This past May, my wife and I finally made the trip of a lifetime – for me, anyway. As part of our road trip vacation to California, we went on a tour of Edwards Air Force Base.
Edwards has always had a special place in my heart. As a fan of experimental aviation in the 1950s, Edwards is Mecca. Granted, it’s not what it used to be in terms of how busy it is, but the history is tangible in the dry desert air to this day. It’s totally worth the trip, although I hope things will improve in the future. More on that in a second.
Here’s a look at what you’ll do and see if you go.
Before you go
The biggest hassle (and we know why it is) is actually planning the trip. Because Edwards is a pretty sensitive national security area, they want to make triple-sure you are who you are. So have your Driver’s License handy.
The tours themselves only happen two Fridays per month. There are only 30 spots for each tour, and they do fill up, so plan ahead. The base requires you sign up at least 30 days in advance. The latest schedule can be found here.
If you plan on going, first, go here, and read everything carefully. Very carefully. This is the U.S. Military we’re talking about. Then, once you get together all of your information, you have to email the folks at the base itself with all of that information. You can do that here.
Once you get your approval confirmation email from the base, you’re set to go. Oh, and the best part: because you are an American taxpayer, the tour is free!
How to get to town
From L.A., it’s actually pretty easy. Hop on the 405, head north through the San Fernando Valley to I-5, and then take that up into the mountains. Traffic is dreadful in L.A., so be patient. You’ll exit onto Highway 14 North, just before Santa Clarita, and then you have about 30 minutes of winding highway until the mountains part and the Mojave Desert spreads out before you. You’ll see Palmdale and Plant 42 on your right.
Highway 14 straightens north and takes you through Palmdale and Lancaster on the way to Rosamond, which is on the way to Edwards.
Where to stay
We stayed in Lancaster at the Holiday Inn Express there. Hotels are pretty cheap, and this one wasn’t bad at all. No one else was staying there, and the staff was extraordinarily nice. The only thing was it smelled of smoke in the hallways.
Plan on getting to the desert in the late afternoon or evening, and stay the night before your tour. Traffic in the L.A. area obviates the ability to get out there early in the morning in time for the tour.
By the way, when you are there, I recommend hitting Hacienda Don Cuco for some authentic Mexican food. The fajitas are excellent and the salsa is something fierce. Avoid the fish tacos though. This is the desert, after all.
Below is a Google Map of where we stayed and where we went:
How to get to Edwards
Tours are scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to noon, but they do run over time on occasion, so plan to be away from your hotel until 2ish. As far as when to get there, they tell you to be there no later than 8:45 a.m., but I recommend getting up early and getting there around 8 a.m., so you have time to check out Century Circle. It’s about 30 minutes from Lancaster to the West Gate.
The weather is interesting. When we got up at 6:30 a.m. the day of the tour, it was 38 degrees. In May. After we hopped in the car to head north to the base, it was in the 50s. When we got there, it was in the 60s. By the end of the tour it was a comfortably dry, but still hot, 90 degrees. Wear a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, but bring your hoodie.
Hop back on Highway 14 and head due north. Exit at Rosamond Blvd. and hang a right. This long straight road will take you through downtown Rosamond (and I use downtown loosely) and on toward the base.
As you drive due east along Rosamond Blvd., be very careful. Observe the speed limit, because like I said, this is the U.S. Military we’re talking about here. You’ll eventually cut across the northern end of Rosamond Dry Lake, where Jack Northrop tested his first flying wings, and also where Scott Crossfield had to land the first X-15 a little heavy.
The road will turn northeast and curve around a hill, and then you’re there. You’ll see the West Gate to the base, and right before it, Century Circle, which I’ll talk more about in a second. Park there and watch for snakes.
What you see
First, there is the legendary Century Circle, where you will see freshly restored examples of the USAF’s Century Series fighters. These machines exemplified the peak of military aviation in the 1950s. All of them flew from Edwards, and they each represent the incredible ingenuity that was experimental aviation in the 50s.
On display in the circle are a YF-100A (the second one to fly), an F-101B, a rare two-seat TF-102A, an F-104A which used to belong to NASA, an F-105D, and an F-106B, all of which are in gorgeous shape. You can walk around and take as many pictures as you can stand. Also in the middle of the circle is the old Edwards control tower. Just on the other side of Century Circle from the road is the only remaining YC-15, another monument to experimental flight test at Edwards.
Check out the slideshow below for a look at Century Circle:
There is a building next to Century Circle where you go to check in. Make sure you hit the can before the tour here too. Here, they check your ID, give you a neat little lanyard, and put you on the bus.
Here’s the one part about the tour that sucks out loud: There are no camera or phones permitted on the base premises. Period. So once you get to Century Circle, take your pictures there, because that’s it. You have to leave all of that stuff in your car.
That really does stink, because the first stop on the tour was the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, which is less than a mile inside the gate. I would have given a limb to bring my camera in here, because it was awesome.
An important note on the museum:
Our tour guides told me that the museum is working on raising funds to build a brand new building right next to Century Circle, so that it’s off the base grounds. This would make the AFFTC Museum a year-round attraction, and best of all, that means you can bring your cameras and phones and take all the photos and video you want.
The campaign is aiming to raise $1 million by July 2014 in order to build the basic facility. If they can get to $6 million, however, the museum would be
I personally think this is a worthy cause, and fulfilling it would vault the AFFTC Museum high up the list of must-visits for aerothusiasts like yours truly.
You can donate to the museum’s Capital Campaign here.
Inside is a replica of the X-1 hanging from the ceiling, as well as one of the retired prototype YF-22s, and several other fantastic pieces of hardware. My personal highlight was the First Flights Wall, which is exactly as it sounds: a wall of the museum with an array of models, signifying which aircraft took their first flights at Edwards and when, from the CW-24 to the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and beyond. You can see more of that on the museum’s website.
Because of the time crunch from the tour, we only had enough time to walk around the inside of the museum a bit, check out the lecture on the history of the base, pick up a souvenir, and then we had to go. I would have loved about another hour there. As a result, we didn’t have the time to check out the outstanding collection of aircraft they had perched outside, including:
- The only two-seat YA-10B ever built
- An SR-71A
- A B-52D (But not the famous Balls-8, which is on display at the North Gate to the base)
- The prototype YF-111A
You can see the outdoor collection here via Google Maps:
From there it was off to explore the base. The remainder of the tour takes you past a number of administrative buildings for the Air Force Test Center, as well as NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. On this occasion, we were fortunate enough to get onto the flightline and see the mass expanse of Muroc Dry Lake. In its own way, it is as beautiful as it is desolate.
While we were there, a couple of F-22s were out on test flights, chased by F-16s. One landed and taxied right past our bus, and the pilot gave us a friendly salute. Nice touch, and thank you, Sir.
On the north end of the flightline is a hangar where the Museum keeps a few more of its artifacts, and this was the real highlight for me. Inside this hangar, the restoration staff keep some real rare stuff, including:
- An F-117A Nighthawk. You could walk right up to it and underneath it and everything. I couldn’t help but think that, had this been 15 years before, I could have been shot on sight for being so close to one.
- A pristine A3D Skywarrior, painted navy blue, like the Douglas prototype that flew at Edwards. How these things landed on carriers, I don’t know.
- An F-15A and F-16B testbed aircraft
- A full-size replica of an X-15
- One of the only two X-4s in existence
The members of the museum staff – in particular, our bus tour guide Dennis Shoffner, the Civic Outreach Director from the base’s Public Affairs Office, and George Welsh, the Director and Curator of the Museum – were incredibly friendly, eminently knowledgeable, and passionate about the base and what happens there. That’s easy to understand, since they were there in person for some of the most remarkable aviation events that took place at the base. I’m not sure what I’d pay to hang for a day with these two guys, but chances are, it’s more than I can afford. They were fantastic.
After a spin around the base to show where the good people at the base live, eat, shop and work, we made out way back to Century Circle for the end of the tour.
Thing to bring home
Go to the shop at the museum and pick up a print copy of Mike Machat’s spectacular mural, “The Golden Age of Flight Test,” on one of the walls of the museum. Mine is framed in my office.
Also, some recommended reading and viewing on the flight out to Cali:
What I would have done if I had more time
I would have made a quick detour on the way back to L.A. to check out Blackbird Airpark over next to Plant 42 in Palmdale. Next to it is the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, which has a very nice collection of aircraft on display, and reportedly even more on the way in the coming years.
As it is, this tour is a must-do. If you live in or are traveling out to Southern California, take the time to do the planning and approval, and set aside a day to do the tour. Just do it.
And once the new building goes up, then the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum will unquestionably be in the top five of aviation museums in the country.