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The Trip of Your Dreams


Have you ever wondered what it’s like to meet your heroes? What would you say to them? Where would you meet them? Would you stumble on your words and make a fool of yourself? I’m sure you’ve imagined that day over and over again, but what if it actually came true? For me, I was able to meet my heroes this past weekend in the middle of a dry, dusty, lake bed that has more spindly cacti sticking up through cracks in the ground than people living there. For me, that dream became a reality.

I’ve been reading about Edwards Air Force Base for years. It was there that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the “Glamorous Glennis”, where NASA tested scores of ‘X-planes’ to understand the fundamentals of flight, and where a humble, little school sits astride a runway that has character packed into every square inch of its hot asphalt. In the middle of this desert resides a school that trains people how to push machines to the edge of their limits and recover from them. It requires the ability to learn a system in and out in a matter of hours, have flexibility for plans that change by the minute, and the ability to make critical decisions in mere seconds. Test Pilot School (or TPS as it is usually called) calls for the strong of heart and quick of mind. It’s a grueling 48-week training regimen that pulls out the best in a person. A place that I’ve dreamt of visiting for years, a series of lucky events finally brought me to this humble lakebed over the past weekend. This is the story of my adventure to Edwards Air Force Base.

Thanks to the help of my cadre back at my detachment, I was put in touch with an F-15 fighter pilot who was close friends with the test pilot community. He provided the contacts which eventually let me get in touch with one of the pilots at Edwards. After talking with him a couple times, I asked a question that I figured would be a firm, “no”. With my working in the Bay Area this summer, and with Edwards ~only~ being a 6 hour drive away, would it be at all possible to visit the coolest school in the world? Luck was on my side that day, because my contact said that was something that could definitely be arranged, especially given that I had planned it far enough out in advance.

Weeks passed and I counted down the days that I would make my trek southward. When the day finally arrived, I was met with bad news that morning: the car that I hoped to borrow from a friend was out of commission. I would have to find another ride down. With no one else able to lend a car and the departure time ticking down to four hours, I was forced to rent a small sedan that didn’t even have a working radio (apparently you needed a “code” to turn it on).

Nonetheless, I set off from San Jose with a pack of snacks sitting in the passenger seat and multiple podcasts loaded up on my phone. Aside from my phone overheating and losing a third of its battery spontaneously (stupid Google Maps update), the drive out of the city and into the farmland was uneventful.

The hours passed like the rolling, golden hills around me. I passed big farm country with even bigger cows lining the wooden fences that bordered the highway. When it finally began to get dark, I pulled over near Bakersfield to eat at the Golden Arches. Filling myself up with more fuel, I set out on the most difficult portion of this journey: a night-time ride through winding mountains with a phone that hovered below 20%. At this point, with the phone battery acting on the fritz and an hour and a half to go, I had no music or podcasts to listen to. The only thing keeping me awake was going to have to be myself (easier said than done when you’ve been for driving for 5 hours and it’s 10pm).

Luckily enough, I made it there without a hitch and was incredibly thankful when I pulled up to a glowing silver sign in the desert that read “Edwards Air Force Base”. Like a message from the heavens, it was signaling that a bed of my own was not far away. I passed through security and traveled through this strange, dark landscape to the High Desert Inn, which would be my home for the next 48 hours.

The bed was an incredibly comfortable, full-size mattress that felt great on my weary back. I was asleep in minutes. Now, given that I didn’t go to bed until 11:30pm, I decided to sleep in a little bit the next day to 6:15am. It was a good thing I did that too, because my contact bumped up our meeting time from 8am to 7:30am.

After a quick shower and a bite to eat, I met him over at the compound that was lined with rows of the world’s coolest planes. I can’t exactly talk about numbers or specifics, but I will tell you that they were very, very cool. We went into the compound together and I listened to a brief given about fighter defensive systems that really opened up my eyes to how much pilots know about all the different systems on their respective airframe. After the presentation, I followed my contact on a tour of the compound and tried on night vision goggles, saw the custom bar that was built out of scrap plane parts, and even got to fly a plane (in a simulator, that is)!


Once the tour was finished of the compound, we moseyed on over to Test Pilot School HQ, which was just a short drive away. My contact showed me around the planes that are used to train the pilots. They fly big planes, little planes, fast planes, slow planes, and everything else in between. In fact, by the time they’re done training, they’ll have flown in almost 28 different aircraft! They are constantly learning and adjusting themselves to new systems and, like Goggins always says, “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I went inside the school and was shown around the workroom and some of the briefing rooms.

My contact had to leave right before lunch time, which meant that I was free to go grab some of the finest Asian cuisine one can get in the middle of a desert: Panda Express. After chowing down on chicken prepared by an actual general (General Tso, that is), I headed back to TPS to sit in on a briefing being given by some students to their instructors. As part of the curriculum, they have to complete a series of “reports” from a customer who wants to test a specific parameter.

It’s up to the students to write and carry out their plan, which involves flight testing the aircraft being examined. I sat in on three guys who were nice enough to have a report printed out for me. They treated me like I was part of the operation and even allowed me the chance to sit in the back of the operation room where the data would be gathered for processing throughout the flight. They gave an hour brief to the two instructors and then prepared for the flight. However, just as we were about to head off from the step deck and go to our places, the maintainers called up and said that the plane was no longer operable to fly. It wouldn’t be fixed until the next day, which pretty much ruined our chances of going out into the wild blue yonder.

I was saddened that I wouldn’t be able to watch their project come to life, but I did end up talking with them for a good while. They provided all sorts of helpful advice for applying and insights into what to expect from Test Pilot School (short answer – it’s not easy). The funniest part of it all was when one of the dudes came walking in with a massive bowl of ice cream and said, “Yo guys, there’s an ice cream sundae bar in the other room. Better hurry up before it’s all gone!” An ice cream sundae bar isn’t the first thing I’d expect to find at the premiere training facility for military pilots, but I guess the consumption of ice cream has no bounds.




I said goodbye to all of them and beat it out of there in the mid-afternoon. It was a scorching day out (105’), but I headed over to the safety of the air-conditioned Test Pilot Museum, which was chock-full of cool, old airplanes. Inside the museum were plaques and displays and TV recordings of everything from the 1950’s to now. F16 cockpit bubbles were used as the glass to house the displays. Hanging above it all was the Bell X-1, a vibrant orange shell that housed Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier. Outside were scores of different X-planes and other carcasses that were done with their days of flying. I spent well over an hour there before driving back to the hotel for a quick pit stop.


It still wasn’t dinner time when I got to the High Desert Inn, so I drove over to the NASA Armstrong complex to see if I could poke my head around there. Unfortunately, I arrived just a bit too late and was only able to see more of the planes sitting outside the gates. Lessons I’ve learned this summer: don’t visit a government complex after 4pm on Friday. No one will be there!

After that disappointment, I drove back and grabbed dinner at Louisiana’s famous ‘Popeyes’ to cure my craving of fried chicken. There wasn’t much else to do that evening except unwind at the hotel and relax after a hectic 24 hours. I made sure to get plenty of sleep that night before my drive home the next day.

Before I left, I was able to meet one more person! Another contact of mine was a student who just started TPS. He picked me up in a 1966 silver Ford Mustang (it was a sweet car) and drove me around to some parts of the base I hadn’t seen yet. Along the way, he gave me advice and told me a bit about his time as a pilot before entering TPS. He showed me to the Bell X-1 loading pits, the graveyard of old NASA planes, and the “Mothership”, which was the B-29 that launched the X-1 and many other famous rocket-powered aircraft. It was a great send off before I hopped in my own (not nearly as cool) car for the journey back.


The ride home was uneventful, long, and boring. Once I got back and dropped the rental off, I took a long, hot, shower and went to bed early again. I was beat from the back and forth 6 hour drive in such a short time frame, but the people I met and the experience of visiting the coolest place in the world made it absolutely worth every penny and ache.

I never imagined that I would get the opportunity to visit Test Pilot School. It goes to show that you never know what might happen next. The best thing you can do is to keep your options open and spring for those chances when they pop up: you never know how or when you’ll be able to it again. Also, it never hurts to ask someone for an opportunity. What's the worst they can do, say no?

Before I traveled there, I was scared that I wouldn’t like Edwards: that it might be too isolated, or too dry, or too hot, or too “something” that I wouldn’t like it there. After visiting, yes it is “too hot”, and a “tad isolated”, and I’m sure there’s a “something” there too, but surprisingly, those fears all vanished. I’m excited for the day I can apply to TPS and, if all goes well, hopefully end up there. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two years, it’s that I can’t wait to see what the future has in store. I’m sure it’ll be beyond my wildest dreams.

Posted by oklempay 13:48 Archived in USA Tagged california nasa plane aircraft test dream pilot instructor edwards_afb tps test_pilot x_plane air_force

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