The Aerospace Valley

Among the most intriguing places for aviation enthusiasts, the ‘Aerospace Valley’ is the name attributed to the flat desert area extending North of the town of Palmdale, which can be reached with an about 70 miles drive north of central LA along N.14.

This large desert basin, which extends further north to Mojave, some 35 miles from Palmdale on N.14, encompasses two installations of major relevance for the history of aeronautics and for todays air power research, namely Edwards AFB and the close-related Plant 42.

The former has been developed for decades basically with aircraft testing in mind, and is located on the dry Rogers Lake. Today it is still an active AFB, home of the 412th Test Wing and other units. It is also operating a NASA research center named after the first ever moon-walker Niels Armstrong. The installation has more than ten runways, some of them paved in sand. Visiting is obviously prohibited – there used to be planned visits, but this appears to be not any more the case today. This site is really huge, and would offer many interesting sights to the enthusiast, including some relics from the past abandoned in the desert far from the main buildings of the base – some buildings and runway have moved over time for convenience and trying to cope with the natural movements of the desert sand, altering the slope and shape of the dry lake basin.

Obviously, the base is constantly guarded, so you may come close to it but you cannot really get close to what is in it without an authorization. In any case, I found exciting just being around where the sound barrier was passed by Chuck Yeager in 1947, and if you like deserts of the westernmost part of the country, touring this area would be interesting just for the natural setting – and even more if you are an aeronautic-minded person.

Plant 42 is actually not a totally separated entity from Edwards AFB. It is a unique installation, where some of the most iconic aircraft factories in the history of US military airpower – Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ division and Northrop-Grumman – have some of their production and assembly hangars. These are all around the same airport, which is not an airbase – in the sense it’s not home to any units of the USAF – but is nonetheless owned by the Government and leased to the companies operating on it. Today Plant 42 is configured to supply and support test aircraft operated at Edwards AFB.

There is also the NASA Dryden research center installed on the premises of this airport, which is physically located on Plant 42 but is nonetheless administrated by Edwards AFB.

Even though Lockheed moved its Skunk Works division here only after the assembly of all exemplars of the SR-71 well in the Eighties, it was here that during the last decade of the Cold War the Blackbird fleet underwent maintenance. Also the reactivation of the U-2 production line with the TR-1 in the years of the Reagan administration implied production of new aircraft was carried out here.

Other most notable items produced here include the Space Shuttle orbiters – the hangar for their assembly is still standing and can be clearly spotted. Northrop produced here the world-famous F-5, before merging with Grumman. Today Northrop-Grumman, Lockheed and Boeing have active support lines here.

As you see, the area has been a focal point for aeronautics since long, fully justifying the name of ‘Aerospace Valley’.

But it’s not over. There are more sights of the kind around. Mojave has been for long a place for storing aircraft of all sorts and size – a properly sized airport, capable of operating a Boeing 747, obviously being a promptly answered necessity for companies in that business – taking advantage of the dry climate of the Californian desert. Literally tens of large liners of all sorts can be found parked waiting for reactivation, resale or scrap on the apron of Mojave airport. In more recent years, the place has grown to higher fame for being used as a base for space tourism operations. Consequently, the airport has been proudly renamed ‘Mojave Space Port’.

The following photographs from these and other sites in the Aerospace Valley have been taken during a visit in summer 2014.

Aerospace Valley – View and Hangars

There is a panorama point with a placard approaching Palmdale from N.14. From there you can see Palmdale and reach beyond to Plant 42.

Among the hangars scattered around the area of the airport in Plant 42, it is possible to see the Boeing facilities, with new Boeing liners around. One of Boeing’s hangars has an asymmetric roof. This is where all Space Shuttles were built, the higher part of the roof made to fit the tall tail of the orbiter. The name ‘Northrop-Grumman’ can be seen standing above the airside door of probably the largest hangar of all. Both Boeing and Northrop-Grumman occupy the northern part of the airport.

The emblem of the ‘Skunk Works’ can be spotted on the Lockheed-Martin hangar to the south-west of the complex. Further East the NASA Dryden facilities occupy the south-eastern part of Plant 42.

Skunk Works

In front of the gate of Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ on Plant 42, at the end of 15th St. E in Palmdale, it’s possible to reach a small park with an F-16A and an F-104N, both Lockheed designs. These exemplars were used for testing by NASA Dryden research center, and are actually on loan from NASA Dryden. The F-16A is the only civil registered aircraft of the type, where the F-104N, one out of three specifically designed for NASA for pilot’s proficiency and for use as chase aircraft, logged more than 4000 hours flying for NASA.

Note: I involuntarily triggered a security inspection having ventured by car on the road running along the Lockheed hangar nearby the gate – the road is called Lockheed way. This is probably because the road is private property of Lockheed – even though it runs along the outer side of the fence. I was spotted and reached by pickups of Lockheed security – nothing bad, but better avoiding this if you can. The hangar with the Skunk Works emblem can be photographed from a little further, near the railway track to the west of the airport.

NASA Dryden

Two sights attracted my attention on the apron of Plant 42. Both could be clearly spotted from 40th St. E in Palmdale, running along the eastern side of the plant. Placidly parked on the apron where NASA Douglas DC-8 – as far as I know the only one still operated by NASA, which is using it for satellite testing, new sensor testing, space vehicle telemetry and atmospheric studies – and the massive Space Shuttle Carrier N911NA. Today the latter is on permanent display in Palmdale, the photos were taken before it was prepared for display. This is one of only two Boeing 747 converted for transporting the orbiter, the other (N905NA) being in Houston.

The DC-8 is being operated by NASA Armstrong research center, from the ‘neighbor’ airbase of Edwards, but I found it at NASA Dryden.

Note: photographs of what is on the apron of Plant 42 from the distance are virtually impossible during the day due to excessive thermal turbulence close to the ground. Consider going near sunset for avoiding such annoying effect.

Blackbird Airpark

This spectacular exhibition can be easily reached driving on E Ave. P, to the South of Plant 42, Palmdale (website here). It can be clearly spotted from the road. The most peculiar display is to the front of the small museum building, and is composed of three Lockheed ‘black’ aircraft, namely an A-12, an SR-71 and a U-2. Also there are a D-21, a ramjet propelled drone mounted on a modified A-12, the engines of both the A-12 and SR-71 and of the U-2, and two different spooling mechanisms for starting up the engines of the A-12 and SR-71.

This is the only place on Earth where an A-12 and a SR-71 can be spotted together.

Close to the door of the museum building there are models of the A-12, probably built for wind tunnel testing. Inside the building, first and foremost you can find some air conditioning… there are also artifacts, videos and a nice shop with books and items about Plant 42 and the three ‘black’ aircraft outside. I personally met Bill Flanagan, who collaborates in managing the airpark on a regular basis, and is a former RSO on the SR-71 – he was very nice and told me many interesting stories about the aircraft outside on the apron. Some of the vids you can see there (they are also selling a DVD) were shot by Mr. Flanagan on duty.

Many other aircraft can be found on the Joe Davis Heritage Airpark, accessible to the back of the small museum building.

Edwards AFB

I tried to approach the area from the south (Redman and 120 St. E), knowing some relics can be spotted in the desert in the area. Unfortunately, turn back signs begin to appear much earlier than reaching the real gate of the base. I didn’t risk going further, so unfortunately I couldn’t take good pictures of the base. You can appreciate the size of the installation from the zoomed photos below.

Milestones of Flight Air Museum

This place is located in Lancaster, on the eastern side of William J. Fox Airport, close to the station of the National Guard.

Again, a very short visit – the place was closed, contrary to the opening times I had found on the web. To be honest, it looked like the museum was not actively maintained any more. Nonetheless, there were some interesting items outside the museum hangar.

The white civilian B-25 was reportedly owned by Howard Hughes. The wings have been removed, but strangely enough the tires are inflated.

Mojave Space Port

It’s not hard to spot this huge airport, to the north-east of the small town of Mojave. Access to the terminal is along Sabovich St. At the end of it you have a good and convenient spotting place close to a low fence.

When I visited, aircraft on the apron of the airport included at least three Boeing 747, a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 and various DC-9, possibly a Boeing 720, and various other exemplars.

There are several companies operating on the airport, including parts resellers, aircraft resellers and industries connected with space flight.

Among the rare aircraft I saw around, a Lockheed TriStar operated by Orbital, a Sweden-made SAAB Draken, and an Italian Aermacchi MB326.

Leaving the area of the space port to the south, I spotted a Douglas DC-8 used as a gate guardian.

Note: expect mild security checks when spotting in the area. I was reached by car and briefly interviewed by a lady of the security service, who had noticed I was taking pictures from close to the airport fence. I explained I was just taking pictures, she said goodbye and left without further troubles.

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