AFMC Command News

An Intragalactic Survey: Edwards AFB conducts low level flight survey through Southern California wilderness, "Star Wars" style

  • Published
  • By Adam Bowles
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs

One of the key roles for the 412th Test Wing is to manage the safe operation of the local airspace. With unique geological features and national parks within the Edwards Air Force Base airspace, this provides an irreplaceable national asset for weapons testing and military training. On March 3rd, a C-12 flight crew from the 412th Operations Group conducted a routine low level survey of the Sidewinder route through the Southern California wilderness.

"An amazing thing about the C-12 fleet at Edwards Air Force Base, is that it's a jack of all trades," Col. Grant Mizell, Commander, 412th Operations Group explained. "It's an unique mission. This is the low level survey mission in the C-12 Huron. This is where we fly the C-12 in the low level routes down near 200 feet looking for obstacles that could obstruct all of the other aircraft that use that route for test purposes."

In order to maintain the use of low-level routes throughout the airspace, the 412th Operations Group regularly conduct “low level survey” missions to ensure that no new vertical flight obstructions from communication towers, new transmission lines, or construction cranes are a factor to Edwards AFB aircraft.

"The low level route first of all is absolutely gorgeous," Mizell said. "The mountains have snow on them from the historic winter storms this season. We have beautiful skies and unlimited visibility. This gives us the opportunity to see some amazing geological features while we perform this survey."

Some geological features that were seen on the flight survey included Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States, Trona Pinnacles, Lake Owen, the Seven Teacups, the Death Valley Sand Dunes and many other natural wonders of Southern California. But, even though the flight offered wonderful views for the team, the importance of the mission took precedence. 

"The survey mission is incredibly important," Mizell explained. "When the fighters drop into these narrow canyons and passes or heavy aircraft and bombers drop into terrain falling radar, they are going incredibly fast and they are very focused on their test mission. They can't be worried about some new tower or obstacle is somewhere on that route that they don't know about. So, we go out and survey that route at least once a year to make sure no new things are on the route."

Another hazard that pilots look out for is local bird activity along the route. The team tracks the bird migrations to protect wildlife and themselves as well. The sidewinder route usually reminds pilots of the hit movie "Star Wars" flying through the narrow canyons and passes of the Southern California wilderness.

"One of the features we fly over and survey is the Jedi Transition," Jessica Peterson, Technical Director, 412th Operations Group said. "It is a short cut route through the Sidewinder. We call it the Jedi Transition as a reference to 'Star Wars' because it is this narrow slot that we fly over that some military aircraft from other installations test in."

This unique airspace, ranging from the surface to unlimited altitudes in some locations, has been critical to flight test achievements and the developmental test of new aircraft and systems.

"Historically, our aircraft have had these capabilities for many decades," Peterson explained. "I personally have a connection to it because when I was working on the F-16, we were working on automatic ground collision avoidance systems. We used this low level route to make sure that we could do collision avoidance with the terrain so we wouldn't hit the mountains. But, also we made sure our pilots could still fly that low level route doing the terrain masking without the system getting in the way. They could fly down to 200 feet and this automatic system would give them nuisance activations."

Developed specifically for hazardous flight test activities, the Restricted Area 2515 airspace above Edwards AFB covers 1,812 square miles and encompasses unmanned aerial system operating areas, spin areas for departing aircraft from controlled flight, supersonic flight corridors, and the precision impact range area for air-ground payload deliveries. Additionally, the airspace available to flight test operations expands even further into the R-2508 Complex, the largest single area of overland Special Use Airspace in the United States.

In these airspaces, the 412th Operation Group says that keeping a good relationship alive not only with the installations that share the airspaces, but with the local national park community is extremely important to the team.

"We really love our airspace partners," Mizell explained. "In this airspace we have not only the Air Force with Edwards Air Force Base, but we have the Navy with China Lake and the Army with Fort Erwin. We all are using the same airspace. We also have alot of partners within the local community that live underneath our airspace as well as our National Park and National Forest partners, so we keep our low level mission restricted to a small portion of our overall airspace."

 With a successful survey of the local airspace, the team ensured that the airspace would continue to provide safe and effective routes for test and training.

"If we can give these airplanes who run all the steps they need to run through a safe environment to train in, they can be amazing operational assets out in the world anywhere they might go," Mizell said.