It is the Air Force's premier showcase for hotshot test pilots--a desert air base where members of the "Right Stuff" fraternity immortalized by writer Tom Wolfe push the envelope in America's fastest, most exotic aircraft--and try not to get killed in the process.
Indeed, Edwards Air Force Base is named for a pilot, Glenn Edwards, who died there while testing a tail-less aircraft called the Flying Wing. Since the late 1940s, about 55 military and civilian test pilots have perished at the base.
But for Air Force test pilots, Edwards--on the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 95 miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles--is the place to be. With its superb flying weather and huge dry-lake runways, it has been the takeoff point for aircraft ranging from the XP-80, the nation's first jet fighter, to the B-2 stealth bomber.
Altitude records have been set and speed records routinely shattered. But experimental aircraft are unforgiving, and Wolfe described the last moments of their unluckiest pilots this way:
"Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a 15-ton length of pipe, with all aerodynamics long gone, and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God ... but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: "I've tried A! I've tried B! I've tried C! I've tried D! Tell me what else I can try!"
The Air Force's famed Test Pilot School at Edwards enrolls candidates for test pilots, navigators and engineers, who attend classes for 10 1/2 months.
Year established: 1951
Total graduates: 2,124 (only six have washed out).
Cost to taxpayers: $850,000 per student.
Requirements: Test-pilot students must have a BS degree in engineering, mathematics or physics, as well as 1,000 hours of flying time.
Average age: 29-1/2.
Planes flown: Range from old T-38 trainers to modern F-16 fighters.
The list of test pilots associated with Edwards reads like a who's who of the best-known test pilots in America. Among them:
Graduated twice from the Test Pilot School, in 1946 and 1951. Broke the sound barrier in 1947 in an experimental Bell X-1 named "Glamorous Glennis," for his wife.
Former NASA test pilot at Edwards. As commander of the Apollo 11 space flight, was first person to set foot on the moon.
TPS, 1960. Command pilot of Apollo 8, first lunar-orbit mission in 1968. Later, top executive with Eastern Airlines.
Leroy (Gordon) Cooper
TPS, 1956. One of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts; later worked on Apollo moon-landing program.
TPS, 1989. First woman TPS graduate, first woman astronaut; flew space shuttle.
Source: Edwards Air Force Base
Researched by JACK CHEEVERS / Los Angeles Times