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Activity Taking Flight at Edwards Once More

Times Staff Writer

From the cockpit of an F-16, the Mojave Desert is an unrelenting sea of brown -- flat and seemingly lifeless. But as the pilot prepares to land, the bustle of Edwards Air Force Base suddenly springs into view.

Hundreds of feet below, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a new hangar for the world’s first aircraft to bear laser weapons. Another crew huddles around a B-52 bomber, fitting it with new computers. As they work, an F/A-22 jet fighter streaks by, generating a teeth-rattling sonic boom.

After downsizing for most of the 1990s, Edwards is flying high again, developing and testing the world’s most advanced aircraft -- and providing a potent boost to the Antelope Valley economy.

The base has added 1,000 civilian employees in the last year, and its budget is on pace to exceed last year’s by more than 50%. For the first time in a long time, officials are fretting about heavy morning traffic that has become increasingly common on the main road leading into the base.

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In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, money is pouring into Edwards to speed development of new aircraft and weapon systems. Virtually every piece of airborne equipment used in Afghanistan was developed and tested at Edwards.

The base got a big lift Wednesday when President Bush signed a $355.1-billion defense spending bill, the largest increase in two decades. The budget, which reflects an increase of 12%, provides a significant boost for development including the F/A-22 and the F-35 joint strike fighter, both of which are being developed and tested at Edwards.

“For the next several years, our prospects look pretty bright,” said Maj. Gen. Wilbert “Doug” Pearson, the new base commander who in a 1985 test at Edwards became the first pilot to shoot down an orbiting satellite. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase in people’s understanding of our mission.”

To maintain the momentum, the usually secretive base is holding its first conference for aerospace companies today, hoping to drum up more business amid fears of repeating the boom-and-bust cycles that typically followed other defense buildups. Base officials will show off their testing facilities to Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and others, in hopes of getting more work for Edwards.

This weekend, Edwards is bringing back its famed air show, an event that drew half a million people in the past but whose attendance had dwindled to barely 100,000 before it was canceled last year after the terrorist attacks. With renewed interest in the military since the attacks, Edwards officials believe the air show could draw as many as 250,000 people.

The comeback at Edwards is welcome news for the long-suffering Antelope Valley, whose residents are seeing a resurgence in the local economy. Edwards, with a population of 16,000 people, is the largest employer in the region, which includes Palmdale and Lancaster.

“It’s booming again,” said David Myers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. Combined with an influx of people from the Los Angeles area looking for affordable homes, “houses are selling as soon as they come on the market.”

The precise effect of the buildup at Edwards is unclear. The most recent study by Myers’ group was conducted in 2000, when it estimated that Edwards pumped more than $1.5 billion into the local economy. Even so, there are other signs of Edwards’ positive effect.

Home sales and prices, for example, are up substantially -- which Myers attributes partly to increased activity at Edwards. Sales of new and existing homes in Lancaster and Palmdale rose 15.5% in the first nine months of the year compared with the same period last year. By comparison, home sales were up 8.4% in Los Angeles County overall.

While Edwards officials are reluctant to say or predict how many new jobs have been or would be created on base -- many are for classified programs that are not publicly acknowledged -- Antelope Valley officials believe the base already has added about 1,000 jobs in the last year.

“I do see employment figures rising slowly but steadily over the next several years as a number of our programs begin to ramp up,” Pearson said.

The Antelope Valley’s aerospace boom isn’t confined to Edwards. At nearby Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale Airport, defense contractors design aircraft and new weapon systems that are tested at Edwards. Employment at Plant 42 rose this year to 9,000 from 7,000, Myers said.

At Edwards, the test flight program for the F/A-22, the sophisticated fighter that can fly at supersonic speed without using afterburners, is seen adding 70 more engineers to its roster of 800 people in the next six months. Another several hundred people will be added when the F-35, the next-generation fighter jet that is also known as the joint strike fighter, begins test flights at Edwards.

The biggest growth may come from developing unmanned airplanes such as the Global Hawk spy plane and the X-45 unmanned fighter as well as from new spacecraft that are under development to replace the space shuttle. Edwards also is home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, which works with the Air Force to develop aircraft for commercial and scientific projects.

Outside observers say Edwards also has added a number of classified programs including developing a hypersonic spy plane capable of reaching speeds of up to 5,000 mph. It apparently is housed in an underground hangar and comes out only at night, similar to the way the precursor to the F-117 stealth fighter was developed in the 1970s.

What is known is that the base’s operating budget is increasing at rates not seen since the 1980s. Spending grew to $207.9 million last year, from $197 million in 2000. For the first six months of fiscal 2002, the operations budget for Edwards reached $156.4 million.

At the same time, the value of contracts awarded to base suppliers have been rising, from $287 million last year to $301 million. Including individual procurement contracts awarded to defense contractors developing airplanes at Edwards, Myers estimates that about $765 million has been funneled to Edwards in the last year.

Edwards hasn’t been this busy in a while. Test programs fell by one-third in the 1990s as its fleet of testing and support airplanes dwindled from about 175 to 100.

Since then, the number of major test programs conducted at Edwards has been steadily rising from a low of 68 in 1997 to 80 last year and 91 so far this year.

“Edwards in the 1950s and 1960s was a household term,” said John Haire , a longtime Edwards spokesman. “We sort of lost that even though we have as many X-planes [experimental] today as we had when we were flying the X-15.”

The X-15 rocket-powered plane, which flew in the 1950s, shattered speed and altitude records, climbing to 354,000 feet and reaching speeds of 4,520 mph.

Edwards was first used in the 1930s as a bombing range by the Army Air Corps. Targets resembling ships were built for use in bombing and gunnery practice. They still are visible from the air.

Thanks to its remote location, the long runway and weather conditions that allow for year-round flying, Edwards quickly became an ideal place for testing new airplanes and for setting numerous records.

“Nothing that man has done can beat what nature has built at Edwards,” said Paul Metz, Lockheed Martin’s director of flight testing for the F-35 and former chief test pilot for the F/A-22.

“I’ve been to all the major test centers around the world and none have the confluence of conditions that you have at Edwards: the long runaway on the lake bed, the clear sky and the environment to test far away from high density population. That will always draw people back to Edwards.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Edwards Notables

Location: 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles

Size: 300,000 acres, second-largest Air Force base in U.S. with the world’s longest natural runway, stretching 7.5 miles

Population: 16,000 (8,000 civilians, 3,000 enlisted, 700 officers and 3,700 family members)

Government contracts awarded (fiscal years, non-classified only):

2001: $287.7 million

2002: $300.7 million

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Aircraft tested and developed

XP-59A, nation’s first jet airplane

X-1, first supersonic jet

X-2, first plane to fly above 100,000 feet

YB-49, first flying wing bomber

X-15, fastest and highest-flying rocket plane

YF-12A (SR-71), first supersonic spy plane

F-15, fighter jet

B-1, intercontinental bomber

F-16, fighter jet

Have Blue, precursor to F-117A, the first stealth fighter jet

B-2, first stealth bomber

Space Shuttle, first reusable orbiting spacecraft

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Aircraft under development

F/A-22, advanced fighter jet

F-35, next generation fighter jet

Global Hawk, unmanned aerial reconnaissance plane

X-45, first unmanned combat aerial vehicle

Airborne Laser, a modified Boeing 747 fitted with a laser weapon

X-47, hypersonic aircraft (NASA)

Aurora, first hypersonic spy plane (Classified, based on analyst reports)

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Source: Times research


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