By: Dennis Anderson
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Test pilot James “J.B.” Brown beckoned the audience gathered on a large, concrete foundation to gaze skyward and look up through a latticework of steel beams that arched above them.
They looked up through the skeleton of steel of the new Flight Test Museum site to take in the sight of a powder-blue sky, laced with the slow drift of cotton-white wisps and cumulus clouds. The crowd took in a sight of the heavens that looked like perfect flying weather. For test pilots, for air crew, for civilians and soaring birds, it was perfect.
Two fighter jets zoomed overhead in the distance, gone by the time their sound trail roared.
“Look up in the sky,” said Brown. “It all happened here.”
Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1 to break the sound barrier 76 years ago, the X-15 rocket plane flying past the edge of space in the 1960s, the space shuttle, testing and landing in the 1970s and 80s. All of that happened in those powder-blue skies above Edwards.
Dignitaries joined Brown May 5, 2023, to officially kick off the campaign to fund completion of the 75,000-foot hangar-like structure that will house the future Flight Test Museum at Edwards.
Brown was a good choice to explain some of the excitement in a massive expansion to the existing museum. The new facility will be outside the West Gate of the California desert base described as the “Flight Test Center of the Universe” and home of the “Right Stuff” test pilots and astronauts recounted in Tom Wolfe’s book about Edwards’ earliest glory days.
An Air Force graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards, and former chief test pilot for Lockheed Martin, Brown briefly shared his credentials with nearly 100 civic leaders gathered to launch a $1.2 million anticipated six-month fund-raising drive.
“I have been lucky enough to fly the F-117 and F-22 as chief test pilot,” he said, adding, “I have been lucky enough to fly above 70,000 feet to see the darkness of space and curvature of the Earth.
“I’ve flown two times the speed of sound and seen my shock wave streak across the desert floor … “I’ve even flown airplanes backwards.”
A new flight museum will recognize the history and achievements of pilots, but also engineers, and support crews, and all the people “with greasy hands and bloody knuckles” who have made air and space programs that defined the American experience in the 20th and 21st centuries, Brown said.
He invoked the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of the concept of gravity, and quoted him, saying, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
“The great aeronautical achievements that have enabled the U.S. to maintain dominance of the skies were accomplished right here at Edwards Air Force Base,” Brown said.
The museum under construction outside the base’s West Gate is a skeleton of steel girders on concrete foundation. The building’s completion was stalled by the COVID pandemic and the inflation that came with it.
Art Thompson, renowned engineer and Chair of the Flight Test Museum Foundation, said that because of rapidly rising costs the $1.2 million campaign is needed “to put the skin on the building.”
The new museum, replacing a much smaller facility inside the base, will house 80 different cutting-edge aircraft, all first tested in the skies above Edwards. But the Museum Foundation vision is for something grander than a military aircraft museum, Thompson said.
“The mission of foundation is preserving heritage and history not only of beautiful hardware, but the people, the people who created our community, people who made us the ‘Center of the Aerospace Universe, the Aerospace Valley,’” Thompson said.
The new museum site sits outside the gate, aligned with the “Century Circle” of historic fighter jets, including the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-104 Starfighter and F-105 Thunderchief. The planes rest, waiting to be sheltered from the harsh winds and dust that blows off Rogers Dry Lake, home of many space shuttle landings.
Thompson, who was part of engineering team that developed the B-2 stealth bomber, said the museum’s role is envisioned as “an education and communications center,” to attract students ranging from elementary grades to university. It will become a Mecca for Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics training and research.
Civic leaders gathered at the museum superstructure included Kathy MacLaren, President of AV EDGE, the Economic Development and Growth Enterprise. She also represents the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“When my kids were growing up, I was the mom who always wanted to go on the field trip, and I got to take them to the Flight Test Museum, the small one inside the base,” MacLaren said. “You never know what it is that’s going to inspire someone young to make a life choice about what they’re going to go out and do.”
Museum Director George Welsh said even without expansion, the current facility attracted 50,000 visitors in 2022. He estimated the museum would easily double that, and he echoed MacLaren’s sentiments about inspiration.
“I have met people here at Edwards who were kids in classes I visited, and they come back to tell me that they are working here in our programs.”
Once complete, the museum will be turned over to the Air Force, but no Department of Defense funds are allocated, so all fundraising must come from private sources, corporations, and individuals.
Brian Sandberg, president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, hailed the museum as future home of the Bob Hoover Flight Test Research Library and archives. The archives detail the history of flight test since the 1940s amid the programs that developed America’s first jet fighter in deep secrecy during World War II.
The new museum, estimated for completion within three years, “will attract thousands of visitors, adding millions of dollars to our economy,” Drew Mercy, Director of AV Edge, said. The regional economic impact of flight test and Edwards and Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale is nearly $2.8 billion, Mercy said.
The Museum Foundation is seeking “Life Friend” memberships for $1,000 contributions that can be spread over three years, Thompson said. The organization is also seeking sponsorships that can be used in corporate marketing programs.
Information about the fund drive can be found at https://flighttestmuseum.org/.
The day’s event concluded with official recognitions from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, as well as from State Sen. Scott Wilk, Assembly members Tom Lackey and Shannon Grove. Additional recognitions came from Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner and Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.