A Day at NASA Dryden Research Center (#NASASocial) Part 4): A Palmdale Trifecta

Each of the past three Wednesdays, we’ve focused on writing about Doug’s experience at the NASA Social event held at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) on May 4th. Here are the links to those previous posts:

May 9: A Day at NASA Dryden Research Center (NASASocial)

May 16: A is for Aeronautics

May 23: Of U-2s, Zombies, X-48s, and YO-3s, Or Why There’s So Much Fun at the Other End of the Alphabet

Joe Davies Heritage Airpark

Never one to waste an aviation-related opportunity, Doug wrapped up the #DrydenSocial event by spending the next day visiting some of the other aviation attractions in the area. Palmdale, about thirty miles southwest of the Dryden/Edwards Air Force Base complex, has a rich aviation history of its own.

In the early 1950s, just as the Cold War was heating up, the U.S. Air Force decided that it needed a facility to develop, build, and test new jet aircraft. But that the facility had to meet several criteria: remote enough that prying eyes wouldn’t be a security problem, but simultaneously located near a sizable aviation manufacturing base. Palmdale, situated between Edwards AFB’s growing flight test center and Los Angeles’s aircraft manufacturing base fit the bill. Over the years, the combination of government and public companies that exists at Palmdale’s Plant 42 has given rise to a number of aircraft designs, including the B-2 stealth bomber. From our Lofty Ambitions point of view, the most important and historic vehicle to come out of Plant 42 was the space shuttle.

SR-71 Blackbird

With that much aviation and aerospace history to go around, it’s no surprise that Palmdale offers two separate airparks in which to see and learn about aviation history. What is a bit of a surprise is that the two facilities, Joe Davies Heritage Airpark and Blackbird Airpark, are adjacent to each other, separated by only a small patch of open ground and a chain-link fence, with an obvious path and opening in the fence. In fact, you can walk from one right into to the other.

Joe Davies Heritage Airpark is eclectic mixture of aircraft, all on static display, some of which have a connection to Plant 42 (a 1/8th-scale B-2 on a pole greets visitors), but most of which don’t. From our perspective, the pick of the litter is a very clean C-46 Commando sitting in one corner. Oddly, many folks define the “air” part of “airpark” differently than Lofty Ambitions and put the emphasis on “park.” Joe Davies Heritage Airpark has numerous picnic tables, many of them brimming with families having lunch in the California sun.

Blackbird Airpark is affiliated with the Air Force Flight Test Museum. Doug didn’t have a chance to visit the Flight Test Museum while he was at DFRC. Unfortunately, since the Flight Test Museum is on the grounds of Edwards AFB, you have to have a pass and a reason to visit it. Hopefully, we’ll get back there at some future date, but it’s not something you can just happen upon.

Lockheed D-21 Drone

Blackbird Airpark, which is more easily accessible to the public, is eponymously named for the Cold-War-era, Mach-3-capable, Lockheed SR-71 spy plane. An example of this breed—a two-seat trainer—is located front and center on the airpark’s grounds. Three other aircraft are also permanently displayed: a U-2 spy plane, a Lockheed A-12 (the SR-71’s very closely related predecessor), and a F-117 Nighthawk (almost always referred to as Stealth Fighters). The display area also includes an example of an SR-71 engine, the Pratt & Whitney J-58; a D-21 reconnaissance drone, an early unmanned aerial vehicle meant to be launched from the back of an SR-7; and a wind-tunnel model of a Blackbird.

As might be expected in a gathering of aviation nerds like those assembled for #DrydenSocial, Doug wasn’t the only NASA Social attendee who had the idea of spending Saturday at Blackbird Park. While at Blackbird Airpark, Doug ran into James Gomez (a fellow resident of Orange), Arun Ponnusamy, and Denny Atkin.

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

The final stop for the day was at Dryden’s nearby Aircraft Operations Facility. Arun pointed out that one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft was parked on the grounds of the Aircraft Operation Facilty and that it could be seen from the grounds of the airpark. (In fact, he also came back to the airpark after driving to Aircraft Operation Facility to let Doug know how to get there. Thanks, Arun!). Having just seen the other, still-active Shuttle Aircraft Carrier at the Space Coast and in Washington, D.C., a few weeks earlier, it was great to have the opportunity to peruse the retired SCA before it’s cannibalized to support the other 747s in NASA’s fleet.

During the #DrydenSocial, one of the DFRC handlers mentioned the potential of visiting the Aircraft Operation Facilty for a future NASA Social. If that turns out to be the case, we certainly hope we get selected for that event so we can get the inside view.


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