Inside the World’s Largest Aircraft – Antonov 225 Mriya

I am not sure this post does fit in the ‘sightseeing’ category. If you go to Malpensa – the largest airport of Milan – on a regular day, it’s unlikely you will spot the distinctive shape of the unique six-engined Antonov An-225. Yet in this post I will give a pictorial description of this crazy flying machine, so that wherever and when you should see the Mriya, here is what you might expect. This aircraft is a moving attraction, so exceptional that I feel going out to photograph it is still ‘sightseeing’ in some sense…

I had the chance to climb on it one night in early 2015, thanks to Paolo, a friend of mine from Italy, who is working in the company operating the airport system of Milan. The huge aircraft had been going in and out of Italy on an almost regular basis for some weeks, tasked with moving military equipment from central Africa back to the Italian soil.

It was a matter of coordination between me and Paolo, and of course some luck was involved, for the landing and take-off times of the Mriya are usually in the middle of the night and not perfectly predictable, plus good weather is never assured especially in winter. Anyway, in the end I succeeded in arranging a private visit to the Mriya with Paolo and another friend of mine. Paolo registered us as official visitors, so being there and allowed to walk on the apron of the largest airport in Northern Italy, we could come close also to some other interesting items.

The following photos are about that incredible night.

Sights

Mriya Parked

When we went on the apron the plane was still resting on its many (32) wheels, with doors closed and nobody around. The flight scheduled for that evening was basically a ferry flight to Africa, so no loading operations were expected. We were free to walk around taking pictures.

You may see how big this aircraft is by comparing its size to that of the guys walking under it. You will feel like walking close to a moored cruising ship more than an aircraft…

Air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner

While waiting for the crew to come to the aircraft for departure, we came close to a Dreamliner preparing for a flight to India. It still retained its ‘new plastic’ smell. Among the most distinctive features of this model are the beautiful engine nozzles, with a toothed profile for noise suppression.

Emirates Airbus A380

We had the chance to see an A380 taxiing to the gate after arriving from Dubai. This double-decker is really impressive, as you can see again looking at the size of the people walking under its wings. Yet this time this was not the star of the show…

We walked up to the cabin, but were not allowed to take pictures. As it is the case for most modern aircraft, the cockpit is not so fascinating especially when the electronics are switched off – you just have an array of TV scopes…

Inside the Mriya

We then went back to the Mriya to meet the crew and walk in. The crew is composed by about ten people, including those connected with flight operations and those responsible for payload.

You get access to the aircraft through a hatch with an attached ladder. Otherwise, when the cargo door to the front is open, you may access the aircraft from there. There is no cargo door to the back.

The inside is structured with a main cargo deck in the central section of the aircraft, with a built-in crane capable of moving a 5 ton load. There are apparently no hooks on the ground, they possibly fasten the payload to the sides, but I’m not sure. The tail cone section can be accessed through an internal hatch for inspection, and cannot host any payload.

Along the sides of the cargo bay there are tons of bulky items and tools for servicing, spare parts including wheels, gauges connected with the landing gear operation, and small round windows to allow visually checking the wings and the engines underneath. The main cargo section is closed to the front by the folding platform for cargo loading, resting in a vertical position in flight, when the nose cargo door is closed and the nose cone lowered.

A retractable ladder gives access to the cockpit and crew resting area, which is configured in a similar fashion to the upper deck of the Boeing 747. To the front from the hatch on top of the ladder you get access to the seats of the flight engineers and to the cockpit. Seating in the engineering compartment is for four people, but I guess this was necessary for operating the Buran or for more complicate missions. Anyway, I would say at least a crewman for each side would be needed for normal flight operations. Seating in the cockpit is for two, and the arrangement of controls and gauges is neat and linear.

I would have spent one month in the engineering compartment to check every item in detail – tons of late Cold War items, and everything so Soviet-looking! – but this was not a day-off visit for the crewmen, who were busy with preparing the aircraft for the flight. To the back of the access hatch the quarters for the crew include two side compartments for living and sleeping, a small galley and a large storage room. From there it is possible to look through a window to another compartment to the back, with clusters of electronic material and other stuff, close to the wing section.

I noticed the usual placard with evacuation routes, and other strange knobs close to the upper-deck access ladder. Close to the side door of the aircraft the crew has many stickers from various places visited with this wonderful aircraft, and a bell like that of a 19th century ship!

Boeing 747 Cargo

Waiting for the Mriya to depart, we boarded a brand new Boeing 747 cargo of the Russian company ABC cargo. The contrast between this and the Antonov couldn’t be more striking. This new 747 has a fully automatic cargo deck, with a really impressive plethora of sensors and a system of rails to safely fasten cargo pallets. The flying deck is very comfortable and modern, with the typical brownish Boeing plastic, clearly reminding you this aircraft was ‘proudly manufactured in the USA’!

Mriya Leaving

We finally went back to the Mriya to follow the departure sequence. The aircraft was pushed back with a dedicated towing strut, coping with the twin-mast front undercarriage. This item travels with the aircraft, so before engine startup it is necessary to open the front cargo door and load this gear, pushing it inside by pure handwork. The front undercarriage is tilted, lowering the front of the plane and making loading operations possible. After that, a crewman closes the side access door and startup of the six engines is initiated.

I shot a video during engine spool up, posted on my YouTube channel broadbandeagle.

Note

As I wrote at the beginning, this is a ‘special report’ and not a post with many how-to notes. I hope you got an idea of how the An-225 looks inside, but I was clearly lucky to be allowed on this special tour. All thanks go to Paolo, who invited me to join in, registering me as an official visitor. I dare to say that if you don’t know somebody doing his job and with his passion for aeronautics, then unfortunately you’ll hardly have a chance to board this aircraft and see the inside… unless you do his job yourself, or they retire the aircraft and put it in a museum!

Jüterbog/Niedergörsdorf – Abandoned Flight Academy in the GDR

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The area around the small town of Jüterbog – located 60 miles south of Berlin – has a long military tradition, with storages, barracks and training installations in place since the years of the Kaiser and Bismarck, about mid-19th century.

The region was selected for building one of the first flight academies in Germany before WWI, and flight activities with airships and other exotic flying material from the early age of aviation took place in those years.

Much was forcibly dismantled following the defeat of Germany in 1918, but the place regained primary attention with the advent of Hitler and the Nazi party to power. Among the various military installations built in the area, a modern flight academy was erected anew – baptized ‘Fliegertechnische Schule Niedergörsdorf’.

Initial technical training for both ground and flying staff of the Luftwaffe was imparted here until the break out of WWII and the conquest of Poland, when the academy moved to Warsaw.

The extensive group of buildings in Jüterbog retained a primary role in the advanced training of flight officers and engineers, aircraft and engine technicians. Technical personnel were trained to operate innovative weapon systems, in collaboration with research centers of the Luftwaffe.

With the end of the war the region fell under Soviet rule, and the military facilities – including the academy, which survived the war largely intact – were reassigned to various functions.

Info is available in less detail about this part of the story, as typical with military bases in the territories occupied by the Soviets… Part of the buildings of the academy were used again for training staff of tank divisions, but also a KGB station was reportedly activated there. As with most Soviet installations, it was given back to reunified Germany by 1994.

The place is since then abandoned, but differently from other sites formerly managed by the Soviets, it has been inscribed in the registry of landmark buildings, being an interesting specimen of Nazi military architecture.

Following WWII, the nearby airbase of Jüterbog – about a mile south of the academy complex – was operated both by East German (GDR) and Soviet air combat groups, until the Russians left in 1992. Soon after, the airport was permanently closed and partly dismantled. Unlike other Soviet bases in the GDR, flying units there never upgraded to MiG-29, so the aircraft shelters you can see there are of the oldest types.

I would suggest visiting the site for two reasons, a) the uniqueness of the architectural composition, with much of what you see dating back from the Nazi era – you can clearly notice the typical Nazi ‘sheer grandeur’, differing from the often poor and shabby Soviet military architecture… b) the very famous mural of the Soviet Soldier, which apart from the result of a little attack by an ignorant writer, is still in an almost perfect shape.

The following photographs were taken in late August 2016.

Sights

Niedergörsdorf Flight Academy

It should be pointed out that this place is actually off-limits, and there are clear prohibition signs at least on the front gate. Furthermore, it is not an isolated installation, but surrounded by other buildings, close to a small but active railway station and not far from a supermarket. Accessing the site via the blocked main gate is clearly not possible.

Finding an easy way in is not difficult, but standing to the signs on the gate, the place is also actively guarded, so you should be quick and concentrated when moving around. In order to shorten your time in, I suggest turning your attention to the northernmost part of the site.

Walking along the northern perimeter inside the base some Cold War, not very artistically significant murals can be spotted on the external wall made of the usual Soviet concrete slabs.

From there you can easily reach the semicircular building of the grand hall, probably the most notable of the base, and the one where the famous mural of the Soviet Soldier is.

When moving around the corner from the back to the front façade of the building, you find yourself on the road leading to the blocked main gate. You may be spotted from outside the base, so be careful.

Once in the area in front of the semicircular building, you can see to the south a nice perspective of the other buildings of the academy, surrounding a large inner court.

The inside of the main semicircular building – which should not be accessed – is in a state of disrepair.

There are two main floors and a less interesting third attic floor.

The beautiful mural of the Soviet Soldier can be easily found close to the stairs.

Here are some other details of this nice and sober example of Soviet monumental art.

Many other parts of the lower floors are covered in painted decorations, but these were probably of lower quality with respect to the Soviet Soldier – which appears to be a real fresco – and are today falling from the walls.

Another highlight of the visit to this building is the grand theatre. You should consider going with a tripod and/or a powerful torchlight for getting better photos than these, for the room is totally dark. Very creepy, btw…!

On the former part of the sports arena to the west of the building complex it is possible to spot a new little gym. Possibly to your surprise you will find the place is still run by a sporting club – this is nice, also for getting a better idea of how the place looked like when it was an active training center. On the cons side, walking around undercover is not easy, and maybe you are violating a private property ‘no trespassing’ instruction – even though I didn’t notice any.

An interesting part of the sports arena is the abandoned pool, which I guess was already part of the Nazi construction plan too – check photographs of postcards of the time on the Internet.

To get an impression of the complex from above, you may have a look to aerial pictures taken during a dedicated flight, reported here.

Jüterbog Airbase

A quick visit to the airbase south of the academy can reveal some interesting sights, including aircraft shelters from the early Cold War era which have been converted to hay storages or garages for agricultural vehicles. Many former taxiways can be freely accessed by car, some of them have been turned into ‘official’ roads. Also the apron in front of the large maintainance hangars can be accessed with a car with no restriction.

A small aeroclub operates with trikes from a new narrow grass runway in the northwestern part of the field, so access to this part of the field is restricted. Interestingly, much of the external fence with barbed wire is still in place around this area.

Other activities on site include go-karting. To the east of the base, part of the shelters are occupied by a strange new ‘futuristic town’, similar to what you find in the former Soviet base at Rechlin/Laerz.

For a comprehensive set of aerial pictures of the base, taken during a flight over the area, have a look to this post.

Compared to other Soviet bases in East Germany, Jüterbog doesn’t offer much to the curious urban explorer today. Yet due to the vicinity of the flight academy it’s surely worth a visit. Furthermore, the countryside around is nice – apart from the unpleasant sight of a real forest of wind turbines! – so you may choose to have a walk around just for pleasure.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the former flight academy is an easy task. The main gate is on Kastanienallee, Niedergörsdorf, and it can be accessed with a 0.1 miles walk from the Altes Lager railway station, again in Niedergorsdorf, Brandenburg. There is a convenient small parking besides the railway station. In case you want to explore the site, I would suggest considering this as a trailhead.

The area of Niedergörsdorf and Jüterbog can be reached in about 1 h 15 min from downtown Berlin by car. This is my preferred way for moving around – I hate having tight schedules when exploring! – but reaching the ‘operational zone’ by train from Berlin would take probably a bit less.

For visiting the base at Jüterbog you will need a car. Driving on the former taxiways is part of the fun when touring the base!

There are aircraft shelters both on the northern and southern sides of the runway, which is oriented in an east-western direction. The most convenient to come close to are those on the northern side, but be careful not to interfere with the many private businesses around. Barb wire fence can be found on the northwestern corner of the base.

I would suggest having a quick look at the Google map of the area for deciding how to move around. I wouldn’t rate these two ‘attractions’ difficult to visit in terms of physical barriers or when it comes to keeping the right course.

Peenemünde Army Research Facility

Peenemünde is broadly known for having hosted the first ever large-scale research center and test ground for military rockets, missiles, flying bombs and innovative ordnance and weaponry in the world. The small town of Peenemünde is located on the island of Usedom, a nice, almost flat island on the shore of the Baltic sea, on the border between today’s Germany and Poland – ‘Peene’ is a river having its mouth (‘münde’ in German, from which the name of the place) where Usedom island is.

History – in brief

The Peenemünde site was a creäture of the administration of the Nazi regime in the late Thirties. It grew rapidly to a considerable size especially for the time. The site included an electric power plant, later used after the closure of the research center for supplying energy to the East German power grid, an airport, later converted into an air base and operated by the Air Force of East Germany, a sea port, a series of technical facilities for testing and producing all that was needed to assemble rockets, their systems and engines, as well as for preparing propellants.

There were also several launch pads for missiles and flying bombs, and last but not least, scattered over a broad area, housing for thousands of people, which included high-ranking technicians and people from academia – there was also an advanced wind tunnel -, military/SS personnel, as well as factory workers, including many prisoners of the regime.

The site was so large that a dedicated local railway was built and operated to allow people commuting, modeled on the urban railway of Berlin. The railway network was the third in size in Germany, following Berlin and Hamburg.

This enormous installation was directed by Wehrner von Braun, later to become a technical leader in the US research efforts in the field of rocketry, and a central character in the race for space opposite the Soviets.

Peenemünde was never an operative launch site – it was far too distant from potential targets in Britain for the limited range of flying weapons of those days – but due to its primary relevance as a testing and production site of the v1 flying bombs and later of the v2 missiles, the site became a designated target of very intense bombing raids.

The Peenemünde complex was severely hit in a series of air attacks launched by the Allied British and US air forces in the summer of 1943. After that, production was moved in forced labor camps in central Germany – Mittelbau/Dora being probably the most in-famous – whereas only research and testing was still conducted in Peenemünde, with plans to move progressively more and more equipment to other destinations scattered over the territory of the Third Reich, for which construction was started in the last years of WWII.

The Soviets captured what remained of the complex in Peenemünde at the very end of WWII in May 1945. By common agreement, the Allied put an end to rocket research in Germany, the Soviets materially blowing up every technical building still standing in the area, with the exception of the power plant, the airport and a few others. Parts of the machinery in the powerplant as well as almost all railway tracks were reportedly transferred to the Soviet Union.

Since then, the air base of the East German Air Force has been developed in more instances, adding aircraft shelters, a tower and other technical buildings that are still standing – the airport is today open to general aviation. The power plant was updated over the years by the Communist regime, becoming one of the most polluting plants in Germany, whereas the former launch pads and the area once occupied by technical buildings were rapidly reclaimed by nature.

The following photos were taken during a visit to the site in April 2016.

Sights

Museum

After 1989 and the German reunification, the power plant was soon closed, and a museum (Historical Technical Museum, website here) on the history of the Peenemünde site, recognized worldwide as the cradle of modern rocketry, was opened in it.

Among the few buildings of the Nazi era still standing today, the building of the ticket and book shop of this museum used to be a bunker for governing the power plant also in case of an air raid.

There are three main exhibitions in the museum. The open air exhibition, on the ground of the power plant, is composed of an original v1 launching ramp moved here from France, with a v1 flying bomb assembled from original pieces, a reconstructed v2 rocket, and a local train from the original local railway system.

In the photos it is possible to see the launch system of the v1, which was pushed to its take-off speed by a piston moving in a pipe underneath the bomb, in the body of the ramp. Mostly similar to modern acceleration systems on aircraft carriers, except for the piston was moved as an effect of a chemical reaction involving hydrogen peroxide, and not water steam as it’s most typical for aircraft carriers.

The second and third exhibitions are hosted in the building of the power plant – itself a significant example of industrial architecture from the days of the Nazi regime – and describe the history of the army research center and of the powerplant. The first of these two is the ‘central piece’ of the complex, no visit of Peenemünde is complete without a look at this exhibition.

In the photographs it is possible to see some of the artifacts in the exhibition about rocketry in Peenemünde. It is possible to appreciate the advanced technologies tested here already in those early years, including high pressure mixing of liquid propellants, graphite deflectors for thrust vectoring, inertial navigation systems, turbopumps for pumping the propellant into the combustion chamber at the correct rate. There are also original signs from the area.

Scaled mockups of all items tested in Peenemünde, much more numerous than the v1 and v2, add to the show, together with models of the former launch pads. Especially launch pad ‘VII’, used for the v2 rocket, was so well designed that it was adopted also in the US after the war as a blueprint for their own designs.

A visit to the complex of the power plant may easily take 2 h 30 min for an interested subject.

Former test grounds and launch pads

The launch pads were placed closer to the airport, very close to the northeastern shore of the island, to the north of the village of Peenemünde. Today, this broad ‘ghost area’ is partly fenced, surely not accessible with private vehicles, possibly accessible by foot. It is a kind of natural preserve, with much wildlife around.

The best way to explore this area, without getting lost in the trees and with a chance to spot what is still in place, is going with a society offering guided tours of the site, named ‘Historische Rundfahrt Peenemünde’ (website here). As of 2016 there are tours offered in German three times a day on a regular basis, but it is possible to arrange tours in English upon request at your preferred time – this was my only option as I don’t know much German. In my case, it turned out I was the only visitor on that tour, so I had the guide – a gentleman speaking a very good English, and with an incredible knowledge of many technical matters – all for me for the duration of the whole 3 h 15 min tour. You move mostly with a minivan, so apart from the bumpy road the visit is very comfortable.

The tour starts by the airport of Peenemünde, and you are soon driven into the site. With the help of a digital map, the guide will show where you are standing with respect to the buildings and installations that were originally there. You can see from the photos that Soviets took their job very seriously, so that very little remains of the original structures. You can recognize the original plan of the site mainly by the asphalted roads still in place today – albeit covered in dust.

The most prominent sight in the complex is surely launch pad ‘VII’, once used for the v2. It is possible to spot the containment banks all around the launch site. The concrete flame deflector is still in place, filled with rainwater. The walls of the deflector were water-cooled to resist the extreme heat of the rocket exhaust at takeoff. The water pump occupied a part of the lateral banks, together with measuring equipment and a sheltered observation deck. Still standing is a water nozzle used by firefighters in the – likely – event of fires due to malfunctions in the launching process.

A stone celebrates the launching of the first v2 missile from this site.

The rocket used to be moved to the launching position – above the flame deflector – with a special trolley. Multiple silos were placed around a common track made of concrete, built outside the perimeter of the containment banks. The trolley, loaded on a sliding platform, could move along the concrete track. The missile was collected from the assembly silo, the platform moved along the concrete track to reach the head of a short metal railway track where the trolley could be pushed to reach the flame deflector, in the middle of the containment banks – see the photo of the model above. Like the flame deflector, the concrete guide is still standing today, filled with rain water.

Other interesting sights of the visit are the experimental launch ramps of the v1, placed to the northernmost part of the island, right behind the beach. A first experimental ramp (type 1) was totally made of concrete, and was clearly not adopted for operational use, being too difficult to build and manage. Other two ramps, not so different from one another, were the first examples of types 2 and 3.

Type 3 was adopted operationally and deployed to the coasts of France and Belgium. Inert concrete warheads used in test flights can be seen in the photos, left from the age of testing.

You can see here that all ramps pointed directly to the Baltic sea. Telemetry towers were installed on the neighbor islands of Oie and Ruegen for tracking the experimental flights and taking measurements. Two such towers that are still standing today can be spotted from here in the distance, you can see them in the photos.

Before leaving, having shown a great interest for the topic of aeronautics, I was given the opportunity to tour an incredible exhibition of weapons, systems and artifacts from the area they are putting together in a small farm surviving from the days of WWII – where rabbits were bred for feeding the staff and for making fur for airmen. As of May 2016 this was not yet open to the public.

Among the artifacts you can see in the pictures from this exhibition, TV-guided bombs, experimental solid propellant rockets, a piloted v1 and tons of other incredible items. This shows once more that many technologies later become widespread had been tested here much before they started to be massively used. Also preserved are some parts of aircraft downed during the raids of 1943.

Maybe after finishing with the tour it is interesting to have a brief look to the airport, where the control tower possibly from the Nazi era and some aircraft shelters are still standing. The place can’t be walked freely for it’s still an active GA airport, but part of the former base is being used as a testing track for sport cars and can be approached safely.

My tour lasted more than 3 hours, but at the time of booking my English tour I was offered also shorter options.

K-24 Juliett-class Soviet submarine

This submarine is moored in the port of Peenemünde, a five minutes walk from the entrance to the power plant. This is reportedly the only Juliett class submarine existing today, so visiting is an absolute ‘must-do’ for the committed tourist (website here).

Furthermore, the condition of this unit is still very good, making for an interesting and unusual visit – a unusal fact is that all is written in Cyrillic alphabet, with many ‘CCCP’ factory signs on the labels of the gauges and of the technical stuff. Juliett submarines were designed in the Fifties and operated till the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, with a capability for launching cruise missiles with tactical nuclear warheads directed to target ships or coastal targets, from a distance of some hundred miles. They were conventionally powered with large diesel electric-units.

Having been designed after WWII, they are much roomier than German U-Boots from the Nazi era, hence the visit is ok also for claustrophobic people. You can see two launch tubes in a deployed position to the back of the ship.

Visiting may take between five minutes and 1 hour depending on the level of your interest.

Note

A visit of these three items at a reasonable pace but without running may easily fill a day schedule. I know there is much to explore and see on your own in the area of the former complex, but I could only dedicate one day to this site during my trip. I would recommend doing at least the same for an interested person.

In any case, the island with its Baltic shores and light is nice and relaxing, so I would recommend planning a day for Usedom also in case you are not interested only in military history.

Getting there and moving around

The island of Usedom is much larger than the area of the former research complex, which once occupied the northernmost extremity. The island can be approached by car with two bridges in Anklam and Wolgast from mainland Germany, or from Poland. It is very easy to get there by car.

Once in the village of Peenemünde, it’s easy to spot the massive building of the power plant. K-24 can be reached with a five minutes walk from the entrance of the power plant. The place is very popular, so there is a large parking just besides these two attractions.

The pick-up point for the guided tour of the former research center is by the small airport, which is located north of the village, a 1.5 miles drive from Peenemünde. Free parking besides the small office building.

I couldn’t imagine a more convenient way than having a car for moving around, but the island is reportedly very crowded in summer. A train can be used to reach some of the villages on Usedom, so you may consider also this alternative.

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.

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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.