One of the bigger attractions at the Antelope Valley Air Show, held at Edwards AFB, was the appearance of the Darkstar plane from Top Gun Maverick. Obviously not a real plane (and not even the real Darkstar which was a reconnaissance UAV that never progressed beyond testing), it was part of a hugely popular movie so garnered a ton of attention. It was parked in the static display alongside a very real SR-71 Blackbird. This was something I found far more interesting having seen them fly for real in my younger days. The Darkstar was still fun to see. I am not that churlish.
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Blackbird Air Park
Alongside, connected to but not part of Joe Davies Historic Airpark is Blackbird Airpark. On the south side of Palmdale’s airport, this area pays tribute to some of the most iconic products from Plant 42 across the airfield. Lockheed’s Skunk Works turned out some amazing aircraft and this exhibit includes an A-12, an SR-71, a U-2 and an D-21 drone. Having an A-12 next to an SR-71 is pretty special. You have to look closely to see which is which. A selection of black airframes together in the desert sun does not make for easy photography and there are lots of power lines and fences in the background but it would be churlish to complain too much. It is free after all!
I got to the gate for Antelope Valley Air Show 2022 early in the morning. We were lined up outside the security gate for Edwards AFB waiting for the time things opened up. I was on the phone so was happy to sit in the car for a while chatting. When I finished my call, I could see that I was a short distance away from Century Circle – a display of various aircraft associated with Edwards. Nothing was moving so I figured I would walk up and have a look around. I had got most of the way there when it looked like cars were starting to move. I rapidly retraced my steps to the car and we drove on to the base.
At the end of the show, I was coming back out the same gate so decided to see if it was possible to pull in and see the aircraft on display. Indeed, there were no barriers and Iw as able to park up and have a walk around the various exhibits. The name, Century Circle, is a reference to how many of the jets are Century Series fighters. There is going to be a museum for the Air Force flight test center and the base for the building was not far from the aircraft. I will be interesting to see what the museum is like when it is finished and how many of the other interesting aircraft that are currently on base will be included.
Of the jets on display, my favorites are the F-106, the F-105 and the F-104. Nicely sequential now I think about it. There is an F-102 which I have never been so keen on and this one is a two seater which takes a place that didn’t look that great and makes it worse. Still, vintage jets on display is a good thing and I shouldn’t be critical of what is on offer.
The one plane that is a bit of an oddball is the McDonnell Douglas YC-15. This was a program the USAF ran for a new jet transport to replace the C-130. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas both built demonstrators for the program but neither was taken to production. However, there are a lot of features from the YC-15 that will be familiar to observers of the C-17. Having a transport jet alongside the sleek fighters is a little unusual but it is a rare beast and worthy of preservation. Thankfully, the dry desert atmosphere is a place that will allow the airframe to survive for many years.
This Is Not Your Standard Dornier
I have subscribed to Flight International for a very long time. I used to have it ordered with my local newsagent in Cowes when I was in high school, I got it ordered by Smiths in Kensington High Street when I was a student and, when I had a job after graduation, I finally got a proper subscription set up. That has continued ever since but, these days, Flight has become a digital only subscription for me. Still, I have continued it all these years despite having left the industry long ago. It does provide me with information on unusual test programs and that includes the Lockheed Martin X-55 Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA).
This was a demonstrator program for a new composite fuselage construction. The baseline aircraft was a Dornier 328Jet but it had its fuselage replaced by a composite one that LM built using advanced techniques and with a far shorter lead time. As a demonstrator, things did not go quite as smoothly as they might have but that is why you do programs such as this. It was never intended to be a production jet. It was to show what could be done with the technology if required. The jet was flown for a number of tests but I think building it was the bigger part of the program.
Once testing was complete, the airframe became part of the collection at the Joe Davies Airpark in Palmdale. When I saw it was there, I was very interested to see it. I suspect, for a lot of the visitors to the Airpark, it is one of the less interesting aircraft on display. The signs explain what it is all about but that is probably of little interest to many visitors. For a geek like me, though, it was probably one of the most interesting aircraft in the collection. Sure, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is special but there are two of those. This aircraft is unique. Having read about it long ago, seeing it in person is special. (If I ever get to see the Boeing 360 helicopter demonstrator, this will be the same thing.)
Aussie Tanker on Show
The KC-46 will end up being a big selling tanker because the USAF will buy loads and a few export customers will follow suit. However, where open competitions have been held, the Airbus A330 MRTT has been most successful. It is developing a wide customer base and one of those customer is the Royal Australian Air Force. They have brought their tankers, known as KC30, to the US on exercises but I had not seen one in person until I got to the Antelope Valley Air Show at Edwards AFB. The tanker was sitting on the ramp in the static area. It was looking particularly clean for a military jet and was configured with both the boom and the underwing pods for probe and rogue refueling. Fitting in a big jet in a busy ramp is tricky so a pano can help out making a shot possible. Now I just need to see one actually airborne!
Mojave Gate Guards
At the main entrance to the airport at Mojave is an area with some preserved aircraft from test programs. While Mojave is not particularly welcoming to visiting photographers on most of their land, this location seems to be just fine. The dominant aircraft is an ex-NASA Convair CV990. It was used for Space Shuttle landing gear trials amongst many other things. It is joined by an ex-USAF F-4 Phantom and a SAAB 35 Draken that had a second life at Mojave after retirement from the Royal Danish Air Force.
Edwards Plane On A Pole
Heading into the show at Edwards took you past a lot of planes that had been preserved outside the base buildings. The parking areas around these buildings had been coned off given that there were thousands of vehicles making their way along the roads so stopping to grab shots looked like it might be frowned upon. However, we weren’t always moving so it was possible to grab shots out of the window. I would like to have got more and have seen the shots of others that I missed but I did get a P-59 Airacomet on one of the poles which is a relatively rare beast.
Edwards AFB might be the home of the USAF flight test center but it is also home for NASA’s Armstrong test center. Consequently, NASA was included in the flying display. They put up a three ship formation that mad a series of passes. The formation was led by a Gulfstream with an F-15 and an F/A-18 on the wing tips. The Eagle is one that has been with NASA for years and is painted in a white scheme. The Hornet was still in Strike Test colors from Pax River but I have no idea how long it has been with NASA.
The two jets also did some demonstrations of sonic booms as they maneuvered high above the crowd with the booms reaching the ground at different times depending on how high they had been created. The sound was also modified by the maneuvering of the jet. Formations like this don’t appear regularly at air shows so this was a welcome addition to the flying program.
Joe Davis Airpark
I have been through Palmdale a few times but none of those previous trips coincided with a time when the Joe Davis Airpark was open. I got to look through the fence at the aircraft on display but couldn’t go in. This time, I was better prepared and was able to check the place out at my leisure (if you ignore having to do a Teams call halfway through while trying to find some shade and avoid noisy kids). As it happened, they were planning on closing earlier than scheduled that day so I could have had another miss if I had waited until later in the day!
The park has a wide variety of aircraft types scattered around. Photography is okay as things are not right on top of each other but the desert sun is still pretty harsh and so doesn’t make for the best results. Still, I’m not going to stop shooting images just for that reason. There are a couple of more unusual types on display and at least one of those is going to get its own post. There are plenty of fighters and trainers. An F-14 is always a welcome jet on display but an A-7 is also going to go down well with me as will an F-101. The C-140 was a nice surprise as I do like a JetStar.
The larger aircraft start with a C-46 which was a bit close to the fence so made for a more busy background. It is a small exhibit compared to the two largest items on display. B-52s are well represented in museums around the US. They were certainly built in large quantities. This one has a Hound Dog missile alongside. Next to it, though, is the most special asset. A 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Retired by NASA at the end of the Shuttle program, it now resides in the sun a short distance from its old home at Edwards.
D558-II Skyrocket On Campus
The NASA high speed research program was underway in parallel with the USAF’s X Plane program. While NASA was less focused on record setting, they did have one blast of glory when they were the first to hit Mach 2. The aircraft that they used was the D558-II Skyrocket. Three of the airframes were built and they all still survive. Originally designed to have a jet engine for take off and landing and a rocket for high speed flight, the later aircraft did not have the jet and were air dropped for their missions.
One of the early airframes is now on display in the City of Lancaster on the campus of Antelope Valley college. Since I was staying nearby, I decided to swing by on the Sunday morning to see the plane. The campus was nearly deserted and it felt like I was doing something I shouldn’t but there was no problem walking around the campus. The plane is mounted on a pole in a dynamic pose towards the sky as seems appropriate. I had chosen a good time because the light on the plane was pretty good.
The Skyrocket is a sleek airframe as you would expect for something that first broke Mach 2. Being painted white also helps it look slightly futuristic. I spent a bit of time wandering around and trying different angles on the subject to make it look as cool as possible. I had just about finished when my buddy Chris showed up so I spent more time trying to get in the way of his shots!