The motto of the United States Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) is “Ad Inexplorata” which is Latin for “Towards The Unexplored” and for the men and women of Edwards Air Force Base, it has always been more than just a motto, It has reflected an attitude extending from the Center’s past, through its present and onto its future. Mark Forest reports from Edwards Flight Test Center for Aero Resource, with additional photographs from Paul Newbold.

During mid February 2010 I was given the opportunity to photograph in and around the most famous and historic Air Force Base in the United States. Edwards Air Force Base, located in the Mojave Desert, California is the scene of more major milestones in the history of flight than any other place on earth. The morning which was spent with the pilots and crews who routinely say, “We do things first” was nothing less than inspiring and it was humbling to be in their company for this short period.

Edwards AFB is situated in the vast expanse of Rogers Dry Lake, a natural landing field for aircraft and the Space Shuttle. The lakebed itself is 12.5 miles long by 5 miles wide; its elevation is approximately 2300 feet and has a typical Desert climate. This very dry terrain averages no less than 345 sunny days per year and an average rainfall of just four inches per year. With conditions like these it is easy to see why Edwards is the USAF’s premier test location, as well as being NASA’s main relief landing field for the Space Shuttle. The base lies within the vast R-2508 restricted airspace complex, which is comprised of 20,000 square miles of highly instrumented ranges permitting unrestricted flight test from near ground level, up to the edge of space.

The AFFTC is tasked with supporting the USAF by conducting research, development, testing and evaluation of both manned and unmanned aerospace systems. Within this mission operates the USAF Test Pilot School, which moved to Edwards from Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio in 1951. The center has a number of  test bed aircraft which perform the duties listed below. These aircraft tested here range from general support aircraft to extensively modified weapon systems with a full range of instrumentation and avionics.

Flight Test Activities

Air To Air
Air To Ground
Barrier Test
Electronic Combat
Flying Qualities
Icing Tests
Take Off and Landing
Terrain Following
Unmanned Aerial Vechicle

Test and Support Aircraft


The AFFTC is also known throughout the world as home to the X-series Experimental Test aircraft. In 1946 testing began on the X-1, a rocket powered aircraft. On October 14 1947 the X-1 exceeded the speed of sound, piloted by Captain Chuck Yeager. The X-1 was affectionately known as “Glamorous Glennis”. For more than 60 years now these X planes and other experimental aircraft have pushed the envelope of flight to the edge of space. These very special aircraft have been at the leading edge of every major breakthrough in aviation history.

Milestones in Aviation History

Mach Speed Records

  1. 700+mph  Oct14 1947
  2. 1291mph   Nov 20 1953
  3. 2094mph   Sept 27 1956
  4. 2905mph   Mar 7 1961
  5. 3603mph   Jun 23 1961
  6. 4094mph   Nov 9 1961

6.7 4520mph   Oct 3 1967

Altitude Records

   50000 feet    Aug 8 1949
100000 feet  Sept 7 1956
200000 feet  Oct 11 1961
300000 feet   Jul 17 1962

Technological Breakthroughs

   Turbojet flight  1942
Supersonic flight 1947
Vertical takeoff and landing  1957
Hypersonic flight  1961
Stealth technology  1979
Supercruise flight  1990

With figures such as the above it is easy to see why Edwards is so proud of its history, and rightly so.

On Base

Before entering the ramp area I was allowed to visit the many preserved aircraft around the base. With blue skies and lots of sunshine photographing these aircraft would prove to be very rewarding. After photographing many planes on poles, I was treated to a quick visit to the AFFTC Museum. This small but well laid out museum had some lovely exhibits including a YA-10B, B –52D, YA-7D and YF-111A to name but a few.

Next stop was the Test Pilots School ramp. Here could be found a multitude of  F-16’s  and T-38’s, all in different paint schemes. Full access was granted to the many barns that protected the Edwards aircraft from the desert sun. Although only a short amount of time was spent here, many aircraft were noted entering and exiting the ramp.

Adjacent to the Test Pilot school was the Marine Corps hanger and ramp of HMM-764, a CH-46E Sea Knight unit currently detached to Edwards. In and around their hanger were a number of little gems. Noted amongst the many CH-46’s were an A-3A, X-4, T-33, NASA F-15 “HIDEC” and T-38A. On the rear ramp a F-16 “VISTA” and privately owned Mig-15.

Before the final stop of the day, a quick photograph or two of a visiting 319ARW KC-135R from Grand Forks AFB was permitted, then on to a lovely freshly painted SR-71A in gloss black, not exactly an authentic scheme but painted so to protect the airframe from the constant blistering sunlight.

A twenty minute ride to the cross runway on the far side of the base would provide one of the best hours photography I have ever experienced. With clear blue skies and the sun behind it was time to have some real fun. F-16 after F-16 would perform touch and goes right in front of me, followed by T-38’s galore and a few C-12’s. Then finally the sound of something very stealthy. Unfortunately not F-35’s but a pair of F-22A Raptors taxiing on the far side. Both aircraft sat on hold for nearly 30 minutes, before the pair of test machines were finally cleared to depart, and rotated right in front of my position. Job done; the flying shots were in the bag and it was time to depart to the NASA Dryden facility for the second visit of the day at Edwards. Handshakes and few goodbyes followed, then a mad rush to get to Dryden.

Thanks must go to the Director of  the USAF Test Wing (PA) for the hospitality shown whilst on base around Edwards and for taking the time to plan and organise with me this very special base tour. It has been a pleasure meeting some of the many staff  based upon Edwards.