By: DENNIS ANDERSON Special to the Valley Press, Aug 10, 2023
EDWARDS AFB — The Flight Test Museum at the nation’s foremost test flight base was nearly new when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed the facility that became inaccessible to the general public on a secure military base.
In Palmdale, a major city in Aerospace Valley, the hospitality industry is making a major commitment to building the revamped and expanded Flight Test Museum outside the gate of the world’s premier flight test base.
The expanded museum site is outside the gate of the base, a skeletal structure of steel girders and concrete foundations that needs to be finished and is in the midst of a major fund-raising drive.
The non-profit “Visit Palmdale” announced a $50,000 donation to finishing the structure that will house the museum under construction outside the west gate of Edwards.
The museum, the fruit of more than 30 years of effort by the Flight Test Museum Foundation, is being built entirely with private donor funds. Still, the facility currently housed just inside the base perimeter is a shrine to all that made the Antelope Valley known around the world as “Aerospace Valley.”
“Everything began here,” said Art Thompson, Chairman of the Flight Test Foundation Board. “After Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers, it all happened here.”
By that, Thompson, means everything from breaking the sound barrier for the first time in 1947 by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 to development of the lunar lander for the Apollo moon shot program and the space shuttles that defined the era of early space exploration.
Thompson, a renowned engineer of projects including the Red Bull-sponsored “Free Fall From Space” project, is in the midst of a key fund-raising drive to get the new museum structure finished.
On hand for the check presentation was Megan Taggart, executive director of Visit Palmdale, and its chairman, City Councilman Austin Bishop, and Vice Chair Randy Miranda, an area hotelier.
At the Friday presentation, Brig. Gen. Matthew W. Higer, outgoing commander of the 412th Test Wing, turned out to wish the group well. With Thompson, he circled one of the Flight Test Museum’s prize displays, the Mach-3-Plus SR-71 historic spy plane known affectionately as “Blackbird.”
Making the Aerospace Valley a destination for aviation enthusiasts, a companion spyplane resides at “Blackbird Airpark” on Avenue P in Palmdale, along with a historic U-2, both planes the brainchildren of legendary designer Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Martin’s historic “Skunk Works.”
Likening the group to its sister organization, Destination Lancaster, Luis Garibay, a city official, said, “We understand that it is important to the entire Antelope Valley to get this museum up and running.”
Garibay, director of Business Development for Palmdale, noted that Blackbird Air Park, and Joe Davies Air Park, are attractions to Palmdale that are associated with the Flight Test Museum. To that point, he added, the museum expansion at Edwards has potential to be a regional, even a national attraction.
Rex Moen, leading the fund-raising drive, said the Palmdale delegation was inspired when the drive was announced at the museum site on May 5. With $170,000 raised so far, the group is seeking to inspire others to contribute to the six-month effort, Moen said.
“The goal of ‘Visit Palmdale’ is to bring out of town visitors,” Garibay said. “It is a partnership of the city and local hotels. What we hope is that the donation will get people talking and want to contribute to the museum.”
The museum under construction outside the base’s west gate is a skeleton of steel and aluminum on concrete foundation. The building’s completion was stalled by the COVID pandemic and the inflation that came with it.
Thompson, renowned engineer and Chair of the Flight Test Museum Foundation, said the $1.2 million campaign is needed “to put the skin on the building.”
The COVID pandemic delayed construction and increased the price tag.
The new museum, replacing the much smaller facility inside the base, will house 80 different 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 chairman, who was part of engineering team that ushered in the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, said the museum’s role is envisioned as “an education and communications center” that will attract students ranging from elementary school to university. It will become a mecca for STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) training and research.
George Welsh, the museum’s director, said even without expansion, the current facility attracted 50,000 visitors in 2022. He estimated the museum would easily double that, and he echoed Kathy 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.”
The new museum, estimated for completion within three years, “will attract thousands of visitors to our three-county area, 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 $2.8 billion, Mercy said.
The Flight Test 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.
Details about the museum and foundation can be found online at https://flighttestmuseum.org. The foundation uses no Department of Defense funds.