At Edwards, the Air Force still flies with the right stuff (pictures)

When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, Edwards Air Force Base became world famous. Today, it's home to the Air Force Test Pilot School, its test flight wing, and more. CNET Road Trip 2012 got a first-hand look.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
1 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

412th Test Wing

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.--It may be best known as the place where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947, a big part of the plot of the great film "The Right Stuff."

But today, Edwards Air Force Base, located in the middle of California's punishing Mojave Desert, is still a huge part of the U.S. Air Force's test flight program.

In fact, that program -- the 412th Test Wing -- is operated out of this building. The idea is for the pilots in the program to put any new Air Force aircraft through their paces to ensure that the planes are ready to be deployed. If not, it's their job to figure that out and determine why.

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped in at Edwards as part of Road Trip 2012 to see the right stuff first hand.

The two planes mounted in front of the 412th Test Wing's headquarters are an F-16 on the left, and an F-86 on the right.

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This is the actual Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier for the first time ever, in 1947. It is currently on display in the entry hall at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., signifying how important Yeager's achievement is considered.

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F-16 taxiing

An important element of what happens at Edwards is the Test Pilot School, the Air Force's top training program for test flight pilots. The school accepts between 20 and 24 students per class, each of whom will spend a year getting a master's degree there.

Among the planes they fly are F-16s, like the one seen here taxiing in after landing at Edwards. But they also fly about 20 different planes during various exercises, including the T-38, the C-12, the ASK 21, the F-15D, the KC-135, the F-15E, and the NF-16D Vista.

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Row of F-16s

Parked under a protective canopy, several F-16s sit on the tarmac at Edwards Air Force Base.

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Row of T-38s

A row of T-38s used by instructors at the Test Pilot School are also parked under protective canopy at Edwards Air Force Base.

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To honor Yeager's achievement, there is a statue of him found in a small park at Edwards. The statue is accompanied by an engraving that reads, "Sound Barrier Cracked. On October 14, 1947, 42,000 feet above this monument, Captain Chuck Yeager, USAF, piloting a Bell X S-1 rocket airplane named 'Glamorous Glennis,' became the first person to exceed Mach 1. With this flight, the era of supersonic aviation was born."

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Main control room

This is one of the main control rooms inside the headquarters of the 412th Flight Test Wing. In this room, controllers and subject matter experts can monitor, in real-time, many different elements of a test flight. Dozens of people may be in the room -- which is one of several in the headquarters -- during a flight. Each workstation has two screens, and this photograph, provided by the Air Force, is taken from behind the mission controller's seat.

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This is a photograph, provided by the Air Force, of the Space Positioning Optical Radar and Tracking (SPORT) center, the air-traffic control for flights operating out of Edwards.

Although flights may take off from and fly in the area around Edwards, they may also fly anywhere from over designated areas of the Pacific Ocean to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Controllers at SPORT can monitor these flights, which may be conducting operations involving anything from supersonic flight, radical maneuvers, target bombing, laser targeting, and much more.

The task may be similar to that of commercial air-traffic control, except that flights monitored here are likely to be doing anything from tight U-turns, to rapid ascent or descent, to firing lasers from high altitude at ground-based targets.

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Shuttle at Edwards

In the early days of NASA's Space Shuttle program, the spaceships landed at Edwards. Later in the program, landings took place primarily at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In this archival Air Force photograph, "The first Space Shuttle orbiter, Enterprise, arrived at Edwards AFB on January 31, 1977. It had been moved via road at 3 mph from Rockwell International's assembly facility at Palmdale, (Calif.) aboard a 90-wheel transporter. The unpowered version of the Shuttle was housed at (NASA's) Dryden Flight Research Center in preparation for a series of ground, captive- and free-flight tests prior to the space launch program."

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Mounted F-104

This is an Air Force F-104, mounted on a pedestal at Edwards. The airplane is probably most famous for another Chuck Yeager flight, in which he broke the world altitude record, hitting 103,395 feet before losing control of the plane, which plummeted to the ground. Yeager was able to escape and parachute to safety, another episode chronicled in "The Right Stuff."

The F-104A "Starfighter" "was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed, altitude, and time-to-climb, most of which were established at Edwards AFB," reads a plaque on the base.

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Edwards from hilltop

A view of the main part of Edwards Air Force base from a hilltop on the north side of the base.

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Second view

A further view of the main part of the base.

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Tanker or de-icer

This Air Force plane is the only aircraft in the world that can serve as either a fuel tanker or that can have a water nozzle attached in order to serve as a de-icer.

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This is an Air Force remote-powered vehicle, a Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk RQ-4B Block 20, an aircraft that has both camera and radar capabilities, which can be sent back to monitors in near real-time. Different versions of the planes can carry different instrument packages and have a range of about 11,000 miles. They can be used to provide battlefield awareness, including live video, or radar imagery that can make it clear what an enemy is moving on the battlefield.

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A look at the front of the Global Hawk remote-powered vehicle, including the camera mounted on its nose.

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Gandi at trainer

An Italian student enrolled in the Test Pilot School practices on a simulator, trying to maneuver the airplane seen in the middle screen into a bulls-eye. The plane starts about 500 feet in front of and 200 feet above the target area, and the challenge is to see if the student can achieve the goal while staying within certain flying limits, such as how many Gs of force are created.

One of the goals here is to determine the limits of the airplane, rather than the pilots' abilities.

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G-forces graph

An instructor monitors the student's performance during the simulation, and this digital chart shows the g-forces the simulated plane experiences as the student maneuvers it into the bulls-eye.

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Test pilot school control room

A look at the Test Pilot School control room, in which monitors can watch many different elements of any student's flight in real-time.

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Mission playback

In the control room, instructors can monitor almost any element of a student's flight. This computer screen can also provide a playback of the mission, including where it went, and many different elements of what happened.

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This is a screen that shows instructors in the control room a playback of the pilot's heads-up display.

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Flight traffic map

Another screen shows a full flight map of air traffic in the area around Edwards Air Force Base.

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