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Air Force Flight Test Center Has a Tradition of Exploring the Unknown

Air Force Materiel Command: 20th Anniversary

It’s the home of the right stuff.

The motto of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) is ad inexplorata, usually rendered as “toward the unknown.”

Dealing with the unexplored is part of flight-testing at AFFTC, a component of Air Force Materiel Command, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. That doesn’t mean people in the command don’t know what they’re doing. “When you strap into the cockpit, you have a clear understanding of what will happen when the wheels leave the runway,” said retired Col. Ken Chilstrom, a test pilot at the center in the 1940s.

It has always been more than just a motto, said Brig. Gen. Robert C. Nolan II, AFFTC commander. “It conveys the spirit of our most important resource: smart, dedicated men and women who have made American air power what it is today who will ensure its preeminence into the future.”


Location, Location

The site for the test center was chosen because, at the time, it seemed almost as far away as the moon. In 1942, searching for a place to test the secret XP-59A Airacomet, America’s first jet aircraft, Col. Benjamin W. Chidlaw and Lt. Col. Ralph P. Swofford chose Muroc in southern California (named in reverse for the Corum brothers who settled the area). They found isolation and a natural runway at Rogers Dry Lake, the largest such lake in America. Today, the former Muroc Army Airfield is called Edwards Air Force Base, and the location seems less remote than it once did.

Bell P-59 Airacomet

Before the Air Force Flight Test Center got its name (in 1951), it was already the test site where America’s first jet aircraft, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, was put through its paces. U.S. Air Force via Robert F. Dorr

What hasn’t changed is AFFTC’s mission, spelled out in an official document – to conduct “developmental and follow-on testing and evaluation of manned and unmanned aircraft and related avionics, flight-control, and weapon systems.” AFFTC also operates the Air Force’s Test Pilot School, which trains test pilots, flight-test engineers, and flight-test navigators.

Muroc became the test center for some of the most hush-hush American aircraft, including the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter; the XP-86 prototype for the F-86 Sabre; the Bell XS-1 rocket plane in which Capt. Charles E. Yeager flew faster than sound on Oct. 14, 1947; and a series of Northrop flying wings. On June 5, 1948, the exotic YB-49 flying wing crashed on a test flight and co-pilot Capt. Glen Edwards was killed. The following year, on Dec. 8, the Muroc installation was renamed Edwards Air Force Base.

By the time the Air Force Flight Test Center was established on June 25, 1951, it had already existed in everything but name for nearly a decade; fully 40 types of aircraft had already made their first flights at Edwards. Many more have followed.

AFFTC and its neighbor and partner, the NASA Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility, have led the way in advancing aerospace technology. Lakebed Runway 18 became the landing facility for the X-15, a hypersonic research vehicle that flew for nearly a decade at Edwards. The base also supported flights by the NASA space shuttle orbiter. Shuttles often utilized Lakebed Runway 23 as a landing strip.

Northrop YB-49

The YB-49 Flying Wing bomber prototype in flight. Northrop test pilot Max Stanley completed the first flight of an all-jet powered version of the YB-49 on Oct. 21, 1947. Capt. Glen Edwards, for whom Edwards Air Force Base was named, was killed in a crash of a YB-49. U.S. Air Force Photo courtesy of the AFFTC History Office

Key figures who tested aircraft at Edwards have gone on to fame in the U.S. human spaceflight program. They include test pilot-astronauts Donald “Deke” Slayton, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Joseph Engle. Rogers Dry Lake made possible the development and testing of generations of American aircraft, leading to the space shuttle.

During decades of scientific and technological progress, the AFFTC tested and supported nearly every aircraft system to enter the Air Force inventory. Some of the best known aircraft in the Air Force today, like the F-22 Raptor, B-2 Spirit, and C-17 Globemaster III, were first put through their paces by test pilots and engineers at the center.

Referring to the center’s overall tradition of stepping up to the plate, center commander Nolan said, “Each of these developments has imposed seemingly insurmountable challenges that have been overcome through a combination of technical skill, ingenuity and resourceful leadership.”

Added Nolan, as quoted in an Air Force news release: “It [the center] has been on the cutting edge of every major development that has transformed the field of flight – the turbojet engine; supersonic and hypersonic flight; gliding return from space; the development of integrated electronic systems; fly-by wire flight controls; digital flight controls; electronic warfare; aircraft survivability; and the development of stealth technology.”

AFFTC operates the Edwards Flight Test Range, which includes 20,000 square miles of airspace, including three supersonic corridors and four aircraft spin areas. Besides flight test capabilities, Edwards has an array of ground test facilities. Officials don’t comment on speculation that AFFTC also oversees the Air Force’s secret test base at Groom Lake, Nevada – popularly dubbed Area 51.

Adjacent to the center is the AFFTC Museum, which preserves and displays the material history of the center and of Air Force flight-testing. The museum boasts 80 aircraft, with 32 on display (29 at Edwards and three at the AFFTC-managed SR-71 Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif.). Other artifacts include aircraft propulsion systems, missiles, technical drawings, test reports, personal memorabilia, photographs, and wind tunnel models.


Air Test Anniversary

Yeager anniversary flight

Brig. Gen. Robert C. Nolan II, AFFTC commander, and retired Brig. Gen. Charles E. Yeager celebrated the anniversary of the flight test center by flying supersonic in an F-16D Fighting Falcon. U.S. Air Force via Robert F. Dorr

The Air Force Flight Test Center had its 60th anniversary on June 25, 2011, and celebrated the milestone on Oct. 14, 2011 – the month and day of Yeager’s famous supersonic flight. AFFTC commander Nolan and Yeager strapped into an F-16D Fighting Falcon and flew faster than sound – again – while hundreds participated in festivities at the center.

During the ceremony Yeager was presented the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award,” for his longevity and leadership in the safety of aviation.

The anniversary event also included booths manned by base personnel and stationary aircraft displays of the T-38C Talon, F-16, F-22, B-1B Lancer and the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The AFFTC is currently home to six F-35s.

Singing the praises of the test center is nothing new. Toward the Unknown was a 1956 movie about test pilots starring William Holden and Lloyd Bridges. The Right Stuff was a book by Tom Wolfe and a 1983 movie in which Sam Shepard played supersonic pioneer Yeager.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...