March 04, 2013

Photo Essay: Test Pilot Crash Sites in the Mojave Desert

Edwards Air Force Base has long figured importantly in the growth of both the jet age and the space age, largely attributable to its leadership in testing experimental aircraft. I've been wanting to take a tour of it for quite some time now, but I haven't gotten around to it.

So when I heard about a bus trip to various test pilot crash sites in and around Edwards AFB, I didn't have to take long to consider. In truth, I'll take any excuse to tramp around the Mojave Desert.

The Century Circle Air Force Flight Test Center not only features a rare and welcome 24/7 public restroom off the highway...

...but also historic, restored jets...

...that you can walk around and under...

...and get real close up to... the YC-15...

... which had short take-off and landing ability in the mid 1970s.

These were the aircraft that were being tested...

...and survived.

These aircraft did not break apart in the air...

...or nosedive into the desert.

The pilots of these models did not lose control.

They pioneered new avionics...

...pushing their ability to reach speeds of increasing Mach numbers...

...and land them safely.

Others were not so lucky. Others didn't make it.

There are over 600 crash sites in and around Edwards Air Force Base, from test pilots who bravely faced danger and met their untimely fates.

We set out on a bus to the Mojave Desert to see three of them, led by aerospace archaeologists who have identified at least 100 of them.

Because of the air force base's vast acreage, with a healthy buffer zone to protect any neighboring residential communities, many of the crashes happened out in the middle of nowhere. We took a school bus because of its off-roading capabilities and high clearance, which were necessary to navigate the unpaved roads, deep sand and hairpin turns to the sites.

At the first site, where the YB-49 broke apart in the air and its remains scattered onto the desert terrain in 1948, the nearby community of California City has erected a makeshift memorial...

...with a full-mast flag that used to be illuminated at night by solar lights (which have since gone missing).

Although scavengers and prospectors and historians have swept the site relatively clean of its debris, you can still find some rivets...

...rusty washers...

...and other detrius from the crashes.

You also find beer bottle glass shards, bullet casings, and other desert-friendly wreckage.

It's all pretty small, and the sites have been dug up so much over time that it's hard to envision the horror that happened there.

At the site of the 1967 X-15 crash, which occurred on private property, Eagle Scouts have built their own memorial a few hundred feet away, on BLM property used by off-roaders.

The X-15, one of the most successful research aircraft ever built, was designed to reach the edge of space, and only suffered one fatality: Major Michael J. Adams, who reached an altitude high enough to qualify him as an astronaut on his last, fatal flight.

This site, north of Boron and near Red Mountain (in the same general area as Randsburg), has finally found its peace, after being so picked over that Air Force Test Flight Center Museum curator Tony Moore was surprised to find anything there at all, including a tiny piece of what might be metal from the plane.

Plenty of tracks have been left behind by the land craft that frequent these paths now, 45 years later.

The feeling is solemn, somber, sobering, contemplative.

We were running late, and we'd taken our time at each of the previous sites to pay our respects to those who had been lost, but we had one more site to try to see before daylight was completely gone, and we had to get back to LA:

The NF-104A, piloted by Chuck Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier 15 years before crashing the Lockheed Starfighter in 1963.

Although the crash site was just off the side of the highway, we couldn't see anything, but we stood and paid tribute, just a few miles away from the Mojave Spaceport.

There's nothing we could do. We could only observe. And then we had to board our bus, and begin our safe journey back home under the dark, blinking sky.

Related Posts:
Spotting the Shuttle Endeavour on the Streets of LA
Photo Essay: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena
Photo Essay: Planespotting at Santa Monica Airport
Photo Essay: Taking Flight

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