By: Claudia Elliott
Coming soon to a service group near you is likely to be a presentation from the Flight Test Museum Foundation — a nonprofit organization determined to build a new, accessible flight test museum at a location just outside the West Gate of Edwards Air Force Base near Rosamond.
On Wednesday, about a dozen members of the media and residents of communities within an easy drive of the base had an opportunity to learn about the “Life Friends Campaign” the foundation will kick off on May 1.
Organized by former Tehachapi resident Rex Moen, last week’s event included a tour of the base and presentations about the planned new building — along with a visit to the current museum on base grounds, about five miles past the base’s Visitor Control Center.
As Moen explained, the foundation has worked for more than 40 years to raise funds to support the flight test museum.
Prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the current museum was more accessible to the public. But since then, access has been very limited, and the foundation has committed to building a new structure to allow exhibits in the museum to be housed in a larger space in a location that can allow much more public access.
At the groundbreaking for the new museum in March 2018, estimates were that the first building could be complete in about two years. But then along came the COVID-19 pandemic — accompanied by supply chain issues — and then inflation. Construction is currently stalled until more funds can be raised.
The tour last week was a test run for a small group of people who are determined to raise the money needed to proceed.
Moen introduced what he called the staff of the foundation’s “Preseason Training Camp” — all affiliated with the foundation. And if experience can win the day, this group wins, hands down.
The tour bus driver was David G. Smith — in real life, since July 2020, he’s been the director of Plant 42 in Palmdale, the Air Force’s classified aircraft manufacturing plant. Previously he served as the Installation Support Director at Edwards — and had a long and storied career with the 412th Test Wing, Edwards and the Air Force, where he served as a B-52 Stratofortress navigator and, later, as a civilian.
Also on the training camp “staff” is Jimmy Doolittle III — yes, the grandson of famed WWII aviator Jimmy Doolittle. He is a past chairman of the foundation — in fact, he helped launch it back in 1983. A combat flier in his own right, Doolittle III was commandant at the Air Force Test Pilot School and a vice commander at Edwards before he retired as a colonel.
Neither mentioned his professional accomplishments, nor did presenters Art Thompson, chairman of the foundation’s executive board, or Ed Burnett, 2nd vice chairman — both with impressive resumes. Their focus was on the importance of being able to move the museum to larger, more accessible quarters and the fundraising campaign.
Other team members, Moen noted, include Angella Raisian, a flight test engineer with Lockheed Martin who is the foundation’s corresponding secretary, and Lisa Brown, the foundation’s director of education and community relations. Danny Bazzell, chief of community engagement for the 412th Test Wing at Edwards, also met with the group during the tour.
BEATING ‘THE RED BARON’
As the group gathered in the museum’s gift shop during last week’s tour, Moen handed out long, soft, red neck scarves. A patch on each showed the Peanuts character Snoopy with a flight cap, goggles and a long scarf of his own and the words “flying ace.”
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz referenced World War I German fighter pilot Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen — The Red Baron — in comic strips featuring him as Snoopy’s make-believe adversary.
In the comics, Snoopy imagines his doghouse as a British single-seat biplane, the Sopwith Camel, and goes to battle against the Red Baron in his formidable triplane.
Although Snoopy’s battles were ill-fated, Moen said the Flight Test Museum Foundation will overcome its latest obstacle.
“Inflation is our Red Baron,” he said, “and we’re going to win.”
His reference is to the $1.2 million in additional expense to complete Phase 2 of construction of the new home for the flight test museum.
Phase 1, the West Gate site preparation, was funded (at $2.1 million) and is complete, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation and steel supports are ready for siding, hanger doors and a roof.
Phase 2 — construction of the first hangar — was expected to be complete by last fall, but construction has halted because of increased costs.
“We had the money,” Moen said. “But inflation means that materials will cost about $1.2 million more than projected. Just the hangar door will cost $300,000.”
Moen moved from Tehachapi to San Diego County in 2013, but he remained active with the foundation and currently serves as a member of the executive board and also chairs fundraising.
When he learned that an additional $1.2 million was needed, Moen said he did the math and concluded the foundation needed to find 1,200 people willing to donate $1,000 each to become lifetime “Friends of the Flight Test Museum.”
No stranger to a challenge, Moen retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was a manager with Southern California Edison before entering legislative service.
He worked as a district representative for former state Sen. Roy Ashburn and became involved with Edwards when he went to work for state Sen. William J. “Pete” Knight in 1999.
He said the foundation will kick off a campaign on May 1 — to run through September — with a goal of raising that $1.2 million through “Life Friends” donations and other contributions.
With an organizational structure similar to the National Football League, the foundation will organize 32 teams, plus three farm teams, that will compete for monthly prizes and bragging rights, Moen said, in addition to great prizes for winning the “Super Bowl” and “Pro Bowl.”
The foundation currently has about 250 “Life Friends,” Moen said. In the coming months, it hopes to increase that number by telling the museum’s story.
Smith heads up the foundation’s speaker’s bureau and will schedule presentations to about 200 organizations within the three counties that are home to Edwards — Kern, Los Angeles and San Bernardino.
“We estimate that we will reach about 5,000 key members of communities (in the region),” Moen said. In Kern County, efforts will be made to reach organizations in Tehachapi, California City and Bakersfield. Ten more groups will be hosted on VIP tours of Edwards similar to Wednesday’s event.
Museum Director George Welsh, who lives in Tehachapi, shared information about the current museum. It is located in a 12,000-square-foot building — but the foundation also owns more than 80 historical aircraft and thousands of artifacts connected to test flight that are stored in various warehouses on base due to a lack of space in the current facility.
“A major focus of the museum is to expand knowledge, to inspire and to motivate future generations using examples of the advancements in aerospace in our collection,” he said.
But just as the construction of the current facility was funded by the foundation, the new museum must be built by the foundation and will then be given to the Air Force.
Smith told members of the group that the Air Force does not build structures for museums. And Welsh noted that after the new museum is built, the Air Force will take on the expense of maintenance, utilities and staffing — a huge burden for most small museums. But regulations don’t allow the agency to pay to construct the building, so the foundation has taken on that job.
The foundation is a private nonprofit corporation, is not part of the federal Department of Defense and has no government status, he said.
Welsh said the museum’s mission is to preserve, display and educate the public about the more than 75 years of flight tests, aerospace and technological advances at Edwards, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, Plant 42 and the entire Aerospace Valley.
As envisioned by the foundation, the new museum will eventually provide more than 135,000 square feet of interior space in three structures — in addition to outdoor exhibits. The first 60,000-square-foot exhibition hall will be built as part of Phase 2. The main goal is to protect and preserve the historical and extremely rare aircraft inside the new structure and away from the damaging outside elements. The hall will house one of the most novel collections of research aircraft in the world and provide a place for the world to see it, according to the foundation’s website.
BUILD IT, AND THEY WILL COME
“The Air Force knows that the museum will be a huge attraction and draw thousands of people a year from around the world,” Smith said. “This will have a direct and tangible impact on the economy of the Antelope Valley. There will also be busloads of students from all three counties who will be inspired and exposed to multiple STEM education opportunities built into the new museum.”
Kathy Mac Laren-Gomez, who was among attendees on the tour, understands the economic impact the new museum will bring. She is president of AV EDGE — also known as Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. The organization was founded in 2020 on the legacy of two previous regional economic powerhouses — the Antelope Valley Board of Trade and the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance.
Edwards AFB is already noteworthy for its $2.8 billion impact on the local economy. With tourism as an element of the regional economy, the new museum is expected to become a major attraction.
Moen is counting on individuals, organizations and businesses understanding the economic stimulus that the new museum will provide as impetus for donations. He and other presenters also noted the value of providing youngsters with a glimpse of the
possibilities represented by Edwards as the “center of the aerospace testing universe” for inspiration.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
More information about the Flight Test Museum Foundation, the current museum and plans for the future is online at flighttestmuseum.org or call 661-277-8050.