03 March 2007

The Seven Mile Runway

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Friday the 3rd of March finds us up at Edwards Air Force Base. We're not shooting today, but doing a "location scout" and meeting with Dr. Raymond Puffer. Puffer and Dr. Jim Young, both from the History Office at EAFB, are experts on Pancho and the "Happy Bottom Riding Club". More on this later, after we interview Ray in a couple weeks' time! Dr. Puffer was kind enough to take us on a short tour of the Flight Test Historical Foundation's beautiful museum, located in the middle of the South Base.

Here's a link. The Museum celebrates all things related to Edwards, from the early days when it was called Muroc (after the Corum family who lived in the vicinity), to the era when the first jets were tested on the lakebed, to the X-1 era and the rocket planes, to the Space Shuttle era and beyond. It's a fascinating place to visit.

One of the highlights of the Museum is a gorgeous mural painted by famed aviation artist Mike Machat. . That's Ray Puffer posing in front of it in the photo, by the way! The mural depicts all of the X-planes and experimental platforms which flew at Edwards over the decades and, as Dr. Puffer showed us, it contains a few surprises.

One of these hidden gems is located on the right side of the painting, where you can make out Pancho's ranch and runway. Just above it streak two jet aircraft... The story goes that one day a couple pilots buzzed Pancho's early in the morning. When they returned to the base the commander, Colonel Boyd, called them into his office and dressed them down, asking "What were you doing buzzing Pancho's?!" One of the two pilots sheepishly came up with a lame excuse and then asked, "How did you know we did that?" A brief and embarrassed pause followed, and it became apparent that Col. Boyd knew they'd buzzed Pancho's because he'd been there that morning, either shacked up with a gal or sleeping off the night's liquor. Needless to say, neither pilot was disciplined!

On the wall of the Museum is a very large photo of Edwards taken from high altitude. Ray took a moment to give us a history lesson in front of it. We all know that the chief reason Pancho had to close her Happy Bottom Riding Club was that the government wanted to expand Edwards, and sought the land it sat on. The Air Force had plans on the books to make the main runway at the base a whopping seven miles long! If you look at the photo, you can see how this would have worked and why it would have affected Pancho's place. You can clearly see the main runway at the base. If you draw a straight line from there, you'll see a second runway. This is an emergency runway used by pilots whose engines stall or cut off or have another problem during take-off. Directly beyond that, where the red arrow is, is Pancho's place. As you can see, it's a straight line.

Now, why would the Air Force have wanted to expand the Edwards runway to seven miles? As Puffer explained, plans were on the books in the 50's to build nuclear-powered airplanes. These giant bombers would have the ability to stay in flight for months at a time, and would have provided the kind of nuclear deterrent that the Polaris submarines offered — one that would not be vulnerable to a first-strike nuclear attack. The Air Force did a whole test program related to this, using a modified B-36 equipped with an air-cooled nuclear reactor (which incidentally did not power the airplane) and a lead shielded crew compartment.

The concept called for a very, very long runway for the planned bombers, such as those depicted in the Lockheed concept art shown here. They would have been incredibly heavy owing to the lead shielding. Thus the planned seven mile runway. Of course, the idea proved to be impractical for a number of other reasons, not the least of which was the fear that if a nuclear-powered plane crashed there could be some serious "fallout". Nevertheless, even though the proposal was abandoned and the runway was never expanded that much, the Air Force did buy up the land near Edwards including Pancho's. Probably they would have done that sooner or later, anyway, owing to security concerns. The fact that it happened the way that it did, for the sake of this fantastical nuclear-powered wonder plane, must have seemed like something out of a B-movie to Pancho and her neighbors...that is...if they even knew about it. Most likely, the exact reason for the expansion was kept secret, which must have made it all that much tougher on all the parties involved.