Edwards Air Force Base experiments

By in News

Travel Writer

Adam Vigneron is a U of S student whose interest in science and travel has brought him around the world. This is the second of two installments of his story of laser testing on a classified airforce base — the Dryden Flight Research Centre — with the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team.

I first learned of Edwards North Base, the “classified” section protected by a distant shimmer, on the drive out to the laser testing. All I managed to learn about it was that it served as a satellite base for Area 51 in their plane development. Everything else was and is secret.

At the lakebed, the ground is like nothing I’ve experienced before. It’s a bone-dry silt, but naturally packed as hard as concrete. And while cracked, the cracks are so shallow that the tires of any vehicle cruise over them as easily as pavement.

For a Saskatchewan boy, the drive out was as smooth as any I’ve been on in a long time. It’s no wonder they use the surface for landing experimental aircraft. They’ve painted on the lakebed a 12-mile runway with tar, so even a chimp could set something down in those 12 miles — which they probably have.

A semi trailer and a huge portable generator appeared out of the haze. They belonged to the laser company, and contained everything they needed to give us 8,000 watts of laser power.

The lakebed was beyond desolate. There were a few trailers around the laser semi, our RV 200m away, and then nothing. And I mean nothing. It was insane.

After marveling at the lakebed once more and getting some more great data on electricity generated from the heat difference between two types of metal, we packed up and headed towards our next test.

However, we had to stop once we left the gravel road from the lakebed to the taxiway. The reason: we had to check for foreign object debris, which we had to do every time we went on the runway.

Oh, how I loathe checks for foreign object debris. FOD checks consist of everyone in each vehicle getting out with screwdrivers and removing every single rock stuck in the treads.

This is done to keep the runway clear of all rocks and pebbles. While it totally makes sense, it doesn’t make picking rocks out of tires any more fun. Especially when you’ve got a total of 20 oversize trailer and truck tires to check. Frick.

We high-tailed it out to the other testing site, the helicopter test. We had to make sure we were completely ready for the tracking test early the next morning.

I woke up Thursday and went through the usual routine. I was fairly certain at this point that I was going to have a relaxed day — only five of our team members were allowed out to the helicopter range for the actual testing, and so I was looking at a day in the hangar. It was great. It had air conditioning, Internet access and a working toilet.

But when one of our NASA escorts offered us a tour of the base, we immediately said yes.

And so we walked, starry-eyed, through NASA’s hangars, full of the aircraft they used for testing, development, research and escorting the shuttle.

I need to look into an internship here.

We headed back to the hangar, then out to the helicopter testing area to help pack up the Seacan for her trip back to the laser testing area.

As we’re waiting for the chopper to make its short flight, we realize that we’re parked next to the Helipad and we’re not allowed to move for fear of falling debris. So, we had a helicopter fly and descend almost directly on top of us. I had to run out of the car to grab the hats and vehicular pass that got blown out by the gale force winds — these sort of things happen when the rotors are only about 20 feet from your truck.

In a nutshell, our team leader Sean Boots was testing the ability of our laser to track the GPS on our climber. Rather than send the whole climber up, one of the team built a wooden box with all the required receivers, batteries and radios inside.

The intent was to have the helicopter lift the box up along with the cable and for our electronics to track it as it rose, fell and swayed with the helicopter.

We had great initial news: the radio was working and the GPS was tracking. Unfortunately, we found out we’d have a manual cable tension control. When the helicopter rose, the operator paid cable out, and when it sunk, he reeled it back in. If the tension in the cable ever exceeded 3,000 lbs, the cable would be released from the helicopter to protect the vehicle.

And release it did.

This ended the $10,000 helicopter testing day that the teams paid for, nobody was exactly thrilled. Thankfully, we salvaged some of the damaged equipment.

After getting back to base, I packed up all my things from my top bunk suite in the long RV. Thus, with a sigh, we departed Edwards, stopping for one last group picture at the gate. My time at Dryden was over — for now.

The night was good. Lots of intelligent conversation, some young interns showed up, and we all just lounged around in the engineeer’s backyard with a great view of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, their top secret air-development facility.

And then my visit, which couldn’t possibly get better, got better.

An older man arrived. He was weathered and wrinkled, but his eyes were sharp and his voice was clear and strong. His name was Gordon Fullerton, and it was only after our visit that I fully comprehended who he was.

Fullerton’s career highlights: test pilot at Edwards, backup pilot for numerous Apollo missions, leading role in space shuttle flight design, including main instrument panel; tested USS Enterprise, first shuttle — landed at Edwards three times after being dropped by a 747 at 30,000 feet; flew on two shuttle missions as pilot.

Needless to say, he had us enthralled with stories of Apollo, the shuttle, his test pilot days, the real Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, opinions on Canadian astronauts — he loved Chris Hadfield — and his experiences with the Canadarm in its early existence.

I sat right next to him, and he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. But that could just be the stars in my eyes.

And when we left, I looked him straight in the eye, expressed my sincere gratitude for all his conversation, and shook the hand that landed the space shuttle. Twice. I think he was touched by our enthusiasm, I really do. It was a very special encounter, and an extremely satisfying way to end our official program.

For Part 1 of this story, click here.

– –
image: Adam Vigneron