The nine-year-old boy who made model planes and, from his living room floor, flipped through pages of images of America’s fastest planes came back to life as the crew of Kandu visited NASA’s Air Research Center yesterday. Previously called the “Dryden Flight Research Center,” in March the center was renamed “Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center,” after the first person to walk the moon’s surface. My brother, Tom, a NASA project manager at the center, offered last weekend when he and his family visited aboard Kandu, to give us a private tour of the facility, as its not open to the public. Located on the Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert lives this iconic ‘Disneyland’ of American flight engineering.
We were able to see and touch many of the favorite flight craft of my childhood fantasies: the sleek and mysterious “Blackbird” SR-71, the aggressively simple F-104A, a piece of the crashed X-15, and, most emotionally satisfying, the historic Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), one of only two remaining in existance. The other three trainers were destroyed in flight tests. The LLRV and the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) were required flight training for all of the U.S. space program’s moon-landing astronauts. Knowing that every astronaut that ever walked the moon had flown the very craft I was touching somehow connected me in a small way to their greatness. At that moment, I hoped that some of the mojo of their courage and dedication might rub off on me, helping me guide our family’s exploratory watercraft safely around earth’s oceanic surface.
Tom arranged for us to examine his team’s latest project: a Gulfstream III jet modified with their Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flaps. A week earlier, they had successfully completed their first full flight test. His press quote summarizes the project goals: “’The first flight went as planned — we validated many key elements of the experimental trailing edges,’ said Thomas Rigney, ACTE Project Manager at Armstrong. ‘We expect this technology to make future aircraft lighter, more efficient, and quieter. It also has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually in fuel costs.’” What happened next would be Leslie’s favorite part of the day, for Tom gave us a rare inside look of the test jet. The flight engineer allowed Bryce and Trent to sit in the pilot seats, panel lights on, sporting headphones with mics. Scrat, the acorn-obsessed saber-toothed squirrel from the the animated film series Ice Age, is the engineering team’s unofficial mascot. A mid-sized stuffed plushy of Scrat hangs from the aircraft’s ceiling, above racks of test equipment. The equipment measures something like 20,000 parameters.
After lunch, Tom accompanied us to the Center’s fight simulator area. Walking through its second floor corridor, we passed sets of steel double-doors with each’s ceiling placards hanging above, identifying the craft that is simulated inside. We entered the one marked “Gulfstream III,” the actual jet that Bryce and Trent sat in earlier. We all got a turn at taking off, flying, and landing the plane that Tom’s team so deftly modified. Then it was off to the F-18, the fighter jet that chased the Gulfstream during its test flight.
From the simulator center, we were off to the gift store where we said good-bye to Tom, and thanked him for the greatest of days. When Tom was 8, he drew rockets on pieces of lined paper and then dropped them into neighbors’ front door mail slots, ringing their door bells to alert them of the gift’s arrival before running off. To know what has become of that eight-year-old boy is a source of great happiness for me. Trent asked how old I was before I knew what I wanted to do. The experience of seeing Tom in his element may have triggered Trent to wonder when he might discover his career passion, or in my case–passions.
Bryce’s favorite experience was seeing the M-2/F2 drop plane, the predecessor to the futuristic Dream Catcher spacecraft whose simulator he briefly sat in. Trent liked seeing the Cessna Dragonfly trainer jet. Fortunately for Leslie and me, they both like the smaller crafts!
Leaving the base, its Air Research Center and museums, the nine-year-old boy in me smiled with satisfaction, having been briefly brought back to life, making real as an adult what had previously been a childhood dream. The Center has a saying, “To create what others only dream.” We got a chance to touch dreams, making them real for me. With what rudder we have in the water, we hope to create a little of the same as we prepare to lead our own planetary adventure.