• Frank Visser

2017 NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

Updated: Feb 3, 2018

Just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles the largest Flight Research Center of NASA is located. Frank Visser reports from Edwards AFB and spoke with NASA's chief test pilot Nils Larson.

NB-52B 52-0008 North gate Edwards AFB

History The history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) center dates back to 1946 when a small group of specialists from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory arrived at Muroc Army Air Base later renamed it Edwards AFB. The reason for the NACA deployment was to participate in the first supersonic research flight with the Bell X-1 plane. For this program NACA worked closely together with the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Bell Aircraft company. The important milestone in this program was achieved on 14 October 1947 when Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time in his orange Bell X-1. During the years that followed, the center now known as NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center was renamed a number of times. Back in 1949 it was also known as High Speed Flight Research Station. This name changed in 1954 to High Speed Flight Station and after the death of NASA's deputy administrator Hugh L. Dryden in 1965 it was decided to honour him and so the High Speed Flight Station was renamed Dryden Flight Research Center. To honour Neil Armstrong a former research test pilot at the center and the first man walking on the surface of the moon the facility at Edwards AFB was renamed to NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center on 1 March 2014. To remember Hugh L. Dryden the Western Aeronautical Test Range is now called NASA Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range. A 20,700 square mile restricted airspace test range close to Edwards AFB.

Mission Today the Armstrong Flight Research Center is NASA's premier center for atmospheric flight research and operations. It is chartered to research, develop and test advanced aeronautics, space and related technologies and conduct atmospheric earth and space science flight operations. It is the only NASA facility where they can simultaneously check aircraft flight control, avionics, electronics and other systems. For this the center operates a small fleet of highly specialized manned and unmanned aircraft, which are flown by experienced pilots with roots in the USAF and NASA. The current chief test pilot at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center is Nils Larson. He started his career at the USAF Academy in 1986 and after his pilot training he became a T-37 instructor pilot. Later on in his career he flew the U-2. In 1995 he joined the USAF Test Pilot School (class95A) at Edwards AFB and after graduation he joined 445 Flight Test Squadron at the same base flying the F-15 and T-38. Extraordinary is the fact that he also graduated from the USN Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. In 2007 he retired from the USAF as an Lt Col and joined the NASA as a test pilot. He flies a variety of aircraft such as the F-15, F/A-18, ER-2, T-34 and DC-8. Nils Larson: "The aircraft we use are well suited for the job. They are not brand new but we don't pull high G-turns with them. We take care of our aircraft." During all these years nearly every aircraft type built for the US military flew with NASA from Edwards AFB. From the famous B-52B which was used for dropping a large number of X-planes like the X-15 and the X-43 to the SR-71, F-8, F-16 and T-38.

F-16XL-1 N849NA former 75-0749

F-111A-CF 63-9778

T-38N N904NA


Nowadays a variety of aircraft is used to conduct all the research programs. NASA Armstrong employs more than 1,150 government and contractor personnel at its two locations. The main location is on the north east side of Edwards AFB, next to Rogers Dry Lake. With 44 square miles it is the largest dry lakebed in the world. The second location is just 20 miles south at Palmdale Regional Airport Building 703.

Aircraft For many years NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center has had the F-15 in its inventory. One of the most famous ones was the NF-15B, also known as F-15 STOL/MTD (Short Take-off and Landing/ Manoeuvre Technology Demonstrator). It was the first two-seat F-15 ever built by McDonnell Douglas and the eleventh F-15, serial number 71-0290, which came off the assembly line. At NASA it was used for studying the effects of thrust vectoring and enhanced manoeuvrability and in the eighties it was also used as the avionics testbed for the F-15E Strike Eagle.

NF-15B N837NA former 71-0290 Edwards AFB 2009


Another famous F-15 was obtained by NASA in 1976 and received the tail number 835. Build as an YF-15A it was the eighth F-15 ever produced and was used by NASA to develop a digital electronic engine control system. Later this aircraft was called F-15A HIDEC (Highly Integrated Digital Electronic Control) and was used to test and evaluate a computerized self-repairing flight control system. A system that could detect damaged or failed flight control surfaces.

F-15A N835NA former 71-0287


At the moment NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center has three F-15s in its inventory all two-seat versions. They are used as aeronautics research test beds, crew training, pilot proficiency and safety chase support for other research aircraft.

F-15B N836NA former 74-0141


The F/A-18s are NASA's mission support aircraft and several single and two-seats are used to support space based technologies and other test programs. Besides they are used as safety chase support, the so-called chase planes. It also used for observing flight-control operations for the test pilot and gives real-time feedback to the test pilot and personnel in the control room on the ground. The two-seat version of the F/A-18 is also used for photo and video support.

F/A-18A N850NA former 161703

F/A-18B N846NA former 161355


NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center also operates a Gulfstream G-III aircraft as an aerodynamics research test bed. Another Gulfstream, a former USAF C-20A, has been in use since 2002. This aircraft can also be used for gathering scientific data for geological studies. A very interesting aircraft is the ER-2S of which NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center has two in its inventory based at the Palmdale location. It is the high-altitude airborne science aircraft and operates at altitudes from 20,000 feet to 70,000 feet. These two aircraft are used for a wide variety of environmental science, atmospheric sampling, and satellite data verification missions. The aircraft are also used for electronic sensor research and development and satellite calibration. From 1971 onwards NASA used the U-2 to collect scientific data but replaced the two earlier U-2s by the ER-2Ss of which the first arrived in 1981 and the second eight years later. It is the only aircraft that can fly into the lower stratosphere at subsonic speed and has been deployed several times abroad. The DC-8 flies three primary missions: sensor development, satellite sensor verification, and basic research studies of the Earth's surface and atmosphere. For this reason it was used for tropical storms research giving scientists more realistic data then they had hoped for. A new probe design to avoid freezing up was also tested on the DC-8 and during two weeks in summer students of different colleges in the USA are invited to do scientific research on the DC-8. NASA's Armstrong Palmdale location is also the home of the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) program. Together with the DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt), Germany's Aerospace Center and NASA set up this joint program. Goal was to develop an airborne observatory so infrared astronomy observation in the stratosphere could take place.

Beech 200 N701NA

Beech 200 N801NA


For many years NASA Armstrong Research Flight Center has two Beechcraft Beech 200 King Air aircraft (N7NA and N801NA) they are used for a variety of support missions. N801NA was also a testbed for various research programs. For mission support the T-34C Turbo Mentor is used for research flights, photography and video and also as safety chase. It is primarily used for chasing UAVs.

RQ-9A Predator B IKHANA N870NA


The era of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) also applies to NASA and therefore NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center operates a modified MQ-9 Predator B and two Global Hawks. The Predator B named Ikhana is used for medium-altitude and long-endurance earth science missions and advanced aeronautical technology development since November 2006. Ikhana also acts as a test bed to develop capabilities and technologies to improve the utility of UAVs. Over the years the avionics have been upgraded and it has got winglets. For high-altitude and long-endurance scientific earth research NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center operates two Global Hawks with a range of 8,500 nautical miles and with 24-hour endurance it allows them to operate worldwide. It is intensively used for hurricane studies since 2010. For spare parts NASA required two additional Global Hawks Block 10 from the USAF and they could be used for future missions.

Nils Larson NASA's chief test pilot

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