Protecting the Right Stuff
The base where pilots and the first astronauts trained is reclaimed from the California desert.
By Will Yandik | Online Only | July 5, 2001
Major Sheryl Hutchison knew she had stumbled across a piece of the right stuff. While exploring the archives at Edwards Air Force Base in California last summer, she discovered a black-and-white photograph of a wall covered with the signatures of such famous throttle jocks as Chuck Yeager and Jimmy Doolittle.
She believed the wall stood in an abandoned base commander's house; with photo in hand, Hutchison tramped out to the neglected corner of the base where the house stood in decay. There, in the basement, she found the historic graffiti behind three feet of drywall and a thin layer of paint.
In the 1940s and '50s, Air Force top brass and test pilots would gather in the basement, or game room, to claim bragging rights and swap flying stories in the presence of a well-stocked liquor chest. VIP guests—famous pilots as well as Hollywood stars like Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and Roy Rogers—would sign the wall of fame above a mounted propeller.
Evidence of this bit of history became endangered when the U.S. Air Force began to demolish all of buildings in the area 30 years ago. Some feared the commander's house would be next.
When Hutchison first visited the house, abandoned by the base commander in 1958, she found yellowed curtains, torn linoleum, spider webs, and windows on the verge of falling out of their frames. In an adjacent bathroom, rats multiplied enthusiastically under the sink.
"It was quite disconcerting to learn the significance of the site, see old photos, and then realize that a piece of our aviation heritage was fading away in the desert," Hutchison said.
In the past year, however, people at the military base have taken small steps toward preserving its history. Last September, a group of enlisted men and women formed the Edwards Historic Preservation Society and restored several structures there. On June 8, Edwards celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Air Force Flight Test Center, which was then declared a historic aerospace site.
Located 90 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, Edwards Air Force Base opened in 1933. On Oct. 14, 1947, the supersonic age began when the easy-drawling Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager punched a hole in the sound barrier over Edwards' dry lake beds in his orange Bell X-1. In the postwar era, Edwards became a Mecca for ambitious young pilots eager to climb into the government's new planes that sounded like answers to an algebra exam—the X-1a, X-2, and XF-92A—often ejecting before their hot aluminum racers crumpled into the desert scrub below.
In The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe described the base during its heyday: "My God!—to be a part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch … and to know that he would soon be at an altitude, in the thin air at the edge of space, where the stars and the moon came out at noon."
Some of today's fresh faces are not as loyal to Edwards as previous generations, says Hutchison, herself an employee at Edwards for two years. Fewer airmen sign up for additional years of service, preferring to make higher wages in civilian suits. Although this is part of a national trend, Hutchison says Edwards is in a unique position to market its history to encourage enlisted men and women to stay. The preservation society was born in September 2000 to spur a sense of pride in the past.
The society's first project restored an adobe clay revetment wall on Muroc Field that base engineers used to test new engines in the '50s. The C-shaped wall protected personnel from the rocket blast as the X-1 fired its engines. Enlisted men built the wall to test clay construction methods for bases in the South Pacific with similar dry climates. Later, flight test engineers discovered it also made an efficient wind shelter and sound barrier.
After 40 years of disuse, the structure was nearly reclaimed by the desert. Organizing a clean-up crew, Hutchison posted flyers throughout the base: "Bring a hat, gloves, a bottle of water, and hand or chain saws if you have them." The response was immediate; several dozen volunteers descended to remove 6,000 pounds of trash and tumbleweeds from the site. The society plans to erect a monument describing its former use and significance as soon as funds are available.
A modest budget hasn't prevented the Edwards Historic Preservation Society from aiming for the sky. The group has targeted more than 20 candidates for restoration, including a high-speed rocket sled track and hydraulic lifts used to load the X-2 rocket plane.
Hutchison is not yet sure if the society has persuaded more airmen to make their careers at Edwards, but, she says, "The base community has become more aware of the role Edwards has played in the development of air power. Long term, we'll probably have a bigger impact [convincing airmen to stay]. We're not giving up."
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