Edwards AFB Aerospace Valley Air Show

Friday 14th October - Sunday 16th October 2022

The 2022 Edwards AFB airshow was hotly anticipated by the international airshow community since the dates were first announced. With the base's rich history and testing mission, many began to dream about what could appear, eager to be part of what was anticipated to be a historic airshow. The question though for some was, could the organisers match expectations?

Andy Evans travelled to the US to visit this hotly anticipated airshow, photography by the author and Nick Jennings.

"Welcome to the centre of the aircraft testing universe" is how Brigadier General Matthew Higer, the Commanding Officer of Edwards AFB kicked off his speech on the first day of the Aerospace Valley Airshow 2022 at Edwards AFB. It had been 13 years since this airfield had opened its doors to the public, but if any year justified a show being hosted in the middle of the Mojave Desert, it was 2022, thanks to the double 75th anniversary of the formation of the US Air Force, and the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the sound barrier by Brigadier General Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1 on a mission flown from Edwards AFB itself.

Nestled in the middle of California's Antelope Valley which is also home to Plant 42, known for the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and Northrop Grumman B-21 Production Line at Palmdale, Mojave Air & Space Port plus NAS China Lake - this area of the world is home to some of the most important military and space aerospace projects in the world. This development and testing pedigree was to form the central theme of this year's event which concentrated on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, with the objective of encouraging the next generation to take an interest in this field.

While open to the public at the weekend, the base was also opened to invited visitors on the Friday to witness the full show rehearsal and to mark to the day the 75th anniversary of the first sonic boom by Chuck Yeager. Marking the anniversary was a full STEM exhibition aimed at the thousands of school children there that day opened with a double sonic boom for good measure; the first marking the exact moment when the sound barrier was first broken and the second to celebrate the renaming of the airspace to the "Bell X-1 Supersonic Corridor" to mark the anniversary. If that didn't work to inspire them then the "Darkstar" hypersonic full size movie prop from Top Gun: Maverick was on hand for selfies, parked appropriately next to a retired SR-71. Many may question why a model encourages STEM, and rightly so, until you discover the back story of the design which was developed for the movie by the Skunk Works using similar design principals as used for a real aircraft - cutting edge STEM in real (movie) life.

The static display showed off the test fleet of the entire valley, not just Edwards AFB, however outside of this area visiting aircraft were sparse, limited to just a few warbirds. The home team were on display in force with at least one example of most USAF aircraft operating from the base on static display, interspersed with a few rare preserved airframes including the recently restored F-16XL. An unexpected highlight of the static was the appearance of the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Air Force who both have aircraft semi-permanently based on the airfield. The RAAF provided their KC-30A tanker which is detached for trials with the B-2A Spirit and was parked close to the much-troubled KC-46, perhaps providing a glimpse of "what could have been" if the USAF had stuck with its original choice for its new tanker. 17 Squadron, who are permanently based at Edwards AFB and act as the RAF F-35 test unit, also displayed the first production British F-35B - an aircraft that may never set foot in the UK.

Also visiting from nearby NAS China Lake were VX-9, who brought one of their F/A-18F Super Hornets together with an F-35C. The organisers clearly recognised the rarity of having all three F-35 variants in one place and took advantage of this to have all three parked together as the centrepiece of the static display. NASA were of course also present with a selection of their Edwards based aircraft on display, joined on the Saturday and Sunday by their heavily modified B747SP SOFIA. This unusual airliner was parked next to the Stargazer, the worlds last flying Tristar which is used to launch satellites. With such an array of rare test or experimental aircraft on display, it was just a pity that the showground was unnecessarily congested into a relatively small area with vast swathes of the massive aircraft dispersal unused.

The main flying display was split into four distinct segments; the base air power demonstration, the 75-year history of the USAF, NASA and its supersonic research, and then closing with what turned out to be a very polished display were the USAF Thunderbirds.

The air power demonstration scenario was similar to the 2008 RAF Exercise Summer Lightning displays, but on an apparent smaller scale. The demonstration involved a single F-22A, a pair of F-16Ds, a pair of F-35As, a C-17A, a B-1B and a KC-46. However, on the Saturday only a single F-35A took part meaning the F-22A had to become a stand-in strike aircraft. Additionally, the KC-46 only took part on the Friday with a KC-135 filling in at the weekend. In a choreographed display, after taking fuel, the Raptor first defeats both F-16s in a dogfight (which on the Friday was so high and into the sun that it wasn't visible), before the F-35s and F-16s undertake precision air strikes on the enemy positions. This is followed by a paradrop by the C-17 with further close air support strikes from the fast jets, before the grand finale - a pair of bombing runs from the B-1B. Whilst a little clunky on the Friday, the display did progressively improve over the weekend, culminating in the well-publicised barrel roll by the B-1B on the Sunday.

The 75th anniversary of the USAF segment was an unusual theme for the flying display considering it didn't consist of any in-service USAF aircraft whatsoever. A selection of civilian and warbird demonstrations were used to symbolise key events in the life of the air force, including Vicky Benzing in her red Stearman and Top Gun: Maverick stunt pilot Chuck Coleman in his Extra 300L. This was a section of the display which was begging for a number of warbirds plus the Aerial Combat Command solo displays. Sadly, for a 75th anniversary airshow, not a single USAF solo display took part in the show and there were just three warbirds in the display, a T-6 Texan "War Dog", a P-51D Mustang and the T-33 Shooting Star "Ace Maker". Perhaps, however, the most surreal participant of this segment was a jet powered glider which was meant to represent the introduction of drones.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the absolute stars of the flying were NASA, who seemed to understand what the gathered crowds wanted to see whilst also successfully engaging them about STEM topics. The specialised airborne observatory Boeing 747SP SOFIA has been rarely, if ever, seen at airshows and therefore its appearance in the air and on the ground shortly before its retirement was a very special occasion. With such a precious aircraft, NASA would be forgiven for making low and level flypasts with the covers on the telescope closed, but to their credit, the daily flying display included topside passes with the hatch open - a sight perhaps never to be repeated. The centrepiece of the NASA demo was the trio display from a NASA Gulfstream, alongside their hot-rod stripped F-15B Eagle and recently delivered F/A-18D Hornet, still in its US Navy markings. After treating the crowd to a number of lovely formation topside passes, the fast jets departed to prepare for their display whilst the Gulfstream entertained the crowd with further passes.

What followed was an absolutely fascinating real-world demonstration of how NASA is using STEM to develop quiet supersonic boom technology, possibly paving the way for supersonic passenger transport over urban areas. High above, the F-15 and F-18 approached the crowd at high speed whilst the commentator explained what NASA were doing and what we were about to hear. As the F-15 passed overhead as a white speck in level flight, a loud crack of a sonic boom was heard. Following shortly afterwards was the F-18 as it dived towards the ground resulting in a much quieter sonic boom, quieter than thunder. NASA had successfully demonstrated how changing the aerodynamic profile changed the volume of the boom - something that the upcoming Lockheed Martin X-59 is designed to explore further.

It is without doubt that this year's event achieved its STEM objectives, however the show felt like it was missing a killer punch and without the contribution of NASA would have fallen short of the mark. The show certainly felt like Edwards were trying to do what it could with assets already at its disposal, rather than bringing in outside displays. Missing was the famous massed flypast by the Edwards test fleet, as were new types such as the T-7A Redhawk and F-15EX Eagle II, aircraft that were expected by enthusiasts to appear. The flying certainly gave a feeling of "is this it?", especially with the lack of visiting military displays. This perhaps wasn't helped by the use of the furthest runway from the crowd - which was about a mile away. Couple this with a display line facing into the sun meant flying display photographic opportunities were very limited.

In all honesty, this was a show that was massively hyped-up by the enthusiast community who dreamed over what could appear and assumed what would be appearing. We all know what assumption is the mother of all, and I think in this instance that saying is certainly true. In the end, the 2022 Aerospace Valley Airshow was a good show for the general public, but certainly won't be remembered as one of the best shows of the year.