There’s a Korean War-vintage Skyknight jet to my left and a Caribou transport plane that was all shot up during the siege of Khe Sanh on my right, but all I could think about was this weird, otherworldly whistling. It got louder the closer I got to the Skyknight, but no one else in our group seemed to notice it. It was probably wind blowing through the old jet, I thought—just one of those things that happens when you’re standing on the edge of a dry lake the size of the Los Angeles basin—but even now, I’m not entirely certain.
You hear strange things at Edwards Air Force Base, located on the high desert just east of Los Angeles. My girlfriend, Angie, and I toured the base in early June. As we rolled into a parking spot near the base’s West Gate, two thumps rocked the car so hard we thought someone hit us. They were actually sonic booms, caused by a nearby fighter jet pushing past 750 mph.
It was at Edwards (or more properly, Muroc Army Airfield, as it was known in 1947) where the world heard its first sonic boom. But what was revolutionary then—in an instant, test pilot Chuck Yeager had rendered obsolete every piston-engined warplane on the planet—is routine today. Some of the testing that goes on at Edwards seems trivial: a new cockpit display is installed in a fighter, or a transport gets a more efficient engine. Other testing, particularly of surveillance and combat drones, is highly classified. For that reason, Danny Bazzell, the base’s head of community engagement and our tour guide, told us that photography was forbidden on the base, with just a few exceptions.
“This is the most historic Air Force base in the world,” Bazzell told us as we got situated on the tour bus. It’s also a big place. “You don’t get anywhere quickly,” he added. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe described the 470 square miles that make up Edwards as looking “like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution.” For Yeager, Edwards was simply “the ass-end of the moon.” But the Air Force fell in love with Rogers and Rosamond dry lakes because, as then-Lieutenant Colonel Hap Arnold (later chief of the Army Air Corps during World War II) put it in 1932, they were “as level as a billiard table.”
We saw this up close during a drive along the flight line. For a time, we trailed just behind a brand-new F-35 fighter, as if we were in city traffic. But the runways blend into the dry lakes, which stretch for miles in every direction. Ground control sometimes has to give detailed directions to pilots who’ve just landed so they can get back to the base.
There are extremely rare and historic aircraft scattered all over the base. At the West Gate, where we started our tour, there are early Air Force supersonic fighters, including one F-106 Delta Dart that was flown by the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Over at the North Gate, there’s a B-52 bomber that was used as a mothership for the X-15 and prototype space vehicles. There’s an ancient prototype XB-47 jet bomber parked in front of the restoration hangar on the north end of the base. In front of the test pilot’s school, the last remaining NF-104—a tiny fighter with a rocket engine in the tail—is mounted on a stand. In 1963, Yeager attempted to break an altitude record in one of these planes, but it went out of control at 108,000 feet, and he was nearly killed while bailing out.
Spreading the aircraft around the base made sense in the pre-9/11 world, when anyone could drive up to the base, show the guard an ID, and then continue on in. But now, access is restricted, with just one public tour for 30 or so people given each month. The base is constructing a new museum, which will sit just outside West Gate, but that won’t be finished for at least another year.
That I could name virtually every aircraft I saw at Edwards was because of my father, Frank Pignataro. When I was a boy, we’d stand in our back yard in Whittier, and he’d quiz me on the different types of planes lined up to land at LAX. When I was older, we’d go to air shows, where he’d do the same thing with the jets we saw. Aircraft were a huge part of his life. One of his cousins, Jean, designed aircraft flight manuals and later the crew patch for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz spaceflight with the Russians.
Another cousin was a flight engineer for Pan Am; he was killed in 1957 when his plane crashed in the Pacific for reasons that remain unknown.
Frank was an engineer at Rockwell International and later Boeing and had worked for many years on the Space Shuttle (his brother Gus was also an aerospace engineer, though with the U.S. Navy). And in the early 1960s, my dad had been stationed at Edwards. I’ve seen photos of him from that time, skinny and awkward in his Air Force uniform, with none of the husky confidence I knew growing up. Though Edwards was known for swaggering test pilots, my dad had been a weather observer, a lowly enlisted guy who launched weather balloons.
When my dad enlisted, the base was, in Wolfe’s words, “the apex of the pyramid of the right stuff itself.” Yeager had become director of flight test operations and a living legend. Pilots such as Neil Armstrong were taking the X-15 rocket plane up so high they might as well have been in space. Today, much of the most secret research at Edwards is on combat and surveillance drones. Aircraft flown by pilots who never leave the office aren’t glamorous, but that’s the reality today.
My father understood this well. His time at Edwards was far removed from the world Wolfe glamorized in The Right Stuff. He served a few years, earned a couple of stripes, then got an honorable discharge in 1963. (To the day he died, his framed discharge papers were on the wall of his home office.) He never really talked about his time in the Air Force, but one story sticks out: He and a few other guys had been talking in the barracks about politics, religion and history. On his way back to his bunk, Frank had a revelation—that had been the first time he’d really thought since he put on the uniform.
Though far from a radical, he had no use for the rigorous uniformity of military life, which could be both incredibly serious and mind-numbing. While researching my father’s old Air Force unit for this story (the 12th Weather Squadron, Detachment 48), I discovered his squadron patch (an anemometer on a field of lightning bolts) and the official Air Weather Service song. Here’s the chorus, which is, at best, very earnest: “We are the men/The Weather men/We may be wrong/Oh, now and then/But when you see/Our planes on high/Just remember we’re the ones/Who let them fly.”
As you might expect, our base tour didn’t include the Edwards weather station. But it also didn’t include the one place most civilians with a passing knowledge of Edwards want to see: Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, the notorious bar for test pilots. It was consumed by a fire in 1953, in the middle of Barnes’ lawsuit against the Air Force, which was attempting to condemn the place to make way for a new runway. Barnes always suspected the Air Force had torched the bar, but an official cause was never found. In any case, the runway was never built, and today, the ruins sit within the base’s small arms shooting range, which is off-limits to the general public.
Death is everywhere at Edwards, if you know where to look. The desert around Edwards is littered with the bones of the world’s most spectacular aircraft, and the base itself is named for Glen Edwards, a popular test pilot who died in 1948 while testing the YB-49 flying wing. Pilots died at Edwards at a phenomenal rate, especially in the 1950s. In the tiny base museum, you can see an eerie photo of test pilots Mel Apt and Iven Kincheloe. They seem young and happy. Apt was killed in the X-2 in 1956, just a few seconds after becoming the first human being to fly three times the speed of sound; Kincheloe died two years later when his F-104 Starfighter went out of control shortly after takeoff and he ejected into the ground.
As for my father, he died in 2007. For many years, I figured he would have hated touring the base, so I never asked if he’d like to go out there for a tour. But as Angie and I drove away, I suddenly thought otherwise. His perspective and historical knowledge would have been invaluable, and I don’t doubt that the others on the bus would have had many questions. All he would have had to do was talk about planes, and he would have loved that.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.