One of the locations I feel privileged to have visited on a number of occasions over the thirty-odd years I have been chasing aeroplanes around the world is Edwards Air Force Base. One of the most famous aviation sites in the world, and home to the United States Air Force Flight Test Centre, it is synonymous with experimental and secret projects, encompassing a huge area adjacent to, and including the Rogers dry lake bed on the western edge of the Mojave desert about one hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. The three visits made during the late 80s/early 90s were each in their own way memorable for all sorts of reasons, but the encounters we had with the Rockwell B-1 at Edwards AFB, a hugely impressive aeroplane which has held a particular fascination for me over the years, proved to be some of the more interesting. Whilst hunting out an old slide recently of one of the very first VLJs (Very Light executive Jets) shot at Mojave on the day of our second visit to the Edwards area on 8th October 1993, I was re-acquainted with some other slides taken earlier that day, one in particular providing the impetus to use some of the substantial research material now available, primarily via the internet, to finally get to the bottom of one of our more unusual, and until now un-identified sightings made at the base.
My first experience of Edwards AFB came on Thursday 7th May 1987 - an example of the sort of personalised tour that was available in those days, our tour guide was an AFFTC pilot who took us around the base in his own private car! Almost everything was able to be photographed, even an Egyptian Air Force F-16A in a hangar! - the few exceptions being some of the test wing's B-52s and Air Force Systems Command's C-135s - while the tour also included time at the runway edge to photograph those aircraft movements that were taking place during our visit. One of the most memorable features of the tour however was a drive over to inspect at close quarters the machine below held in open storage.
B-1A 74-0160 was the third B-1A prototype (hence the '3' on the nose-wheel door) but had been the second to fly on 26th March 1976; initially assigned as the avionics testbed, it was later fitted with an advanced ECM (Electrical Counter-Measures) system in the dorsal spine, an airframe feature also added to the fourth B-1A prototype which appeared at the 1982 Farnborough Airshow - note also the triangular 'fairing' behind the cockpit which we will come back to later! - while also like the fourth aircraft 76-0174, it wore the three-tone 'desert' scheme 'on top' of the original gloss white experimental livery. The aeroplane's last recorded flight was on 15th April 1981 after flying 138 missions. The photo shows the crew access door open and we were indeed allowed inside the aeroplane - I remember our guide pointing out the lack of any reference to the outside world for the two 'back-seaters' in the B-1A, who looked after offensive and defensive counter-measures, something that was most uncomfortable and disorientating for the crew concerned; a small window on each side of the fuselage behind the main cockpit windows was subsequently built in to the B-1B design. 74-0160 is now displayed at the Wings over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, Colorado, in a 'European One' style camouflage livery.
Just across the taxiway on the contractors' test ramps during our visit to Edwards in May 1987 was the fifth B-1 built, and the first B-1B 82-0001 (see below - note the number '1' on the nose-wheel door, and the small 'porthole' window for crew members #3 and #4). The aircraft first flew on 18th October 1984, and spent all its flyable life at Edwards, flying its 138th and last mission on 28th April 1988. The aircraft then became a ground instructional airframe at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota and latterly at Tinker AFB. Oklahoma, and was last reported here as a Battle Damage Repair airframe in 1997, only the forward fuselage remaining. Just after this photo was taken the four of us in our tour group (including our guide) were significantly reprimanded for taking such an interest in the aeroplane and for brandishing cameras in front of it (not the first time one of our tour guides on a USAF base tour had been ticked off!) - we can only assume the Air-Launched Cruise Missiles sitting just out of shot to the left was the reason for the sensitivity!
Another shot taken during the 1987 visit shows another B-1, looking across the main runway from the Edwards main base to the more sensitive South base. During subsequent visits B-2As were seen in this area.
In contrast to its 'secret' reputation - the real 'black' stuff takes place elsewhere, although there is the highly secured North Base across the dry lake bed from the main site where early U-2 testing took place, and where flights to those bases that don't really exist operate from - Edwards AFB is (or certainly was at the time of our visits in the late 80s/early 90s) in actual fact a surprisingly, very 'open' base. On those visits in the age before 'the world changed', once you had cleared the main gate with the relevant credentials (in our case a tour booking for the USAF or NASA Dryden Research Facility site), you then drove yourselves the three or four miles to the main site, to 'check-in' with your booked tour - of course your sense of direction in such cases goes totally awry, and it is inevitable you will 'inadvertently' come across all sorts of aircraft/ramps etc.!
Our next visit to Edwards AFB took place on Friday 8th October 1993 - lacking the intimacy of the first, the tour party was a large one with numerous members of American 'Joe Public'. Never an ideal situation for the aircraft enthusiast, it involved a very quick drive by only of the main flightline, followed by a visit to more or less the same spot where B-1A 74-0160 resided six years earlier, and where more preserved aircraft had migrated to. After the tour however our guide suggested we fill the time prior to the start of our early afternoon NASA Dryden tour by hunting out the various preserved airframes scattered around the base's 'landside' - if I remember correctly, he also pointed out the location where the below photograph was taken, the Edwards AFB Artefacts Division, a compound containing all sorts of aeroplane pieces.
Obviously a B-1 shape but not a real aeroplane (note the real F-8 in the background for scale), I don't remember what this scale model was constructed out of, but presumably it had been used for radar cross section tests or something similar. More curious was the artefact item shown below - again immediately identifiable as a B-1A cockpit section (note the triangular 'fuselage fairing', and the lack of the 'porthole' window), we assumed at the time (rightly as it now appears) that it was part of a crashed machine, in particular the only B-1A out of the four prototypes to have been lost. But why was it in 'European One' camouflage? - all photos of the B-1A to have crashed show it in the experimental white livery - and is the piece not too intact to have been involved in a fatal accident? Research following the recent 're-discovery' of the slide shows it to indeed belong to one of the original B-1A prototypes.
The first three B-1As - 74-0158, 74-0159 and 74-0160 - were all fitted with a crew escape module, a similar feature having been part of the F-111 design; as the B-1 was originally designed as a Mach II, high-altitude bomber, it was deemed that crew egress at such heights would be too dangerous without pressurisation. In the event of 'ejection' therefore, the capsule shown above would separate from the rest of the airframe, and be parachuted down to the ground. The triangular features to the rear of the escape module were the so-called 'elephant's ears' which would flip upwards in the event of separation from the aircraft to stabilise the capsule, while flotation bags would inflate below the module to cushion its impact. With the change in role of the B-1B from a supersonic bomber to a low-level subsonic machine, the fourth B-1A and all subsequent B-1Bs were completed with standard, individual ejection seats.
74-0159 was the second B-1A prototype, but the third to fly on 14th June 1976, having initially been used for static structural testing. The aeroplane had flown 60 missions when it departed Edwards AFB for the final time on 29th August 1984 for minimum control speed tests at an altitude of 6,000ft - it had only four flights to complete before the end of its allotted test programme. During the flight a failure to manually transfer fuel allowed an out-of-trim condition to develop during the course of sweeping the wings forward - once the centre of gravity limit had been exceeded the aircraft stalled with insufficient altitude to recover. With no options available to salvage the situation, the aircraft commander elected to use the crew escape module, the rest of the aeroplane crashing twenty-two miles northeast of Edwards in the desert east of Boron. Separation of the escape module from the aircraft occurred satisfactorily, 1,500ft above the ground, however a malfunction in one of the explosive repositioning bolts, meant the chutes failed to deploy as planned, and the capsule hit the ground hard in a nose-down attitude, too hard for the inflatable cushions to soften the impact. Two of the crew members survived with serious injuries, however tragically Rockwell's chief engineering test pilot, Tommie D. 'Doug' Benefeld (who had commanded the aeroplane's first flight eight years earlier) was killed from injuries sustained on impact. The only use of the B-1A escape module 'in anger', the underlying cause of the accident was addressed on the later B-1Bs by a modification of the flight control system.
The excellent 'X Hunters' web site contains a photo of the wreckage of 74-0159 lying in a compound at Edwards AFB suspiciously similar to the one holding the base's Artefacts Division during our 1993 visit, and also shows photos of aircraft fragments later found at the crash site by enthusiasts - the green/gray paint of the 'European One' camo livery has peeled away on some fragments, revealing the base coat of the gloss white experimental scheme. Recent publications also confirm that the aeroplane had been repainted, along with the first prototype 74-0158, into the B-1B strategic livery late in life, as part of their work in developing the new model. So the escape module in the photo is indeed that from 74-0159 which met its end in August 1984 - there is obvious damage around the port-side cockpit window, as well as what appears to be a square panel cut underneath, presumably as a result of the rescue attempt. Rather a poignant photo therefore, and a sad epitaph for a great test pilot ......
We made one further visit to Edwards AFB on Friday 22nd September 1995, another generally 'no-photographs' public tour, the highlights of which included the sightings of both YF-23s, the type which lost out to the F-22 Raptor, one stored dismantled around the back of the test wing hangar, the other stored intact near the NASA Dryden facility. Looking through the few slides from the day, we appeared to have visited the Artefacts Division again as there is a photo of an A-37 in the compound, however the escape module from 74-0159 was presumably not present - I wonder where it is now!?
POSTSCRIPT During a final proof-read of the above article, I took a closer look at the B-1 in the NASA T-38 shot, an image which was a late addition to the piece, and got a bit of a shock! What I had always thought was a B-1B is in fact a B-1A - note the 'elephant's ears' and also the pointed tailcone, both features which were unique to the first three B-1As. As 74-0160 was on the other side of the airfield, and 74-0159 had crashed three years earlier, the photo can only show the very first B-1A prototype 74-0158, a machine which now serves as an instructional airframe at Griffiss AFB, NY, although its current condition is unknown. A bonus revelation therefore as a result of this article's research, as the very first example of the magnificent 'bone' and I have never otherwise crossed paths!
Acknowledgements: www.thexhunters.com, World Air Power Journal.