Muroc Lake”.
In July 1942, Muroc Army Airfield became a separate airfield from March Field and was placed under the jurisdiction of Fourth Air Force. Throughout the war years, the primary mission at Muroc was to provide final combat training for bomber and fighter aircrews just prior to overseas deployment. Known sub-bases and auxiliaries to Muroc AAF were:
- Bishop Army Airfield
- Blythe Army Airfield
- Palmdale Army Airfield
- Desert Center Army Airfield
- Gary Army Airfield
The initial use for Muroc was IV Bomber Command Operational Unit training. The B-25 Mitchell 41st and 30th Bombardment Groups and the A-20 Havoc 47th Bombardment Groups trained at the station in early 1942. The training provided newly graduated pilots eight to twelve weeks of training as a team using the same aircraft they would use in combat. The training mission was transferred to IV Fighter Command, with P-38 Lightning OTU training for the 78th and 81st Fighter Groups during 1942. The 360th Fighter Group and 382d Bombardment Groups were assigned permanently to Muroc in 1943 for P-38 Lightning and B-24 Liberator Replacement Training (RTU) of personnel.
With the arrival of the Bell Aircraft P-59 Airacomet jet fighter, the Mojave Desert station was chosen as a secluded site for testing this super-secret airplane. The first XP-59 arrived on 21 September 1942, ground tests were underway five days later, and a first flight accomplished on 30 September when the XP-59 rose to 10 feet (3.0 m) altitude for 0.5 miles (0.80 km) during taxi testing. However, the first official flight was 1 October 1942 with NACA, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, Royal Air Force, Army, Bell and General Electric personnel on hand.:77 Additional World War II test flights included the Northrop JB-1 Bat.
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.
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.
Aircraft testing continued at this desert “Army Air Base”, then on 8 November 1943, the base title was changed to “Muroc Army Air Field, Muroc”. In the fall of 1944, Eighth Air Force ran tests to determine how well conventional fighters stood up against jets. The results were obvious. Also, in October 1944, a small detachment arrived at the base for experimental work in rocket firing and achieved much success that they remained though most of 1945.
With the end of the war, Fourth Air Force relinquished command of Muroc Army Airfield on 16 October 1945 and jurisdiction was transferred to Air Technical Service Command, becoming Air Materiel Command in 1946. Test work on the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the primary mission of the base for the greater part of the fall of 1945. The Consolidated Vultee XP-81 single seat, long range escort fighter and Republic XP-84 Thunderjet fighter arrived at the base in early 1946 for flight testing. It was obvious even at this embryonic stage of base development that the Army Air Force desert station was destined to become a proving ground for aircraft and a testing site for experimental airplanes.
The success 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 designed to prove or disprove aeronautical concepts—to probe the most challenging unknowns of flight and solve its mysteries. Further evidence of things to come was experienced on 14 October 1947 when Captain. Charles “Chuck” Yeager flew the small bullet-shaped airplane to become the first human to exceed the speed of sound.
Four months later, on 10 February 1948, Muroc AAF was re-designated Muroc Air Force Base with the establishment of the United States Air Force as a separate military service. Units attached or assigned to the base at the time were the 4144th Army Air Force Base Unit, the 3208th Strategic Bomb Test Squadron along with communications and weather detachments. On 20 August 1948, the 4144th Air Force Base Unit was re-designated as the 2759th AF Base Unit and with the adoption of the Hobson Plan, as the 2759th Experimental Wing.
With the X-1, flight testing at Muroc began to assume two distinct identities. Highly experimental research programs—such as the X-3, X-4, X-5 and XF-92A—were typically flown in conjunction with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, and were conducted in a methodical fashion to answer largely theoretical questions. Then, as now, the great bulk of flight testing at Muroc focused on evaluations of the capabilities of aircraft and systems proposed for the operational inventory.
In December 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Captain Glen Edwards, who was killed a year earlier in the crash of the Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing. From the time Edwards Air Force Base was named, speed and altitude records began to pile up as new aircraft were developed and the base started to build and branch out significantly.
A major reason for the growth of Edwards AFB was the nearness of West Coast aircraft manufacturers. However, another major reason was the decision in 1947 to build a missile test facility on the base. The need for a static missile faculty to test high-thrust missile rocket engines was first envisioned in 1946 by the Power Plant Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It was that decision that such a facility should be government-owned to prevent a single contractor exclusive advantages on Air Force contracts for high-thrust missile rocket power plants, and it would eliminate duplication of like facilities by different manufacturers. The choice of location in 1947 was the Leuhman Ridge east of Rogers Dry Lake on Edwards AFB. Construction began in November 1949 on what was to become the Experimental Rocket Engine Test Station.
Jurisdiction of Edwards AFB was transferred from Air Materiel Command on 2 April 1951 to the newly created Air Research and Development Command. Activation of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) followed on 25 June 1951. Units designated and assigned to the Center at the time of activation were the 6510th Air Base Wing for station support units. The test flying units at Edwards were assigned directly to the AFFTC .
Its 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. As the decade opened, the first-generation X-1 reached Mach 1.45 (1,776.31 km/h; 1,103.75 mph) and a 71,902 feet (13.6178 mi; 21.916 km) altitude, representing the edge of the envelope. The D-558-II Douglas Skyrocket soon surpassed these marks. In 1951, Douglas test pilot Bill Bridgeman flew the Skyrocket to a top speed of Mach 1.88 (2,303.08 km/h; 1,431.07 mph) and a peak altitude of 74,494 feet (14.1087 mi; 22.706 km). Then, in 1953, Marine Corps test pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Marion Carl, flew the same plane to an altitude of 83,235 feet (15.7642 mi; 25.370 km).
On 20 November 1951, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Scott Crossfield became the first man to reach Mach 2 as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of Mach 2.005 (2,456.213 km/h; 1,526.220 mph). Less than a month later, Major Chuck Yeager topped this record as he piloted the second-generation Bell X-1A to a top speed of Mach 2.44 (2,989.11 km/h; 1,857.35 mph) and, just nine months later, Major Arthur “Kit” Murray flew the same airplane to a new altitude record of 90,440 feet (17.129 mi; 27.57 km).
These records stood for less than three years. In September 1956, Captain Iven Kincheloe became the first man to soar above 100,000 feet (19 mi; 30 km), as he piloted the Bell X-2 to a then-remarkable altitude of 126,200 feet (23.90 mi; 38.5 km). Flying the same airplane just weeks later on 27 September, Captain Mel Apt became the first to exceed Mach 3 (3,675 km/h; 2,284 mph), accelerating to a speed of Mach 3.2 (3,920.1 km/h; 2,435.9 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.
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 the rocket planes—the North American X-15.
Meanwhile, the turbojet revolution had reached a high plateau at Edwards. By the time the base was officially designated the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center in June 1951, more than 40 different types of aircraft had first taken flight at the base and the nation’s first generation of jet-powered combat airplanes had already completed development. One of them, the North American F-86 Sabre, was dominating the skies over Korea.
The promise of the turbojet revolution and the supersonic breakthrough were realized in the 1950s, as the Center tested and developed the first generation of true supersonic fighters—the famed “Century Series” F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief and F-106 Delta Dart, and, in the process, defined the basic speed and altitude envelopes for fighter aircraft that still prevail to this day. The Center also played a pivotal role in the development of systems that would provide the United States with true intercontinental power projection capabilities as it tested aircraft such as the B-52 Stratofortress, C-133 Cargomaster and KC-135 Stratotanker, as well as the YC-130 Hercules which served as the basis for a classic series of tactical transports that would continue in frontline service until well into the 21st century. It also supported the development of the extremely high-altitude and long-range Lockheed U-2 and the dazzling ultra-performance capabilities of the B-58 Hustler, the world’s first Mach 2 bomber.
Throughout the 1950s, American airplanes regularly broke absolute speed and altitude records at Edwards, but nothing compared to the arrival of the North American X-15 in 1961. The program got underway in earnest in 1961 when Maj. Robert M. “Bob” White became the first man to exceed Mach 4, as he accelerated to Mach 4.43 (5,426.94 km/h; 3,372.15 mph) on 7 March. He claimed Mach 5 just three months later when he pegged a speed of Mach 5.27 (6,455.98 km/h; 4,011.56 mph) on 23 June and then, during the X-15’s first full-powered flight on 9 November, he exceeded Mach 6, as he flew to a speed of Mach 6.04 (7,399.27 km/h; 4,597.69 mph). Major White also became the first man to fly an airplane in space when he climbed to 314,750 feet (59.612 mi; 95.94 km) on 17 July 1962. NASA’s Joe Walker flew the airplane to its peak altitude of 354,200 feet (67.08 mi; 108.0 km) on 22 August 1963 and Maj William J. “Pete” Knight reached Mach 6.72 (8,232.30 km/h; 5,115.31 mph) in the modified X-15A-2 on 3 October 1967, a speed that remains the highest ever attained in an airplane.
In addition to the X-15 Program, AFFTC and NASA also teamed up to explore a new concept called “lifting reentry” with a series of wingless lifting body aircraft. These rocket powered-vehicles — the M2-F2, M2-F3, HL-10, X-24A and X-24B — paved the way for the Space Shuttle and future spaceplane designs when they demonstrated that they could make precision landings after high-speed gliding descents from high altitude.
The major aircraft systems that were tested and developed during the 1960s, the T-38 Talon, B-52H Stratofortress, F-4 and RF-4 Phantom II, the F-111 and FB-111, C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy, all became mainstays in the USAF operational inventory. Another aircraft gained world fame in the late 1960s at Edwards: the Lockheed YF-12A, a precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird, shattered nine records in one day of testing at Edwards. The SR-71’s full capabilities remain classified, but the records set on 1 May 1965 included a sustained speed of 2,070 miles per hour (3,330 km/h) and an altitude of 80,257 feet (15 mi; 24 km).
New aircraft types arrived in the 1970s: the F-15 Eagle with its advanced engine and fire-control system; the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcon with its revolutionary “fly-by-wire” flight control system; and the B-1 Lancer with its multitude of highly sophisticated offensive and defensive systems. These planes more than bore out the prophecy concerning the ever-increasing importance of systems testing and integration. Moreover, another major new element of complexity was soon introduced into the flight test process.
At a remote location in 1978 and 1979, an AFFTC test pilot and a pair of flight test engineers were engaged in proof-of-concept testing with Lockheed’s “low-observable” technology demonstrator, dubbed “Have Blue.” The successful conduct of these tests led immediately to the development of a new subsonic attack aircraft that was designated the F-117A Nighthawk.
The capabilities of existing aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16 have been continually refined and expanded, even as totally new aircraft and systems incorporating radical new technologies are developed for future operational use. The dual-role F-15E, for example, was developed in the 1980s and went on to demonstrate truly remarkable combat effectiveness in the Persian Gulf conflict of the early 90s. The Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night, or LANTIRN, system revolutionized air-to-ground combat operations during the same conflict by denying opposing forces the once comforting sanctuary of night.
The late 1980s also 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 Spirit bomber represented third-generation stealth technology, following the SR-71 and F-117.
The 1980s also saw Edwards host a demonstration of America’s space warfare capabilities when a highly modified F-15 Eagle launched an ASM-135 anti-satellite missile at the dead P78-1 (or Solwind) satellite and destroyed it. In 1986, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager launched from Edwards to set a new aviation record by piloting the first non-stop, around-the-world flight on a single tank of fuel in the Rutan Voyager.
Extensive aviation research was also conducted on the ground at Edwards. Two rocket sled tracks pioneered important developments and research for the Air Force. The first 2,000-foot (610 m) track was built by Northrop in 1944 near what is currently the North Base. Originally intended to help develop a V-1 flying-bomb-style weapon that never left the drawing board, the track found use after the war as a test area for V-2 rockets captured from Nazi Germany in Operation Paperclip. Later, Lt. Col. John Stapp appropriated the track for his MX981 project and installed what was believed to be one of the most powerful mechanical braking systems ever constructed. His deceleration tests led the press to nickname him the “fastest man on earth” and the “bravest man in the Air Force”.
The results from the first track prompted the Air Force to build a second in 1948. Located just south of Rogers Lake, the 10,000-foot (1.9 mi; 3.0 km) track was capable of supersonic speeds. Its first project was the development of the SM-62 Snark cruise missile. This track was so successful that an extension was constructed, and on 13 May 1959, the full 20,000-foot (3.8 mi; 6.1 km) track was opened. After the Navy had conducted research on the UGM-27 Polaris ballistic missile, the track was used to develop ejection seats that could be used at supersonic speeds. Though this program was a success, a budgetary review concluded that the track was too expensive to maintain and the track was decommissioned on 24 May 1963. Before it was closed, a trial run set a world speed record of Mach 3.3 (4,042.6 km/h; 2,512.0 mph) before the test car broke up. After it closed, the rails were pulled up to help straighten Lancaster Boulevard.
Space Shuttle support
After President Richard M. Nixon announced the Space Shuttle program on January 5, 1972, Edwards was chosen for Space Shuttle orbiter testing. The prototype Space Shuttle Enterprisewas carried to altitude by the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) and released. In all, 13 test flights were conducted with the Enterprise and the SCA to determine their flight characteristics and handling.
After Space Shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle launched into orbit on April 12, 1981, it returned to Edwards for landing. The airbase’s immense lakebeds and its proximity to Plant 42, where the shuttle was serviced before relaunch, were important factors in its selection and it continued to serve as the primary landing area for the space shuttle until 1991. After that time, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida was favored. This saved the considerable cost of transporting the shuttle from California back to Florida, but Edwards AFB and White Sands Space Harbor continued to serve as backups for the duration of the shuttle program. Shuttles landed at Edwards as recently as August 9, 2005 (STS-114), June 22, 2007 (STS-117), November 30, 2008 (STS-126), May 24, 2009 (STS-125), and September 11, 2009 (STS-128) due to rain and ceiling events at the KSC Shuttle Landing Facility. STS-126 was the only mission to land on temporary runway 04 at Edwards, as the refurbished main runway was operational from STS-119 through to the retirement of the shuttles.
Into the 1990s
The end of the Cold War was marked by the arrival of the YF-22A and the YF-23A. The two prototype fighters were the first airplanes to blend stealth with agility and high-speed, supersonic cruise capability. The YF-22A was selected to become the Air Force’s new advanced tactical fighter after a brief demonstration and validation risk reduction flight test program. Now named the Raptor, the F-22A continues to undergo test and evaluation at Edwards.
A new group of research projects came to Edwards in the 1990s. Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle that has been used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, made its first flight at Edwards in February 1998. The X-24, X-33, X-34, X-36 and X-38, a series of new lifting bodies, technology demonstrators and half-scale models were tested here by NASA during the decade.
The new millennium brought new projects with worldwide impact. The X-35A and X-32A, competing models for the Joint Strike Fighter program, made their first flights in September and October 2000. The X-35A won the competition in 2001 and will eventually be built in various versions for America’s flying armed services and for foreign air forces as well. Also new are the RQ-4 Global Hawk, YAL-1 Airborne Laser, the B-52 synthetic fuel program, the C-17 Globemaster III, and many prototype unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Edwards is among the few U.S. military bases to have gained jobs since the Cold War. Under the DoD’s Base Realignment and Closure process, several smaller bases have been decommissioned, and their facilities and responsibilities have been sent to Edwards, China Lake, and other large bases.
During 2012, the 95th Air Base Wing, the former base support unit at Edwards was inactivated and consolidated into the 412th Test Wing as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center transitioning into the Air Force Test Center. The five-Center consolidation not only better integrates the workforce, but saves taxpayers approximately $109 million annually.
- Muroc Lake Bombing and Gunnery Range, September 1933
- Army Air Base, Muroc Lake, 23 July 1942
- Army Air Base, Muroc, 2 September 1942
- Muroc Army Airfield, 8 November 1943
- Muroc Air Force Base, 12 February 1948 – 5 December 1949
Major commands to which assigned
- IX Corps Area, United States Army, September 1933 – 16 January 1941
- Chief of the Air Corps, September 1933 – 1 March 1935
- GHQAF, 1 March 1935 – 16 January 1941
- Southwest Air District, 16 January 1941 – 11 March 1941
- Fourth Air Force, 31 March 1941 – 17 July 1944
- AAF Materiel and Services Command, 17 July 1944 – 31 August 1944
- AAF Technical Service Command, 31 August 1944 – 6 June 1945
- Continental Air Forces, 6 June 1945 – 16 October 1945
- Air Technical Service Command, 16 October 1945 – 9 March 1946
- Air Materiel Command, 9 March 1946 – 2 April 1951
- Air Research and Development Command, 2 April 1951 – 1 April 1961
- Air Force Systems Command, 1 April 1961 – 1 July 1992
- Air Force Materiel Command, 1 July 1992–present
Major units assigned
Royal Air Force
Royal Netherlands Air Force
- 323 Squadron RNLAF, November 2014 – Present
This section possibly contains original research. (October 2013) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The largest features of the 470 square miles (1,200 km2) that make up Edwards AFB are the Rogers Lake and Rosamond Lake dry lakes. These have served as emergency and scheduled landing sites for many aerospace projects including the Bell X-1, Lockheed U-2, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and the Space Shuttle. The lakebeds have black lines painted on them to mark seven official “runways”. Also painted on the dry lake beds near Dryden is the world’s largest compass rose: 2,000-foot (610 m) radius, 4,000 feet (0.76 mi; 1.22 km) in diameter. The Edwards AFB compass rose’s magnetic declination to true north is measured by Google Earth’s distance/direction measurement tool as inclined to magnetic north with a 15.3 degrees east variance of true north, as opposed to the current variance of 12.4 degrees east (2014.) This is consistent with a calculated magnetic variance at this location in the early 1960s. The larger lake bed, Rogers, encompasses 44 square miles (110 km2) of desert. Because of Rogers’ history in the space program, it was declared a National Historic Landmark.
The Rosamond dry lake bed encompasses 21 square miles (54 km2) and is also used for emergency landings and other flight research roles. Both lake beds are some of the lowest points in the Antelope Valley and they can collect large amounts of precipitation. Desert winds whip this seasonal water around on the lake beds and the process polishes them, yielding a new, extremely flat surface; the Rosamond lake bed was measured to have an altitude deviation of 18 inches (460 mm) over a 30,000-foot (9,100 m) length; that’s about 1 millimetre (0.039 in) altitude deviation over every 20 metres (66 ft) of length.
The census-designated place encompasses an area of 44.38 square kilometres (17.1 sq mi) of which 0.173 hectares (0.43 acres) is water.
There are several protected and threatened species living in Edwards, the most notable being the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). It is illegal to touch, harass or otherwise harm a desert tortoise. Another notable species is Yucca brevifolia: the taller members of this species are called Joshua trees.