US Air Force Flight Test Center Museum Preserves the Past

Inside the US Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AFB, CA
Photo: Senior Airman Jason Hernandez

5/30/2007 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, CA. -- The Edwards legacy of ground breaking flights and brave pilots have their stories preserved and told at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum.

The AFFTC museum is one of the most recognizable locations here with its display of aircraft parked on Rosamond Boulevard.

The museum is a relatively recent project designed to preserve the history of Edwards and present it to the thousands of Airmen and visitors who come to Edwards each year.

"The effort to establish a museum here began in 1983," said Doug Nelson, 95th Air Base Wing director and curator of the AFFTC Museum. "A group of concerned citizens and test pilots wanted to see the history and heritage of Edwards retained. So much of it was being lost particularly through airplanes being shipped off to other locations when they were no longer needed."

There were only a few aircraft on pedestals at the time, Mr. Nelson said. The first thing the group did was establish a non-profit organization called the Flight Test Historical Foundation. Their purpose was to raise funds and awareness for the project.

"They pursued that avenue for many years," he said. "In 1986, they sought the approval to establish the museum. Finally, in 1997, they had sufficient funds to construct this building. It was not yet a museum; it was basically a large storage area."

In 1999, the group had the funds to finish the museum, Mr. Nelson said.

"We did most of the work ourselves with the help of contractors," he said. "The museum was opened in July 2000. During the first year we had 68,000 visitors. When 9/11 happened, our attendance dropped drastically to about 22,000."

The Flight Test Historical Foundation raises funds to cover aircraft restoration and other museum needs, said Ilah Nelson, a volunteer at her husband's museum.

"The foundation raised the funds for this building and donated it to the Air Force," Mrs. Nelson said. "More recently, they raised funds for Century Circle, which will be at the West Gate. The 95th Air Base Wing funds the operation of the museum."

The museum features a broad look at Edwards' history and flight tests.

"We cover everything from pre-history with the development of the lake beds more than a million years ago to current operations," Mr. Nelson said. "We mostly feature the flight test heritage more than the local history heritage of Edwards. However, we have displays on the homesteading here in the early 20th century. Our primary focus is on the golden age of flight test, which is from 1942 all the way up to 1977."

The museum uses a variety of examples and information that combine to make their displays.
"We have everything from photo displays to hardware and aircraft," Mr. Nelson said. "We have more than 73 airplanes here. We also have a number of missiles, other weapons and engines. The museum also contains quite a bit of personal memorabilia. A lot of our historical properties are items we received from individuals that acquired these items in their career or through a relative."

A major exhibit is called "Breaking of the Sound Barrier," which includes a full scale replica of a Bell X-1, he said. The rocket powered X-1 was the aircraft flown by retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager when he flew faster than sound in level flight.

"Another exhibit is our First Flights wall," Mr. Nelson said. "It has more than 80 same scale models of aircraft on a timeline depicting their first flights. The timeline spans from 1941 to as current as we can get models for."

The museum also has many one-of-a-kind aircraft on display.

"Some of our more unique aircraft include, the only two-seat A-10 Thunderbolt ever built, the first F-111 Aardvark built, the first production F-4 Phantom, the first T-47, first YA-7F Corsair II, and the NB-52 Stratofortress."

Some of the aircraft on display required the restoration skills of metals technology personnel and painters, he said. Aircraft restoration takes anywhere from hundreds to thousands of hours of work. Most of these efforts are put forth by volunteers.

"One of the reasons I volunteered here was the SR-71 Blackbird," Mrs. Nelson said. "It is pretty much my favorite aircraft. I also really enjoy seeing the visitors that come through the museum. The little kids come in and are really impressed with some of the aircraft. Just seeing the expressions on their faces makes it worthwhile. People love the public tours that stop here."

The museum is working on an exhibit called Katrina's Hangar, which will be a children's play area with children's books, artwork and toys.

Source: USAF Edwards AFB by Senior Airman Jason Hernandez

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