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December 17, 2011

Behind the Book — I Am Chuck Yeager for a Day

One of the best things about being a writer is doing research. Before I got notes back from my editor (last week) on the third Velva Jean book, and before I found out (this past Wednesday) that my own edits are due back to her by next Wednesday (!), I had scheduled a tour of Edwards Air Force Base for Friday, December 16.

The main reason for wanting to tour the base is that it was once the site of Pancho Barnes’s Happy Bottom Riding Club (made famous for a whole new generation in the movie The Right Stuff). Before she was a shrewd businesswoman running a bustling and popular dude ranch–complete with restaurant, hotel, casino, and rodeo– where she entertained Hollywood royalty and the test pilots who trained at nearby Muroc Army Airfield, Pancho Barnes was a pilot herself. She was, in fact, once the fastest woman on earth. In other words, she was a fearless pilot like Velva Jean, and someone Velva Jean might cross paths with when she travels to Hollywood in book four.

There’s not much left of Pancho’s now–a fire destroyed most of the ranch in 1953 and what was left became part of brand new Edwards Air Force Base not long after. The closest you can get to what used to be the Happy Bottom Riding Club is touring Edwards Air Force Base, which is why I got up yesterday at 5:00 am and left the edits at home (did I mention the entire edited manuscript is due NEXT WEDNESDAY?) and braved the cold (29 degrees for the first hour of the tour). Oh, but I’m glad I did.

First of all, the place itself– Rosamond, CA– has its own particular stark beauty. The closer you get to the Air Force Base, the more it feels as if you’ve somehow landed on another planet. Aside from the odd Joshua Tree here and there, it is so flat–except for mountains rising up miles away in the distance– and the horizon is so wide that I could almost see the curve of the earth.

The tour ran from about 9 am to 2 pm. Edwards has strict guidelines: no cameras, no cell phones, no open-toed shoes, no heels, no binoculars, etc. We met our bus outside the west gate of the base, and from there we drove to the museum, which has a collection of really cool stuff, including a door belonging to one of Pancho Barnes’s trucks, lots of things relating to Chuck Yeager’s historical 1947 breaking of the sound barrier, and some very cool planes, like one super-stealth SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane in the sky, which, I have to say, is one sexy plane.

From there, we toured the base by bus, and, early on, the tour guide waved his hand toward where Pancho’s ranch used to be (you really can see for miles and miles and miles), but where no one is allowed to go now because it sits right beside a light arms firing range. As if the tour guide could read my mind (I had a fleeting image of myself jumping off the bus and running for Pancho’s, just to see the ruins that I know are still there), he said, “Unfortunately we can’t even think about going there. If you don’t get killed from the firing range, you’d be sure to get arrested.”

Next we headed to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, which is located smack in the middle of the base, right on the edge of Rogers Dry Lake, which is left over from prehistoric times, and which is covered with multiple runways, including the longest runway in the world. (The dry lake is so large that you can see it from space.) Yesterday’s tour of NASA was the last one ever, thanks to budget and personnel cuts, so we were very lucky to get to step through the main doors (apparently the same doors Major Nelson and Major Healey walked through every morning for work on I Dream of Jeannie).

After watching a 16-minute film, we toured one of the hangars, learning about each of the aircraft housed there and the roles they play in NASA’s research and development. We walked out onto the flight line and saw two of the specially-modified jets that have been used to carry the Space Shuttle, as well as a flurry of other aircraft, new and old, and– just off the flight line– a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, not the one that landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but the one they trained in.

Then it was lunch in the cafeteria and browsing the gift shop, followed by more bus-touring of the Air Force part of the base. By this time, the wind was picking up and our tour guide said the windy conditions (a daily happening) were why they only did test flights in the morning hours. We heard stories about Chuck Yeager and Pancho Barnes, saw the base housing, the movie theater, the shopping centers, one of the two chapels, the test pilot training school, etc. We learned the Marines have a couple of buildings there, and there is no hospital on base, even though the base is as large as Los Angeles and has some 11,000 residents. Except for that, it was really an entire self-sustaining world.

Before I knew it, it was 2 pm, and we were being dropped in the parking lot where we’d met the bus that morning. I may not have seen Pancho’s ranch, but the tour was an amazing experience that managed to go above and beyond just being a research trip. The only thing is, as inspired as I was by going and as much as I’m looking forward to being done with my edits (NEXT WEDNESDAY!) so that I can start in on this new Velva Jean adventure, I’m feeling even more inspired to become a test pilot. I can just see myself behind the throttle of that Blackbird…

(Interested in going on a tour yourself? You can get all the info you need here.)