USA - Aerospace Heaven
When it was announced that there would be an airshow at Edwards Air Force Base, California, we knew this would be the show of the year. Edwards is the birthplace and test location for almost all US Air Force and NASA aircraft. It also was one of the landing facilities of the Space Shuttle. Lots of special planes were expected to be announced, with a lot of USAF aircraft as well as NASA equipment. The special expectation was NASA’s Boeing 747SP ‘SOFIA’, which should retire around that particular date. We as LaMa Aviation even applied for a photo-pass, and to our surprise, our application was approved! Now we hád to go! We set out our route, contacted some companies and booked our tickets. USA 3.0, here we go!
Thursday 13 October 2022 – Fog, Fogging Fog!
We wake up in the always satisfying Citizen M hotel at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. That is always a good way to start the journey. Our itinerary for today is as follows: first we fly British Airways to London Heathrow for a 2-hour transfer to another BA flight that will take us across the pond to LAX. Simple as that. However, when we arrive at the bag drop at Schiphol, even 30 minutes before check-in opens, the queue is already there. Due to staff shortage, the queue takes over an hour before we finally can drop our baggage. This means that we do not have that much time left and the walk from bag drop to our gate is quite the distance. Security goes smooth as always and we run to our gate. Boarding had just started, so we calm down a bit and wait for our boarding group. The weather outside is horrible with fog and rain all over the place. But we made it. Or did we?
“Dear passengers, good morning from the flight deck” commences our captain. He tells us that the fog we have here, is even worse in London so we have a departure slot for over 50 minutes. He tells us that due to the fog, the outbound connecting flights from LHR also suffer, so he says that all passengers should be able to make their connections. Almost an hour later, we are finally cleared for push and start.
The flight crew does their utmost best to rush to London. They do their callsign Speedbird justice haha! We even get a shortcut from ATC into Heathrow and in no time, we are at the gate. We still have 45 minutes left for our connection. Luckily, we do not have to switch terminals. Two employees tell us that for the flight to LAX, we need to follow the purple signs for connecting flights. We thought that, as we are only connecting and are already at the international side of the airports, we could fill up our water bottles. So, we bought drinks and filled up everything at Schiphol, so we don’t have to do that at Heathrow.
However, those purple signs lead us straight towards – hooray – a security filter! And instead of the fast CT-scans at Schiphol, Heathrow T5 still operates old X-ray machines. So, all electronics out of the bags, empty all bottles, throw away our just-bought drinks and stand again in an endless queue. The security employees at Heathrow are not the quickest as lots of fellow passengers did not comply with the security rules and still carry large bottles of coke, liquid batteries, and other prohibited items. Even my (Lars) bag joins the “extra search” queue. I do not know why, as I do not have strange items with me. It takes ages and the minutes pass by.
Marieke is through, and already races to the train for the C-concourse, to let the agents know that we are coming. Our gate is already closing, so that enhances the pressure. 40 Minutes later, I get my bag back, with the only explanation that it was just a lot of electronics and they wanted to take another look. Nothing was wrong with it. I am furious about it as this bullsh*t could mean that I miss my flight. I grab my stuff and run for the train as well. Our gate could not have been further away from the security filter. London Heathrow T5 is a true maze when it comes to escalators, and five escalators further we arrive at our gate, all out of breath. Our flight has already been closed and in the poring rain we see our suitcase standing next to our BA Airbus A350-1000.
The gate agents, however, are super understanding and tell us that they will reopen the flight just for us, since we are absolutely the last passengers to board this flight. We know that there are plenty of fellow passengers for LAX are still at the security check. We are grateful for them, and we rush to the plane. The walk of shame down the aisle leads us to our seats at row 42, which offers a nice view of the window. It does not take long before we push back and start our engines. Not long after that we are freaked out by the sound of what best could be described as a horny triceratops. It appears that our fellow traveler right behind us has heavy breathing and snoring, which gets worse when he falls asleep. Spoiler alert: he slept for over 80% of the flight, it was a nightmare. We taxi towards the runway and get a nice view of the parked Concorde and a FlyBe DHC-8-400 before reaching for the skies.
The flight itself is okay, but with the passengers sitting in front of us reclining and our snoring dinosaur in our ears, it feels not that comfortable. The views of the American mountains covered in yellow fall forests are just stunning. The skies are clear and there is a lot of traffic which we can track with Flightradar on the on-board WiFi. Still, we get surprised by a passing C-17 just over Salt-Lake City. Just before our approach into LAX, the skies get heavily cloudy, and we cannot see anything of the area till just before touchdown. Thank goodness this flight is over. As we taxi to the gate, Mr. T-Rex just wakes up again and the snoring turns back into “normal” dino mating sounds. Border Control and Customs take less than 30 minutes, and we quickly take our hotel shuttle. We need sleep. Lots of it.
Friday 14 October – Mugu Madness
Due to the jetlag, waking up early was not so hard. We pack our stuff and call an uber to the car rental facility to pick up our vehicle for the coming days, which turns out to be a big fat Toyota 4Runner. We rented an SUV as we are planning to drive around the perimeter dirt road of Victorville Southern California Logistics Airport. An SUV is recommended for that, so here we are. Big. 😊
The Toyoter takes us to Santa Monica Beach and as we get a glimpse of the famous pier where we were back in 2018, we enter the Pacific Coastal Highway. What a stunning view of the .. eeh… fog. Right, we took the fog with us in our check-in luggage, I guess. Anywayz, the Californian sun is nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, the road is good, the scenery is very Californian, and the ocean is filled with people learning how to surf. All in all, a good way to keep us entertained. We even see some nature in the form of a flog of pelicans and a groundhog sort of animal. He's cute.
We follow the road to Naval Air Station Point Mugu, where we park at the Mugu Missile Park. This park offers a view of the base, and has some very pointy boom-boom thingies on display, as well as an F-4S Phantom II and an F-14 Tomcat. We decide to just sit here, spend some hours here and see what is coming and going. And we are not disappointed, as some C-40 Clippers and some C-130 Herculi come in and depart again. The US Naval Police even comes for a visit and the officer tells us that there would be a missile launch in a couple of hours. Even Air Force One (Boeing C-32) is on base.
Then, the action gets started with no less than six Hawker Hunters and two Kfirs take off, followed by the arrival of an E/A-18G Growler. Then, two E-2 Hawkeyes depart as all Agressors came back in. Highlight of the day there is the arrival of a Lockheed P-3C Orion with a special tail. We did not see the missile launch due to fog, but we could hear it.
After a nice active couple of hours at Point Mugu, we decide to leave and head for our hotel in Lancaster that night, with a short stop at Van Nuys Airport. Van Nuys has many many many business jets, however, they are not that keen on spotters outside the official viewing point. Some nice older Gulfstreams can be seen as well as T-6 Texans. Highlights there during the sunset are a Skycrane, two Canadair CL-415 Scoopers and a Coulson Chinook. The last part of the drive is good and windy, conquering some good traffic jams. In the end we end up in the city of Lancaster, in a true aviation valley themed hotel. We cannot wait till tomorrow, where we will enter the holy grounds of aviation: Edwards Air Force Base! First a good shower and a well-deserved night of sleep. LaMa-Out!
Saturday 15 October – Aerospace Valley Air Show Part 1
Still a bit jetlagged, we wake up for a good day in the Mojave Desert. We pack our stuff and leave the city of Lancaster for Edwards AFB South Gate for the Aerospace Valley Airshow. This is the first airshow at Edwards in 13 years, so things will be special! Even with our photo passes, we are granted early access on base so we can see a lovely sunrise with all the aviation goodness that is there. We report at the south gate and get our badges. Now we can see the true scale of Edwards AFB and its surrounding area. It is huge! It takes a good 10-minute drive through complete nothingness until we see the first glimpse of civilization. This combined with a golden sunrise, Yoshua trees every now and then and the mountain ranges in the background gives us goosebumps. We drive across the base and park our car at directly next to the big hangar at the center of the field. From here we enter the showground and we are awestruck.
The first thing we see is an F-16XL sandwiched by a KC-46 and a KC-135. To our right we see the last airworthy Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, a B-1B Lancer and an SR-71 Blackbird, next to the original movie prop from Top Gun Maverick: Skunk Works Darkstar. On our left we have a KC-10, RQ-4 Global Hawk, Australian A330MRTT and the NASA fleet consisting of an F/A-18 and a Gulfstream III. We also board the KC-135 for a tour inside. What a cool plane that is!
We take our time to shoot all the goodness on photo and video in all peace and quietness without the general public. As the sun (and the temperature) rises, we find our preferred spot at the flight line as the show begins with the arrival of NASA’s Boeing 747SP ‘SOFIA’. With two impressive low passes the tiny Jumbo makes her appearance before landing on Edwards and coming in to take place in the static display. Unfortunately, they only use the furthest runway which is over a kilometer away from the showground. That does not kill the fun, but it is a little disappointing.
With the arrival of SOFIA, the show has started and we are treated on a nice fighter demo by two F-16s, an F-35A and an F-22 Raptor, as well as a B-1B Lancer which even performs a full aileron roll after the high-speed bomb-run. Very impressive. The most fun is on the static, to be honest as most performers are civilian aerobatic displays. Then, there is NASA with their sonic boom display, featuring an ex-USN F/A-18C Hornet and the oldest flying F-15B Eagle, in formation with another Gulfstream III. The day is hot, sunny but with lots of aerospace magic and fun. Some performers did not attend in the end, such as the A-10, NASA DC-8 and flying B-52, but what is there is awesome. The final performers of the day are the famous US Air Force Thunderbirds. As all Americans rush to the flightline to see them, that means that we can have SOFIA to ourselves. And indeed, there is no queue at all to enter one of the worlds final airworthy 747SPs. With that ticked off, we head back to the car. Not yet back to our hotel, but onwards to Mojave Air and Space Port…
After a nice drive in our (air conditioned) Toyoter, we arrive at Mojave Air & Space Port, or Rutan Field. Here we have a short tour with an employee (anonymous for security reasons). The employee takes us across the airfield where some very special and unique aircraft are parked. Unfortunately, some aircraft are off-limits for photography such as the stunning Raytheon DC-9 and the big Stratolaunch ROC. Of course, we respect that and do not photograph those. We also take a look in the control tower. As it is Saturday evening, the field is closed for operations, which also means that the control tower is not manned. This gives us the opportunity to suck in the beautiful panorama of the storage area and the vast desert surrounding the field.
Then, we drive via the hangars to the area where normally the L-1011 is based, but that plane is at Edwards for the airshow, and we saw it earlier today. We then drive via Stratolaunch and a stored Boeing 707 to the hangar of Virgin Galactic, and then towards the storage area using the main runway. The storage area is being restructured, which means that some planes can be photographed. Highlights are the ex-KLM Boeing 747s and MD-11, as well as several fighter planes. We even take a detour through the rocket test sites around the field, which is really special as several companies build and test their rocket engines here. This place feels so surreal!
We drive back to the planes and take a look at another KLM 747, and the ex-Jet Airways which was parked for years at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The sun is setting and gives a golden glow over the boneyard. How special is it to be here on this unique place during sunset. The desert winds are rising as well, as our tour comes to an end. We thank our host and drive back to our hotel in Lancaster. What a day we had! Aerospace heaven!
Sunday 16 October – Aerospace Valley Air Show Part 2
The next morning, we get up earlier than originally planned. Yesterday, we spoke with two other photo pass holders, who told us that it was possible to show up earlier than stated in the mails. We decided to give that a shot and at 4 AM, in the pitch-black night we already packed our stuff and drive to the Edwards AFB South Gate. Just like yesterday, we show our badges and drive to the parking near the big hangar. How surreal is it to drive on one of Americas most secret air force bases, without any supervision, all alone in the dark.
We park our car and meet up with the two men from yesterday and some staff from the organization. They open the gates to the showground for us and the four of us are the first to enter. Now we are free to play. SOFIA, Stargazer, B-1B Lancer, SR-71 Blackbird, NASA Gulfstream, KC-10 Extender, F/A-18 Hornets… All still asleep and all for ourselves. There is literally no one else around. As we are shooting the static display and try to make the most of our gear, the sun slowly rises over the desert. Lion King is good, but this is better!
The sun shines gold over the several warbirds and it makes the P-51D even more wonderfull than she already is. As more people arrive and the showground comes back to life, we hear the rumble of a jet. Apparently, the NASA F-15B was performing an engine run. What a way to start the day :)
As we see the F-15 being towed back to the shades, we take our time to shoot some great photos of SOFIA. We hear that she will be leaving that morning, and that she will be opened up for the public shortly, which means that we are one of the first ones to board her today. The general public will be allowed on-base a few hours later. Then, an employee opens here up and invites us in. We actually are the first ones to board SOFIA! We talk to the staff and how we saw her for the first time back in 2021 in Cologne-Bonn, Germany. The atmosphere on board is good, and we even are allowed with special permission to enter the upper deck and the flight deck! Here the staff is already preparing the flight back to Palmdale, where she is based. SOFIA will retire after this show, and she will be prepared for her ferry to Pima Air & Space Museum, Arizona.
After this amazing experience in SOFIA, we head to the plane next to it: Northrop Grummans Lockheed L-1011 Tristar named Stargazer. This is the only airworthy L-1011 left in the world and it is used as a flying rocket launch pad. Unfortunately, Stargazer is not open for public tours this weekend. We start a conversation with one of the engineers of Stargazer, who shows us around the complete exterior, and even invites us inside. This means that we are two of the lucky few to board Stargazer this weekend!
Boarding is not the conventional way, but instead we board through the main galley door. The galley of this aircraft was located on the lower deck, and the dishes were served using an elevator to the main passenger deck. As this plane does not fly passengers anymore, the gally is removed and now houses the equipment used for the rocket launches. The elevator has been replaced by a ladder, and we climb upstairs to the main deck. Here we are greeted by an empty space and a small business class cabin which also houses the launch control computers. There is even a plaquer with all the patches of the various missions they have flown.
We move further forward towards the flight deck, where it is clear that this aircraft is a true pre-9/11 aircraft with a thin wooden door separating the flight deck from the cabin. The L-1011 has really large cockpit windows, offering a great panorama over the static show, with the Darkstar and SR-71 parked right in front of us. What a view! We also learn that this flight deck has a special button to quick release the rocket in case of emergancy.
After leaving the Stargazer behind, we make our way to the east side of the showground, next to the control tower. Here also is the main entrace for the general public and the STEM (Science, Technogoly, Engineering & Math) Expo. Then, the first planes take to the sky and the show has begun! The flying program is largely equal to yesterday, with the exception that SOFIA is now leaving back to Palmdale. She did a really low pass and a second dedication pass before saying her final farewell to the crowds at Edwards. All in all, the show is good, but still a shame of the entire day facing the sun.
As we are starting to cook nicely medium-rare, it is already time for the final flying act of this very special airshow: the United States Air Force Thunderbirds with their Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcons. As usual, they give a truely spectacular show, complete with nice formations and sneak passes. It is the second time for us to see them, but they are absolutely the main attraction.
As the flying is done for today, we need to get back to our car. That is when we get stuck in a conversation with a real KC-10 pilot, who likes that we both have experience in handling cargo aircraft, as well as tanker aircraft. Besides, the Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10s retired last year. He invites us for a private tour in his aircraft, which was actually already shut for the public. He shows us the cargo deck as well as the Air Refuel Operator station in the tail of the aircraft. We end the tour with a brief visit to the flight deck. Cool to compare this to the L-1011 flight deck, which is also a large tri-holer.
Then, it is time to leave the aircraft and the showground, as the base security personnell already starts sweeping everybody off the grounds. We say goodbye to Edwards Air Force Base, and make our way out through the south gate back to our hotel in Lancaster to collect our baggage. Then we start the drive to Victorville, where we will spend te night. Thank God for the spare fuel on our Toyoter, as this drive took a little bit longer than we had guessed that it would take on our remaining fuel :p . Luckily, we make it and after the needed fuel stop we check in at our hotel. The dinner at Applebees that night is a brilliant icing on today's cake. Goodnight!
Monday 17 October – Exploring Airfields
We wake up after a good night of sleep for a nice breakfast, and then we head to the nearby aerodrome, which happens to be Southern California Logistics Airport. We have been here before back in 2018, when we saw some good stuff such as the General Electric Boeing 747 engine test bed coming in for landing. Then, we had a truck camper which was not that well equipped for driving around the perimeter fence towards the storage area or "boneyard". We anticipated on that, and that is why we have our good ol' Toyoter.
We start at the hangar area, where we park our car and take a look through the fence to see all the wrapped up Dreamliners (and some other real planes) that are being stored here temporarily from the factory. This is when a man - we assume an employee as he comes out of one of the hangars - approaches us and wants to know what we are doing. We explain to him that we are doing some plane spotting and that we travelled from The Netherlands to see this special location. He then asks if we would like to see this airport from the other side of the fence. Of course, we agree. He asks if he could use our rental car as his own car would be too small, so he takes the wheel of our Toyota and opens the gate. From there, we drive eastbound over the short term storage area. Some special airframes can be seen here, such as the fully-red Juneyao Airlines 787, as well as Boeing's Eco-Demonstrator 777. Even an ex-Mexican Air Force C-130 Hercules is present.
Further on, we see some half-stripped ex-Southwest Boeing 737-300s, which are told to be converted into firebombers. One of them is almost completely bare-metal again, which gives a great look at all the rivets and panellines. After driving past a Fedex DC-10 which looks like it just came in and some brand new 737 Max aircraft, we see our first glimpse of the big long term storage area and scrapyard.
Our first stop at the boneyard are two classic Douglas DC-8 Freighters. How cool to see these true legends up close. We continue our drive via a Boeing 707 and a Lockheed L-1011. Our driver then makes a right turn to drive underneath some of the aircraft. We are flabbergasted as we never dared to even dream about having this opportunity. And now we are here! We pass some Aerolineas Argentinas Airbus A340-200s before turning back for the DC-8s. Some aircraft are parked at the active maneuvering area, which we are not allowed to enter. One of those aircraft is the ex-Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10, which, like I wrote when we had the KC-10 tour yesterday, just retired and was sold to Omega Air Refueling. We drive as close as possible to take a shot of her, before heading to the scrapyard. Our tour had just started...
We drive across the field around the inner perimeter fence towards the north side of the storage and scrap yard. Here we get excited about the things to come. At one of the aircraft entrances, we stop for a moment to admire the countless Fedex MD-10s resting here.
With all photos taken, we drive onwards to the northernmost entrance of the boneyard. Here are some 777s stored and that are looking for a new lessee. Some nice airframes are parked here as well, such as a China Airlines 747 in Skyteam livery and the Air New Zealand All Blacks 777-200. We drive past a World Airways MD-11 towards a Delta 717 which is literally facing the scrapper. Bits and pieces of a recently cut down 747 are laying all over the place. It is a surreal experience. Our aviation hearts cry, but my engineering heart melts!
Behind the 717 is a real unique DC-10 which flew for DETA in Kazachstan. This airline only took delivery of two DC-10s, and this is the only one that survived. Although her colours look a little faded, she looks absolutely stunning! We even are allowed to take a photo with this beauty outside of the car. Then, we drive further across the boneyard, surrounded by countless aircraft (mostly Fedex DC-10s). Some real cool highlights can be found here, such as two United 767-200 in the old pyjama livery, a Lufthansa MD-11F, an EVA Air MD-11F, World Cargo MD-11F and Aloha Air 737-200 which were almost completely decapitated. Our eyes almost pop out with all this aviation heritage spread out here. The biggest highlights for us are two Martinair MD-11Fs who are still in great shape. A special plane that also is present here in Victorville SCLA is a 747-200F in the fictional Norskfreight livery, which was used in the movie 'Tenet'. Make sure to check out our video as well, as the GoPro caught soo many cool shots!