4/20/2007 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, CA -- Edwards is the most
storied airspace in the United States, if not the world. It
was here where man conquered the sound barrier, where astronauts
cut their teeth for the space race, where the X-15 soared to
more than 50 miles above Earth, where "Bionic Man"
got its trailer and where the space shuttle returned from its
Edwards is where innumerable "first flights" have
occurred. And in those many first flights over this small piece
of the Mojave Desert, there have been both great achievements
and fantastic discoveries.
Well, early last month, I witnessed some of those banner days
in aviation history. On March 1, a highly improved Global Hawk
flew its maiden flight from U.S. Air Force Plant 42 to Edwards.
Block 20 is the aircraft destined to transform high altitude
reconnaissance for the Air Force. It will be the baseline unmanned
aerial vehicle replacing the venerable U-2 over the next decade.
Block 20's flight was a great achievement. It took months of
work at Global Vigilance Combined Test Force and the Air Force
Flight Test Center. During its maiden flight, an unexpected
event happened. About one hour into flight, the F-16 Fighting
Falcon chase photographer caught the departure of the new Global
Hawk's left main gear door on camera.
At that moment, the aircraft was overhead Saddleback Butte,
north of Boron, descending from 30,000 feet. The Global Hawk
test team in Birk Mission Control captured the moment off the
telemetry stream, and following an uneventful landing, the treasure
hunt began across the Mojave Desert. The reception was a little
subdued as the Air Force's newest Global Hawk was ingloriously
towed off the runway after nailing a centerline landing on Edwards'
300-foot wide main runway. Without prompting, the Global Hawk
team and a band of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and NASA
Dryden Research Flight Center engineers took the unexpected
event coordinates and the mission's weather balloon wind data
to locate the missing door. Detailed maps were produced. The
impact footprint was estimated to be northwest of Kramer Junction,
between the Borax mines and the mirror farm, a swath covering
50 square miles of barren desert. Odds of recovering the gear
door were not good.
On March 2, two search and recovery missions were flown by
Global Hawk pilots out of the Edwards Aero Club. The first sortie
confirmed what we all feared -- there were a lot of debris in
the Mojave Desert, and it all looks the same from a Cessna at
500 feet flying 80 miles per hour! The search pattern widened
to the east, bolstered by new data from the NASA engineers.
I was piloting the second Cessna and had two Global Hawk engineers
onboard as my airborne spotters, Capt. Jared Salk and Jan Rehacek.
Just as we were ready to call off the search and return home,
Captain Salk shouted, "That's it!"
Looking out the right window of the Cessna, he spied a distinctive
object resting in the sage brush. Landmarks were mapped, Global
Positioning System coordinates were taken and several flyovers
followed before we returned to Edwards to drive the 30 miles
out to the impact site. We plucked the undamaged gear door from
the desert floor, taking "grand prize" in this amazing
treasure hunt. Not a scratch to be found, the gear door had
landed square with its highly reflective white underside facing
Even now, the gear door is being redesigned to make Block 20's
second flight later next month. Some declared we had a higher
probability of finding a missing part from some ancient first
flight. Many were in shock when we found Global Hawk's "needle
in the haystack," and recovered the missing piece of the
first Block 20. Indeed, March 2 was a legendary day for the
Global Hawk Block 20 test team and AFFTC.
Source: USAF Edwards AFB Press Release by Lt. Col. Douglas