This is the “Aerospace Valley.” It has been for more than 70 years. It continues to be.
Hiring in the vicinity of Air Force Plant 42 has been beefing up because of preparations to build a new strategic bomber that will be the first added to the arsenal since the B-2 stealth bomber made its public debut in front of a Northrop hangar about 30 years ago.
Even with fewer aircraft, defense drawdowns and movement of aerospace manufacturing to places like Georgia, this Antelope Valley 50 miles north of the “Hollywood” sign remains a kind of Valhalla for people who track the development of our aerospace arsenal. Aerospace remains the Antelope Valley’s largest employer.
Virtually every aircraft in the Air Force inventory passes through the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, the base named for Capt. Glen Edwards, who died flight testing the YB-49 “Flying Wing” in 1948, a plane that was so far ahead of its time it ended up being a forerunner of the B-2 stealth bomber in its design, execution, even the specs of its wingspan.
Edwards Air Force Base is what author Tom Wolfe made legend in his epic book that became the film “The Right Stuff.”
The book, and film, opened with the exploits of Air Force combat ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager, who according to Wolfe was “The Right Stuff” incarnate, that ineffable quality that combines talent with grace under pressure and confidence in the sky, that most unforgiving of elements.
Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager of West Virginia became the first pilot to break through the sound barrier in 1947. When we hear sonic booms of a pilot “busting Mach” in the skies above the Antelope Valley, we call it “The sound of freedom.” There is something to it. Has a ring.
The rare breed continues to pass through the doors of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards.
You have heard Yeager’s name, read the books and seen the movies. So what about Ryan Blake? Correction, that would be Col. Ryan Blake, call sign “Cujo,” current Commandant of the Test Pilot School.
On Tuesday, Col. Blake, in olive drab flight suit with blue forage cap tucked in a cargo pocket, showed up to share a bit about the “Right Now” of the “Right Stuff.” Like most operational test pilots, Blake carries no excess weight, looking like he lives on a conveyor belt of salads and protein.
Blake first served at Edwards 11 years ago, and graduated the Test Pilot School. Eleven years later, he is back, and in charge.
The room full of veterans included all services, and all eras, from World War II, through the Korean and Vietnam wars, and right up through all the combat tours served since 9/11, most often in a desert locale, but not the Mojave Desert. More than a few in the big room at Crazy Otto’s on Avenue I wore blue suits and served in the Air Force.
“You veterans are our legacy,” Col. Blake said. “I look at all of you who have served in Korea, Vietnam and all the conflicts, and you are our legacy on active duty.”
Blake flew test, seeking the “edge of the envelope” on all models of the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, on transports like the C-12, “and some classified work.”
The colonel related that a class of 24 test pilot prospects will matriculate through the school Yeager himself once attended, and later commanded. Same for the other Antelope Valley legend, Col. William J. “Pete” Knight, whose X-15 series of test flights earned him the record “Fastest Man Alive,” which held until he died in 2004 after serving as mayor of Palmdale, and in the state Legislature.
To graduate the Test Pilot School is to enter the ranks of the ones who followed trailblazers like Yeager and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who joined Neil Armstrong in making the earliest footprints on the moon in the Apollo program. The test pilots graduating are the legacies of the likes of Yeager and Buzz Aldrin, the commandant noted.
“Most of our pilots graduate because they have serious qualifications when they are accepted,” Col. Blake said. “They, normally, are the top in the units they come from.”
One of the questions from an Air Force vet at the Coffee4Veterans gathering: “How did you get your call sign?”
Someone asked if pilots pick their own call signs.
“No, we do not pick our own call signs,” Col. Blake said. “Any pilot who tries to pick his own call sign is going to end up with another one that is much worse.”
Your call sign is awarded by your peers, he noted.
“You may remember something about the Stephen King novel about a very ferocious dog,” Blake noted, with deadpan expression. “Somebody thought that was something like the way I flew, I guess.”
Blake surveyed the room crowded with men and women, one with combat time that ranges back to D-Day in Europe, and saw the surrender in Tokyo Bay.
During his visit, he heard about the fight being waged to preserve veterans benefits, about work being done to prevent veteran homelessness, about mental health care for troops returned from the wars, and met Andrea Rosenthal, deputy district director for recently elected Rep. Katie Hill. Representatives for most of the Antelope Valley’s elected officials attended, and shared their own news and insight on service.
“I am amazed by all the things you have going on here, and all the things you do,” Col. Ryan “Cujo” Blake, said. “It’s clear you are not just here to drink coffee.”
Dennis Anderson served as a paratrooper during the Cold War, and as Editor of the Antelope Valley Press from 1999 to 2015. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at High Desert Medical Group and works on veterans issues.