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Ed's tailsTesting times

Jason French explores Edwards AFB

Edwards Air Force Base occupies a vast area of plateau on the Mojave Desert to the north-east of Los Angeles. Extending to more than 301,000 acres, the facility is the second largest in the air force, with only Eglin Air Force Base occupying a greater area. Edwards AFB has the Rogers and Rosamond dry lakebeds as two unique natural resources that help make it the premier flight test centre - its history can be traced back as far as the early 1930s when the Army Air Corps used the dry lakebeds for bombing and gunnery practice. During the Second World War the base was used to train American fighter and bomber crews prior to deploying overseas for combat action.

In June 1951 Edwards became the home of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), to assess the design parameters and evaluate the performance of all new and upgraded aircraft and helicopters. The main AFFTC function is to perform all pre-service test and development for aircraft and their systems in conjunction with aerospace manufacturers, achieved through rigid examination of all aspects of each new or upgraded design.

The 95th Air Base Wing oversees the day-to-day operations and provides support for over 10,000 civilian and military personnel, freeing the AFFTC and its subordinate flying unit, the 412th Test Wing, to perform its operational duties. The 412th Test Wing X-34conducts, analyzes and reports on testing of all aircraft, weapons systems and associated software for the US Air Force, as well as many other government and overseas customers.

Some projects, including the Orbital Sciences Corporation X-34, were cancelled due to spiralling costs. It was designed as a low-cost test bed to demonstrate key technologies integral to the reusable launch vehicle programme. It was intended to be a pilotless vehicle powered by one Fastrac rocket engine capable of reaching a speed of Mach 8. Sadly the project was cancelled in 2001, with the unproven prototype having only been used for towing and captive flight tests. If the project had continued, the X-34 was to be able to dock with a space station in the same method employed by the current space shuttles. It would have then returned to earth and land on a runway in a conventional manner. The prototype, along with a second example, can still be found stored in an outbuilding at Edwards AFB, a reminder of better times for the project.

C-5MCurrent programmes at Edwards AFB include a number of high-profile test programmes, such as the Lockheed Martin C-5M Galaxy. This programme incorporates new engines and an avionics upgrade to all 111 C5A/B models - Lockheed Martin has already upgraded three aircraft at its plant in Marietta, Georgia, which are now undergoing testing and evaluation work ahead of a full programme decision. The project will have a massive impact on Air Mobility Command strategic airlift and cargo requirements in the not to distant future with the USAF.

The Boeing C-17A Globemaster III is the mostly highly-utilised strategic airlift aircraft in USAF service, with Edwards AFB having recently undertaken testing a synthetic fuel blend on one of its designated C-17s, with a successful first flight achieved on 19 October 2007. This is a potentially important step towards the C-17Aentire fleet adopting this technology by 2011 - the air force could save several hundred million dollars over the coming years. The Boeing B-52H Stratofortress has already undertaken similar evaluation, and the fuel was cleared for operational use on the entire fleet by Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wayne on 8 August 2007 during a ceremony at Edwards. With the successful conclusion of the B-52 test programme, and the ongoing development with the C-17, the air force is keen to evaluate further aircraft in its inventory.

Ed's F-16s

Edwards is also undertaking flight testing and evaluation work of the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor, which is introducing fifth-generation advanced technology into operational service. The combination of stealth technology and integrated avionics represents an exceptional advancement in operational capabilities. The primary duty is the air dominance role, with development of ground attack as a secondary feature. With more than one hundred F-22s now operational, the Edwards-based F-22s are being utilised to further develop the advanced stealth characteristics.

Another new and exciting programme is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in modern combat theatres. Currently undergoing testing and evaluation work at Edwards is the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 'Global Hawk' unmanned combat aerial system. The programme has been so successful that several RQ-4s have been used in combat operations ahead of the development being completed. The use of UAVs is seen as an ever-expanding programme for the future, with the increasing need to reduce the danger to pilots in RQ-4Acertain high risks combat situations. In addition to the USAF, a number of other countries have expressed a great deal of interest in the Global Hawk and International sales can not be ruled out in the future.

Edwards AFB continues to provide massive support in the test and evaluation of today's modern military programmes for the air force, and should continue this important duty for many years to come. The next high visibility programme is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter air-to-ground fighter - this will see the largest test and evaluation programme ever undertaken at Edwards, with more than six years of planned development over a number of military services for three different aircraft versions and 11,000 flight test hours.

C-135EEdwards AFB is the cornerstone of flight test and development for the US Air Force. In conjunction with the aerospace manufacturers, the AFFTC ensures that the new projects for the Air Force receive the most rigorous evaluation, ahead of their operational employment. With two ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the air force is constantly in need of new weapons systems to counter the terrorist threat. Edwards is the foundation for the evaluation of these systems, and its importance cannot be underestimated.

The author would like to thank John Haire at the Edwards AFB public affairs office for his kind help in the preparation of this report.


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