Matthew Clements looks at the US Weapons Survivability Laboratory at China Lake in California
Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake encompasses over one million acres of land in California's upper Mojave Desert, accounting for approximately one-third of the Navy's total land holding. The land, ranging in altitude from 2,100 to 8,900 feet, varies from flat dry lakebeds to rugged piñon pine covered mountains and is undeveloped.
It was once home to Native Americans, whose presence here is marked by thousands of archaeological sites, and to early miners and settlers whose cabins and mining structures are still found scattered throughout the Station. The largest command is the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) with the mission of research, development, acquisition, test and evaluation (T&E) of Navy weapons and weapons systems. It is also the home to the NAWCWD Weapons Survivability Laboratory (WSL).
Once aircraft are withdrawn from use by the USN and USMC they are usually sent to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona - however, even though they have been retired from an active flying role, some will be flown to China Lake and be assigned to the WSL where their role will become as important, if not more important than when they were flying. They will continue to serve as a ground test article, where they will be tested and trailed for all three major services and industry to give data of how vulnerable active duty aircraft are to real-life threats.
In addition, a complete machine shop is on site for fast repair and modification of aircraft and test articles. Testing on full-scale aircraft includes propulsion systems, ballistic impact, hydraulic ram effects on fuel systems, fire detection and extinguishing, fuel ingestion, engines under simulated full-operating conditions, warhead detonations, thermal and structural tests, infrared (IR) signature tests, static and simulated in-flight crew ejections, pool fire, communication link payout and aerodynamic studies. Testing is performed under rigidly controlled and highly realistic conditions.
The WSL has a large collection of aircraft waiting to be the latest test article - nearby NAS Point Mugu is a key supplier of P-3 Orion aircraft to the unit. After retirement of its older EP/NP/RP-3A/B/C/D Orions (examples include 150503, 150524, 156520 and 158569), many were assigned to the Pacific Missile Test Centre (PMTC) at Point Mugu and have gone from being the testers to the tested. The knowledge gained from WSL performing tests on the P-3s will allow the current flying fleet to be upgraded and operate with a higher degree of safety in the wartime theatre.
WSL's current projects also include carrying out P-8A Poseidon live fire tests on aircraft simulators to test for flaws and weaknesses before they are applied to the actual airframe. Simulators are high-fidelity hybrid surrogates that incorporate actual aircraft materials into steel and aluminium structures for testing to mitigate risk before final design. The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is a Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) and is currently in development and on order for the United States Navy and will be the replacement for the Lockheed P-3 Orion series of aircraft.
Rare and not often seen aircraft are plentiful at WSL - one of the major rarities is F-111B 151972. The F-111B was to be a fleet air defence (FAD) fighter for the US Navy, fulfilling a long-standing requirement for a fighter capable of carrying heavy, long-range missiles and to defend carriers and their battle groups from Soviet bombers and fighter-bombers equipped with anti-ship missiles. Though similar in visual appearance to the USAF F-111A, the 'B was in fact shorter than the 'A in order to enable it to fit on aircraft carrier deck edge elevators between the flight deck and the hangar deck. The 'B also had a longer wingspan than its USAF counterpart (70 ft/21.3 m compared to 63 ft/19.2 m) for increased range and cruising endurance. Unfortunately the weight of the aircraft (5,000lb heavier than the USN's initial request!) made it seriously underpowered in landing configuration at carrier weights. Also, its visibility for carrier approach and landings was abysmal.
By October 1967, the Navy was finally convinced that the F-111B programme was a lost cause and recommended its cancellation in 1968 after seven had been delivered (BuNo. 151970 to 151974 and 152714 to 152717), two of which had already crashed. The swing-wing configuration, TF-30 engines, Phoenix missiles and radar developed for this aircraft were used on its replacement, the F-14 Tomcat.
The F-14 Tomcat was the Navy's primary air superiority fighter and tactical reconnaissance platform from 1972 to 2006. Tomcat is now a rare breed in most places, after its retirement some airframes were lucky enough to go to museums across the USA; however, many were stored at the 309th AMARG at Davis-Monthan AFB - in October 2007 there were 148 F-14s in storage at the facility. However in January 2007 it had been announced by the US Department of Defence that sales of spare parts for F-14s would be suspended, due to concerns that they could end up in Iran. It also announced that the remaining American F-14s would be shredded to ensure that governments considered hostile to the US could not acquire F-14 spare parts - in October 2008 there were only twenty-nine examples remaining. WSL at China Lake is one of the last remaining places in the USA where you can see Tomcats in number - fifteen examples remained in October 2008, from various units including VX-9 'Vampires', VF-14 'Tophatters' and VF-101 'Grim Reapers', comprising NF/F-14/A/B/D examples of the aircraft.
The author would like to extend his thanks to PAO personnel Doris G. Lance, Theresa Goldstrand and Schiller, Ronnie CIV NAVAIR at WSL, for without their help this article would not have been possible.