452nd FLTS searches for needle in haystack

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Douglas W. Jaquish
  • 452nd Flight Test Squadron commander
Edwards is the most storied airspace in the United States, if not the world. It was here where man conquered the sound barrier, where astronauts cut their teeth for the space race, where the X‑15 soared to more than 50 miles above Earth, where "Bionic Man" got its trailer and where the space shuttle returned from its first mission. 

Edwards is where innumerable "first flights" have occurred. And in those many first flights over this small piece of the Mojave Desert, there have been both great achievements and fantastic discoveries. 

Well, early last month, I witnessed some of those banner days in aviation history. On March 1, a highly improved Global Hawk flew its maiden flight from U.S. Air Force Plant 42 to Edwards. Block 20 is the aircraft destined to transform high altitude reconnaissance for the Air Force. It will be the baseline unmanned aerial vehicle replacing the venerable U‑2 over the next decade. 

Block 20's flight was a great achievement. It took months of work at Global Vigilance Combined Test Force and the Air Force Flight Test Center. During its maiden flight, an unexpected event happened. About one hour into flight, the F‑16 Fighting Falcon chase photographer caught the departure of the new Global Hawk's left main gear door on camera. 

At that moment, the aircraft was overhead Saddleback Butte, north of Boron, descending from 30,000 feet. The Global Hawk test team in Birk Mission Control captured the moment off the telemetry stream, and following an uneventful landing, the treasure hunt began across the Mojave Desert. The reception was a little subdued as the Air Force's newest Global Hawk was ingloriously towed off the runway after nailing a centerline landing on Edwards' 300-foot wide main runway. Without prompting, the Global Hawk team and a band of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and NASA Dryden Research Flight Center engineers took the unexpected event coordinates and the mission's weather balloon wind data to locate the missing door. Detailed maps were produced. The impact footprint was estimated to be northwest of Kramer Junction, between the Borax mines and the mirror farm, a swath covering 50 square miles of barren desert. Odds of recovering the gear door were not good. 

On March 2, two search and recovery missions were flown by Global Hawk pilots out of the Edwards Aero Club. The first sortie confirmed what we all feared -- there were a lot of debris in the Mojave Desert, and it all looks the same from a Cessna at 500 feet flying 80 miles per hour! The search pattern widened to the east, bolstered by new data from the NASA engineers. I was piloting the second Cessna and had two Global Hawk engineers onboard as my airborne spotters, Capt. Jared Salk and Jan Rehacek. Just as we were ready to call off the search and return home, Captain Salk shouted, "That's it!" 

Looking out the right window of the Cessna, he spied a distinctive object resting in the sage brush. Landmarks were mapped, Global Positioning System coordinates were taken and several flyovers followed before we returned to Edwards to drive the 30 miles out to the impact site. We plucked the undamaged gear door from the desert floor, taking "grand prize" in this amazing treasure hunt. Not a scratch to be found, the gear door had landed square with its highly reflective white underside facing up. 

Even now, the gear door is being redesigned to make Block 20's second flight later next month. Some declared we had a higher probability of finding a missing part from some ancient first flight. Many were in shock when we found Global Hawk's "needle in the haystack," and recovered the missing piece of the first Block 20. Indeed, March 2 was a legendary day for the Global Hawk Block 20 test team and AFFTC.