The Antelope Valley Airshow at Edwards AFB last year gave access to some very unusual airframes including some unique types. In the 90s, an F-16D airframe was converted into a variable stability testbed. It was used for test pilot training but also became a testbed for other technologies. Known as VISTA, it also tested a thrust vectoring nozzle on the engine as MATV, performing some amazing maneuvers. I know one of the test pilots that flew it including when it misbehaved!
The aircraft continues to be used for new developments and, relatively recently, it was re-designated to be an X-plane. It is now known as the X-62 while continuing to perform some of its original test pilot training roles. It was on display in one of the hangars at Edwards. It was a bit hard to get good shots of it since everything was rather crowded, but I was able to get a few that I was happy with.
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.
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.
The aerial display by the SOFIA was a high point of the Antelope Valley Air Show 2022 at Edwards AFB. When it finished, it landed and taxied in to it parking location. I was at that end of the ramp so was able to watch it come in and position prior to being maneuvered into its final position. Being that close to a 747 is always pretty impressive since even the SPs are large jets. Everyone was crowding to see it come in and it was drawing attention away from some of the flying display!
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!
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.
During the air show at Edwards AFB, there was a lot of maneuvering of aircraft high above the crowds. There was a little cloud at higher levels – not enough to stop it being almost uncomfortably hot, but enough to be visible – and the planes that flew through this level left their wakes through the cloud layers breaking them up and forming patterns where they had been. I thought this looked really cool and, because the show was backlit, the sun was coming through these patterns and the shadows made them appear more conspicuous. A C-17 flew across at one point which gives you some idea of the scale of these interesting patterns in the sky.
One of the highlights of the show at Edwards Air Force Base was the appearance of NASA and DLR’s SOFIA airframe. A Boeing 747SP that has been converted for infra-red astronomy, this was my first time seeing SOFIA. It has a large telescope mounted in the rear fuselage with a huge rotating door that opens up when at cruising altitude – above the majority of the atmospheric blockage to IR – to allow the telescope to make observations.
SOFIA is being retired. There is a debate about whether this is purely budget related or whether the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (which also observes in the infra red spectrum), means that it is no longer needed. Whatever the reasons, it is being retired and this show was a bit of a swan song. As part of this, they actually opened up the door for the telescope which, apparently, is a first since it was first commissioned other than while it was observing.
The plane made a run in from show left making a cool pass but this was the side without the telescope visible. They then turned around and made a banked pass along the crowd line with the telescope visible. At first I thought that they had blown it because they had a nice bank angle on but were lining up too soon. However, they straightened up for a while before bringing the bank back on and giving the crowd a good view.
They landed after this and taxied in to where I was waiting but that will be a separate post.
There was a grey camo F-16 on the ramp at the air show at Edwards this year. When I saw it I was really excited but I think I was in the minority. I mentioned to a photographer next to me how cool it was and he commented on the air data boom. I told him it was an F-16XL and he had no idea what that was. The XL was the long range strike version of the F-16 that went up against and lost to the F-15E Strike Eagle. Two jets were built and they ended up having some test duties including so work for NASA. The single seater was the jet on the ramp for the show.
It has a large cranked delta wing but, from a normal viewpoint, that can be seen but isn’t obvious. A look at the shadows, though, and you know what you are dealing with. The airframe is an early fiscal number – the next jet became the AFTI aircraft – and the rear fuselage has the mounting points for an anti-spin chute rig. This jet has done a lot in its flying days but it is now a museum piece.