By: Steven Mayer
Just outside the west gate of Edwards Air Force Base, the framework of a supersonic dream is rising up from the desert landscape.
The dream is all about preserving the history, the technology and the legacy of Edwards’ legendary flight tests — a legacy that has been crucial to the development and history of flight for close to eight decades.
“We have the foundation, and the framework is up. But we don’t have the skin,” said George Welsh, director of the Air Force Flight Test Museum.
“It is an Air Force building,” Welsh said. “It cannot be built with taxpayer funds.”
What Welsh is referring to is the new Air Force Flight Test Museum and Education Center, still in its early stages of construction just outside the west gate of Edwards Air Force Base in eastern Kern County.
It’s been in the works for years.
A much smaller museum has existed for decades inside the sprawling base, but concerns about security, especially following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, significantly curtailed access for the general public. By placing the new facility on Air Force property, but outside the security gates, the nonprofit Flight Test Museum Foundation expects the bigger and better museum to become a national and international draw for millions of tourists, aviation buffs and a huge crop of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students, some of whom may become the pilots, technicians and flight engineers of tomorrow.
The needs, supporters say, have grown beyond the capabilities of the old museum.
“We built that museum about 25 years ago and deeded it to the Air Force,” said Rex Moen, an executive board member with the Flight Test Museum Foundation.
Moen is one of several team members working to inspire public involvement in supporting the construction of the new museum, located, literally, on the doorstep of Edwards Air Force Base.
“The Air Force filled it with historic aircraft and artifacts, and funded the running of it,” Moen said of the old museum.
The big push now is to raise $1.2 million to add the “skin” and roof and doors to the new museum’s first 60,000-square-foot hangar. But much more will be needed if the museum and education center are ever to meet their high-flying potential.
Kern’s aviation history
Show of hands.
How many know U-2 spy planes were built at a secret factory at Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield?
How about B-17 bombers on 24th Street?
Heck, we didn’t know, either. But George Welsh knew. The museum director is an encyclopedia of aviation and aerospace history.
“Bakersfield has a rich history in aviation,” Welsh said.
And he hopes by knowing that history, residents in Bakersfield and the southern San Joaquin Valley will be more likely to help support the transformation of the museum as it moves from inside the base to just outside the sprawling facility’s west gate on Rosamond Boulevard.
The inventory of the Air Force Flight Test Museum includes 90 historic aircraft, Welsh said. But it offers much more than oohing and aahing over a cutting-edge F-22, marveling over the experimental (and wingless) lifting body, or imagining being inside Chuck Yeager’s orange Bell X-1, the first rocketplane to exceed the speed of sound.
“Exhibits inside the museum cover such diverse subjects as the formation of the ancient lake beds (at Edwards), early homesteading in the area, the first military use of Edwards, breaking the sound barrier, and flight test from World War II to the present,” according to the foundation’s website. “Artifacts in the collection include aircraft propulsion systems, missiles, hardware, life support equipment, technical drawings, test reports, personal memorabilia, photographs, and wind tunnel models.”
“We had 50,000 visitors last year,” Welsh said.
Not bad for a facility that is closed to the public — open only to those with current base access.
Once the new museum is built out, Welsh expects it will attract between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors in its first year.
“It’s not just about the airplanes,” he said. “It’s about the people and their stories.”
To donate or learn about plans for the new museum, visit the Flight Test Museum Foundation at flighttestmuseum.org.