Situated in the huge Edwards Air Force Base complex in the Mojave Desert is the Dryden Flight Research Centre (DFRC). Mark Forest and Stuart Skelton visit for AeroResource to give an insight into the incredible facility. 

This division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) concentrates primarily on Aeronautical Research Development and Testing of some of the worlds most advanced aircraft and flight systems. The other main mission of Dryden is the support centre to Space Shuttle Operations and the International Space Station.

Before NASA’s inception in 1958, the facility was at the forefront of aviation research and was known under a different name, as the Muroc Flight Test Unit but on March 26 1976 it was renamed Dryden (DFRC) in memory of NASA’s deputy administrator Hugh L Dryden who sadly died in 1965.

On February 25 2010 I was invited along by NASA to visit, photograph and speak with the staff of this remarkable Operating Facility.

After a very long drive from the Edward’s west gate you arrive at NASA’s visitors Area. Here you are greeted with some of the world’s finest, and most photogenic preserved aircraft. In the small Airpark that surrounds the administration buildings are some of the craft from NASA’s illustrious history. Preserved are F-8A, F-8C, F-104G, SR-71A, X-1E, X-15 (replica), Northrop HL-10 and finally an X-29.

Upon arrival to the Public Affairs Office I was greeted by Alan Brown, who is the Public Affairs Commercialisation & Education Specialist. Alan would prove to be a very informative and excellent guide around the Dryden Facility. Unfortunately due to issues entering the West gate I was running two hours behind schedule so the visit commenced mid afternoon, which meant that nearly all aircraft seen were hangared for the day, but this in no way detracted from the visit.

The First hangar to be visited was home to the Ikhana, a modified Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The strange name of the Ikhana comes from the Choctaw Native American word for intelligent, conscious or aware. This airborne platform is used for long duration Earth observation, the development safety improvement of UAV technologies and sensor validation.

In late October 2007 it’s sensors and technology were put to the test when wild land fires helped by the Santa Ana winds spread across the southern states of California. The remotely piloted Ikhana flew over major blazes carrying the Autonomous Modular Scanner (AMS), a Thermal-Infrared Imaging System. This system was able to peer through heavy smoke and darkness to see hotspots, flares and temperature differences. The real time images were transmitted to Fire Incident Commanders on the ground who were then able to allocate the Firefighting resources accordingly.

Next stop was the “Bone Yard”, a small area in between the large hangars where a small selection of none serviceable NASA Test bed platforms and Chase aircraft are stored. Not many aircraft are stored here but what was visible proved to be very interesting and photogenic. The area contained  FA-18A ‘s a F-16XL and a systems test rig named “Iron bird”. The F-16XL left wing was completely different to it’s other standard wing. When speaking with Alan he explained that the left wing was covered with a metal glove and perforated with millions of near microscopic laser cut holes.

These additions to the design of the wing’s leading edges and surfaces would help to control the Laminar airflow. These tests would help reduce drag (friction) then in turn reduce fuel consumption and operating costs. This project flew some 45 mission’s from October 1995 to November 1996, and the results of the tests to this day, still remain classified.

The Research and test platform hangar would allow me to photograph one of my all time favourite aircraft, the F-15 Eagle, with this particular variant being a very early production NF-15B. This aircraft flew some 251 missions in its 35 year history and was primary used for thrust vectoring tests. It was retired from active service as a test platform on January 30th 2009. Plans at present are to display the aircraft in the Airpark at the front of the complex. Also present in hangar was another F-16XL and FA-18A marked “FAST”.

My final aircraft hangar to be visited before entering the Space Shuttle support area was the support aircraft hangar. Parked neatly in here were a wide selection of types. Noted were FA-18A/B’s, T-38B/N’s, YO-3A, NT-34C and a Beech 200. The FA-18’s are for the training, proficiency of NASA pilots and Mission support “Chase” planes, as are the T-38’s & Beech 200. The YO-3A is used for an acoustics research platform; finally the NT-34C is a safety chase plane and is additionally used for photographic data recording.

To close the visit I was taken to the Shuttle support area and escorted around one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). The SCA aircraft are a pair of highly modified Boeing 747’s, which transport the Space Shuttle Orbiter from landing sites back to the launch complex at NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

The Shuttlecraft are mounted on top of the giant SCA by a Mate-Demate platform gantry system. This huge gantry lifts the Shuttle into a secure position for Post Flight servicing and checks. Once these checks have been completed the Shuttle is placed on top of three struts that protrude  from the top of the SCA. Two additional vertical stabilizers are mounted either end of the horizontal stabilizers at the rear of the aircraft to provide directional stability.

Inside of the SCA all furniture, furnishings and equipment have been stripped out aft of the front entry crew doors. The performances of the SCA is Mach 0.6 mated or not, with a cruise altitude of 13000 to 15000 feet and a 1000 nautical miles range which rises to 5500 miles when unmated. The fuel capacity is 47210 gallons of jet fuel. Whilst mated there must be no less than two pilots and two flight engineers.

To have a tour round SCA number 905 was a truly unforgettable experience and one that I will probably never have again. With the end of Shuttle missions approaching in 2010 the role of the SCA will be no more, let’s hope that NASA can find another mission role for these giants of the skies.

I would to thank Alan Brown and his teammates for an very informative visit; very special thanks must go to Gray Creech for the many months spent in organising the tour (sorry you were of unable to attend the visit) and finally to Aero Resource for sponsoring me onto Dryden.