Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Battle of Palmdale

Aerospace Archaeology and the Triumph of the Amateurs

From the book and movie The Right Stuff through to overflights by the recent "victory lap" of the Space Shuttle, the Antelope Valley lives in, around, and under the influence of Edwards Air Force Base in many ways.

I know in my case, applying for a tenure-track position at Antelope Valley College in the now-distant days of 1989, one of the attractions for me --- something that was important enough that it would cause me to give up teaching at U.C. Irvine and give up as well my rental house at the beach --- was that I would be closer to an odd little gem of a marsh, the Piute Ponds complex on the southwestern edge of Edwards. I still go there today.

This wetlands system, kept liquid and thriving via the influx of treated effluent from the Ave D sewage plant, is worth a post on its own. For now though we will skip past this home of rails and swans to think about the main reason Edwards exists: to fly planes and to crash them.

Not intentionally of course. But the fact is, we only get new planes by trying new designs, and we can only try new designs by building fun experiments and then throwing them up in the sky and seeing what happens. Sometimes, all goes well. Other times . . . .

Caption information is as follows:

This is what happens when an F-104 "augers in" at high speed. In 1962, NASA pilot Milt Thompson was simulating X-15 approaches in a JF-104A at high altitude and tried to lower the flaps. One flap actuator failed, setting up rolls that became uncontrollable. Thompson ejected. The plane exploded on impact, while observers on the ground failed to see Thompson's descent with a parachute. With only news of the crash and no word about the well-liked pilot, gloom quickly spread. Meanwhile, Thompson landed safely, walked to a nearby road, and waited to hitch a ride to the crash site. Soon a NASA car approached, and inside was the chief of flight operations. Thompson flagged it down, and they headed back to Dryden [Flight Center].

The text and photo come from a very striking book that I recommend highly, a visual history of Edwards and its planes. Here's a scan of the cover.

Edwards itself is named for somebody who perished in a different crash. Many of us forget that the sci-fi-looking "flying wing" design pre-dates its most recent incarnation as the Stealth Bomber. One very elegant version of the flying wing concept was the experimental YB-49 of the 1940s. What is now Edwards Base was formerly Muroc (itself an inverted spelling of a pioneer family's name); Glen Edwards was among those brave men killed when a test version of this plane crashed.

What does all of this have to do with our post's title? The Battle of Palmdale --- and one hint is that it will have a bright red F6 Hellcat taking on two F-89 Scorpions --- will come later. First we need to pay tribute to somebody who has done an amazing amount of CSI in order to resurrect these various crash sites for us all.

At the Center for Land Use Interpretation right now there's an exhibit titled "Down to Earth," with a deadpan but respectful review of the many pieces of the Mojave Desert that have received the sudden, unannounced visit of an object from the sky, namely a manned or unmanned airplane no longer in stable, level flight. The above cited slang, "augering in," captures this sad fact of aerodynamic failure in one punchy expression.

The show is based on archival research and field study by the remarkable Peter Merlin. I recently went to his lecture at CLUI, as he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the crash sites and what they mean.

As a side note, this PowerPoint was well-paced, vivid, and informative. I guess the medium has finally evolved? Initially, along with Yale's Professor Tufte and other design critics, I dreaded sitting through a PowerPoint presentation, since apparently all of the early adopters were dolts who couldn't think visually. Ever been to a presentation where there were just three bullet-pointed factoids per slide, a slide whose content you could take in in about two seconds? And then the presenter would laboriously read each bullet point, as if you were not already light years ahead of him? (Or her, as the case may be, though I seem to have met more boring men than women: maybe it's a communication style thing.) Sometimes further insult appeared in the form of a badly xeroxed batch of 30 stapled pages that relisted the same stupifying points but now as a murky handout.

Well, those days seem to be ancient history, or maybe I just am better at deciding which events to sit through.

What Mr. Merlin and his colleagues do is quite simple: figure out what crashed, when it happened, and where the site would be, and then go and find the crash location today. If they uncover artifacts, sometimes they collect them for a museum. It sounds easy, but have you ever misplaced, say, your car keys? I mean how many places can they be? A house is not THAT big. The Mojave Desert is a mighty big place --- bigger than a house, anyway.

With the recent release of declassified documents such as accident investigation reports, site finding is a touch easier. Some of his best finds required a lot more CSI sleuthing, however.

This is not just ancient history. A fighter called a Raptor went down just a few years ago. The lecture went into the crash and the site in some detail, but here are some shots from the exhibit itself, as those came out slightly better than my shots from the PowerPoint talk.

The crash site is near Harper Dry Lake, close to Barstow.

As some of you know, an F-22 Raptor is a fast, sexy, and very expensive plane: let's say $150 million per unit? (That makes the car payments on my new truck seem downright cheap.) The cleanup took three months. One factor was secrecy: one doesn't wish to leave top-secret spare parts scattered around the open range. Another factor is a recent change in public culture, namely, the arrival of an environmental consciousness that says we now clean up our messes. An advanced fighter plane, with its fuel load, lubricants, and hybrid and composite materials, is one big shopping cart of hazardous materials, and when one crashes, that haz-mat load gets well and truly mixed into the public landscape. In this case, glue was sprayed over the sand, to help pick up the speckles of fragmented composite. The contaminated soil was bulldozed away and fresh fill brought in. There was even a rather feeble attempt to replant native desert plants. It nearly sounds like installation art.

That takes around to what the lecture and the CLUI show itself offer us. What's the "point"? For aviation professionals including Mr. Merlin, studying crashes and crash sites helps us figure out what has gone wrong. The Center for Land Use Interpretation broadens that idea out somewhat. Here is some text from their website:

Since the dawn of the jet and space ages, Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, has been the principal place for testing experimental aircraft. As a result, the landscape around it is peppered with crash sites. These crash sites represent the meeting of the apogee of American technological sophistication, with the perigee of failure - the intersection of lofted ambition and terrestrial tragedy.

The eleven crashes described in this exhibit were selected from among the more than six hundred that have occurred in the western Mojave Desert, and cover the range of experimentation and advancement of aircraft over the past 70 years of jet-propelled flight. With one exception, all of these flights originated at Edwards, where they were expected to return. Instead they crashed outside, in the public realm, where they remain as accidental monuments to one of the most advanced forms of technology and human endeavor.

Note the number: over 600 crash sites. As several people suggested before and after the talk, a map just of the site locations themselves might reveal something about human patterns of behavior and perhaps be a piece of interesting abstract art in itself. Normally a CLUI exhibit comes from the happy hands of Matt Coolidge and other in-house research team members. This show is more "home grown," and more or less comes from here, the Antelope Valley. CLUI's website credits this clearly:

This CLUI exhibit is based on the work of Peter W. Merlin who, with Tony Moore, founded the X-Hunters Aerospace Archeology Team, the nation’s experts on locating crash sites of experimental aircraft. Merlin and Moore have studied and documented aerospace accidents and incidents for more than 25 years, and have located and visited more than 100 crash sites of historic aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base and Area 51.

That was one of the take-home messages I got, which was that with enough imagination and courage, yes, we can land on the moon and routinely fly to the edge of outer space. (Pilots at Edwards have become "astronauts" in airplanes, and not by going up on a NASA Saturn V.) But it's also true that with enough imagination and courage, a single individual can become a "X-Files" researcher just on a local scale, and with perseverance and luck, with imagination and courage and a broad-brimmed hat, he can locate everything from lost airplane engines to the gemstone in a deceased pilot's wedding ring. The story of the lucky amateur, from Heinrich Schliemann discovering Troy to the gold strike at Sutter's Mill to Sherlock Holmes himself, makes us realize that everything that gets done doesn't need a huge R&D department or a government grant. Sometimes it just takes a couple of guys in a jeep willing to poke around the sage brush for a while.

Which brings us back to the Battle of Palmdale.

These shots will all be from Mr. Merlin's slide show --- I was sitting a bit off-axis from the screen, so I apologize for the distortion.

Our story starts with the fact that in the 1950s surplus WW II fighters called Hellcats were converted into pilot-less drone planes and used as flying targets over the Pacific Ocean. Here's what they looked like.

That's a normal enough concept, except as these things go, sure enough, there was a malfunction, and one of the drones (full of very explosive aviation fuel) stopped responding to the radio signals. Instead of flying out to sea, it made a banking climb and flew over Los Angeles. Well, that wasn't a good thing, so F-89 fighters were scrambled to intercept.

This was not going to be their finest hour. Churchill can be glad he didn't have these lads in any of his squadrons during the Battle of Britain. It seemed at first to be going okay: the drone left Los Angeles proper and headed to Castaic, and then Newhall, and finally Palmdale. As we all know, the Antelope Valley is a wasteland good for nothing but housing convicts, dumping sofas, and releasing unwanted dogs, and so what better place for the wayward drone to crash? "Shoot to kill" was the order given.

208 missiles were fired at the bright red unpiloted Hellcat. Bear in mind, this is not something zooming around like Darth Vader in a TIE fighter. There's no evasive action, no ducking under bridges or banking into the sun. This is a propeller-driven, war-surplus plane plodding along with konked-out autopilot. 200 missiles --- and not one hit the drone. They did however hit Palmdale Boulevard. Missiles were landing all over the place. One even started a fire in Placerita Canyon, where the nature reserve is today. As Mr. Merlin speculates, there could be dud rounds still buried in the dirt around Ave M even today.

From the blog site of the U.S. Naval Institute comes this summary of the rocket damage:

According to the Aug. 23, 1956, edition of the Valley Press, one of the air-to-air rockets fell to earth and nearly hit a station wagon being driven by 17-year-old Larry Kempton of Leona Valley. Kempton, with his mother Bernice in the passenger seat, was driving west on Palmdale Boulevard just west of 10th Street West when a rocket exploded on the street in front of his car, the newspaper reported. Fragments from the explosion shredded Kempton’s left front tire and put 17 holes in his radiator, hood and windshield.

Shrapnel also damaged a home near Avenue Q-8 and Third Street East and a home near Avenue Q-6 and Fourth Street East, the Valley Press reported. Edna Carlson, who lived in the home on Third Street East, said a chunk of shrapnel from one Air Force rocket burst through the front window of her home, ricocheted off the ceiling, went through a wall and came to rest in a kitchen cupboard, according to a report in the Aug. 17, 1956, edition of a Los Angeles newspaper. J.R. Hingle told the L.A. newspaper that pieces of metal blasted into his garage and home on Fourth Street East, nearly striking a guest named Lilly Willingham. Both homes are still standing and in use, Merlin said.

The L.A. paper also noted that “three good-size fires and numerous smaller blazes” were ignited in Palmdale by the rockets, in addition to the fires near Santa Clarita. The Placerita Canyon fire burned 75 to 100 acres before being brought under control by a team more than 200 firefighters, who helped save the Bermite plant, the newspaper account showed. “Another (fire) was seven miles north of Castaic on the old Ridge Route and burned 50 to 75 acres before being brought under control late in the afternoon” by about
100 firefighters.

And the little plane that could? The red F6 drone? What happened to it we all want to know. It finally ran out of gas and crashed eight miles east of the now-closed Palmdale Airport, cutting some power lines. There was the usual clean-up and cover-up, then it was seemingly forgotten from history. Enter our aerospace archaeologists.

Isn't this shot amazing? He and his partner FOUND this utterly obscure site. Is it still "history" if nobody wants to remember it or talk about it? We'll have to check with Dr. Jaffe about that. I am just full of hope, thinking about all of the additional sites we have yet to uncover, aviation-based or otherwise. Here's a final shot from researching the Battle of Palmdale site:

Note the appropriate uniform. Indiana Jones taught us that if you're going to do field work, you need a jazzy hat. You also need a small crew of eccentrics and visionaries, folks willing to believe "the truth is out there."

Peter Merlin is such a person, and so is Matt Coolidge and the other brave folks who keep the Center for Land Use Interpretation consistently one of the most interesting exhibition venues in Los Angeles.

Long may they tinker and potter, long may they question and trespass. God bless the amateurs.

The AVC Blog is curated by Language Arts instructor Charles Hood. It does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the campus administration. Hood can be reached at


  1. Dr. Cal Yorke, biology teacher at AVC and world traveler, tried to post a comment that didn't go through. Here it is from an email, copied and pasted by Hood. Dr. Yorke says, "This was by far your best little piece and, in this reviewer's opinion, an example of some of your best writing ever. It had a catchy beginning, lively middle and thematic ending (although your papal blessing seemed misplaced). Almost completely lacking,thankfully, were the multiple references to your trophy collection. Instead, the writer takes a seat and lets the reader contemplate the subject at hand in a very engaging, visually appealing style. The tone was informative, regionally significant and humorous.
    Most of the piece hit the mark dead on, like an emergency fuel dump taking out an unwary Tundra Swan."