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Activity Taking Flight at Edwards Once More

Upsurge in Testing of Military Aircraft Gives Economic Boost to Antelope Valley

October 24, 2002|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

From the cockpit of an F-16, the Mojave Desert is an unrelenting sea of brown -- flat and seemingly lifeless. But as the pilot prepares to land, the bustle of Edwards Air Force Base suddenly springs into view.

Hundreds of feet below, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a new hangar for the world's first aircraft to bear laser weapons. Another crew huddles around a B-52 bomber, fitting it with new computers. As they work, an F/A-22 jet fighter streaks by, generating a teeth-rattling sonic boom.

After downsizing for most of the 1990s, Edwards is flying high again, developing and testing the world's most advanced aircraft -- and providing a potent boost to the Antelope Valley economy.

The base has added 1,000 civilian employees in the last year, and its budget is on pace to exceed last year's by more than 50%. For the first time in a long time, officials are fretting about heavy morning traffic that has become increasingly common on the main road leading into the base.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, money is pouring into Edwards to speed development of new aircraft and weapon systems. Virtually every piece of airborne equipment used in Afghanistan was developed and tested at Edwards.

The base got a big lift Wednesday when President Bush signed a $355.1-billion defense spending bill, the largest increase in two decades. The budget, which reflects an increase of 12%, provides a significant boost for development including the F/A-22 and the F-35 joint strike fighter, both of which are being developed and tested at Edwards.

"For the next several years, our prospects look pretty bright," said Maj. Gen. Wilbert "Doug" Pearson, the new base commander who in a 1985 test at Edwards became the first pilot to shoot down an orbiting satellite. "We're seeing a dramatic increase in people's understanding of our mission."

To maintain the momentum, the usually secretive base is holding its first conference for aerospace companies today, hoping to drum up more business amid fears of repeating the boom-and-bust cycles that typically followed other defense buildups. Base officials will show off their testing facilities to Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and others, in hopes of getting more work for Edwards.

This weekend, Edwards is bringing back its famed air show, an event that drew half a million people in the past but whose attendance had dwindled to barely 100,000 before it was canceled last year after the terrorist attacks. With renewed interest in the military since the attacks, Edwards officials believe the air show could draw as many as 250,000 people.

The comeback at Edwards is welcome news for the long-suffering Antelope Valley, whose residents are seeing a resurgence in the local economy. Edwards, with a population of 16,000 people, is the largest employer in the region, which includes Palmdale and Lancaster.

"It's booming again," said David Myers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. Combined with an influx of people from the Los Angeles area looking for affordable homes, "houses are selling as soon as they come on the market."

The precise effect of the buildup at Edwards is unclear. The most recent study by Myers' group was conducted in 2000, when it estimated that Edwards pumped more than $1.5 billion into the local economy. Even so, there are other signs of Edwards' positive effect.

Home sales and prices, for example, are up substantially -- which Myers attributes partly to increased activity at Edwards. Sales of new and existing homes in Lancaster and Palmdale rose 15.5% in the first nine months of the year compared with the same period last year. By comparison, home sales were up 8.4% in Los Angeles County overall.

While Edwards officials are reluctant to say or predict how many new jobs have been or would be created on base -- many are for classified programs that are not publicly acknowledged -- Antelope Valley officials believe the base already has added about 1,000 jobs in the last year.

"I do see employment figures rising slowly but steadily over the next several years as a number of our programs begin to ramp up," Pearson said.

The Antelope Valley's aerospace boom isn't confined to Edwards. At nearby Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale Airport, defense contractors design aircraft and new weapon systems that are tested at Edwards. Employment at Plant 42 rose this year to 9,000 from 7,000, Myers said.

At Edwards, the test flight program for the F/A-22, the sophisticated fighter that can fly at supersonic speed without using afterburners, is seen adding 70 more engineers to its roster of 800 people in the next six months. Another several hundred people will be added when the F-35, the next-generation fighter jet that is also known as the joint strike fighter, begins test flights at Edwards.

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