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Heat Keeps Crowds Down on 1st Day of Edwards Air Show

October 10, 1999|SUE FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Denise Bleak has scanned the skies for the sleek, dark bird for years, catching glimpses of it now and then as it soared over the desert.

On Saturday, the Santa Paula woman saw the winged marvel up close, resting just yards away on the tarmac at Edwards Air Force Base. Bleak said the F-117 Nighthawk, a stealth fighter unveiled 11 years ago, was her "favorite plane of all time."

"I see it flying through the hills," she said. "You wouldn't know it was a plane at first, and then you'd see it was this flying black wedge. I thought it was a condor once."

But the highlight of the annual air show, the attraction that had people lined up with camcorders held aloft, was the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's next-generation fighter. The plane is still being tested at Edwards.

In the air, the $200-million plane is the most advanced fighter in the world, intended to be a lethal blend of stealth, agility and speed. On the ground, the stolid gray war machine built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing Aircraft was hailed by some spectators as a work of art.

"I like the form," said one admirer.

"Look at the geometry of it," murmured another. "There are no sharp angles."

In past years, the weekend air show has drawn as many as 800,000 people. But Saturday, the crowds were thin, as the heat topped 92 degrees on the western fringes of the Mojave Desert, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

The Air Force expected up to half a million people at the event. But by Saturday afternoon, officials estimated that only 50,000 to 60,000 people had shown up.

The show continues today, with gates opening at 7 a.m.

Edwards, the high desert Air Force base that serves as the proving ground for new military planes, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its renaming in honor of Capt. Glen Edwards, a pilot killed while testing a flying-wing bomber in 1948.

On Saturday, the Air Force and NASA also toasted the 40th anniversary of the X-15 research program, whose rocket-powered hypersonic planes led to the development of the Apollo and other spaceflight programs.

Four X-15 pilots were honored, including state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), who 32 years ago set a world speed record by flying 4,520 mph--more than six times the speed of sound.

"That record still stands, unfortunately," Knight told the crowd. "It's outrageous that we've allowed that to stand. We are down technologically, and we need to get back up."

"Yeah!" screamed one particularly enthusiastic onlooker, Rebecca Amlin of Westminster. "Faster!"

In a calmer moment, Amlin said she was inspired by the trailblazing spirit of the X-15 pilots. She learned about them and other aviation pioneers, she said, by watching the History Channel.

"Those are men of history, man, flat out," Amlin said. "With all the technology that we have, we still haven't gone faster."

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