A special event took me to Mojave, California, to the Mojave Air and Spaceport, which is really an airport, and a very special one at that. You couldn’t make up his kind of a place. Odd would be a better word to describe it. Innovative is another. Some say imaginative. Some say Mojave is haunted. Here’s why all of those descriptors are true.
Mojave is the only airport to launch an airplane into space. Spaceship One was the first air vehicle, manned and privately owned, to fly out of the atmosphere, into space and return to land safely from whence it came. At that moment Mojave Airport earned wings as a spaceport. There were three flights actually in 2004, all required for Spaceship One to earn the X-Prize of ten million dollars. Those moments launched the beginning of a brand new business. Travel into space would now be available to travelers in the private sector. If you have enough money for the fare, that is. Flying aboard Spaceship One cost a cool twenty mil.
Mojave Spaceport is home to a host of aerospace development companies. All are working on innovative designs, concepts, materials, and systems for airborne vehicles. They put creativity to work for breakthroughs in the aerospace industry
BAE Systems has a visible presence at Mojave. BAE develops flight systems and avionics for sub- and supersonic planes. A lineup of F-4 Phantoms stand waiting to take part in the research. Some say phantoms are piloting the Phantoms.
Scaled Composites has an unmistakable presence too. They developed the lightweight materials used in the airframe design of Spaceship One. Who knows what they’re doing now, but it undoubtedly has to do with the highest of high tech materials design and development for aerospace applications.
The National Test Pilot School, the one and only civilian test pilot school in the country, is located on the grounds of Mojave. You know what they do. They train pilots to do what other pilots refuse to do, i.e., fly untried aircraft for their airworthiness. Now that’s a job they couldn’t pay me enough to do. Even if I were trained to do it well.
We chatted with Brian Binnie, pilot of Spaceship One, who wandered over while we visited Mojave. Brian piloted one of flights that won the famed X-Prize. He said the next flight into space would happen next year. And already there was fifty million in ticket receipts for a seat on that flight. Welcome to space travel! Believe it, because it’s happening.
The other side of the Mojave Spaceport billboard shows a young boy enjoying play with a large white toy glider with the inspirational words, “Imagination flies here.”
For all of the hushed high technology going on behind closed doors, Mojave acts also as an airplane graveyard, known as the place old airplanes go to die. That might be dramatically put, but it is true that decommissioned, damaged, and otherwise grounded aircraft are brought here to await their final fate. They are stayed and stored here and can be seen in various degrees of disassembly, decay, or deterioration.
There’s a big old blue 757, which looks like it was a commercial airliner in its better days. It’s missing all hatches and doors, with permanent scaffolding surrounding the plane for what looks like disassembly one piece of metal at a time. One wonders whether there are still passengers inside, perhaps waiting for their baggage.
There’s an F-86 Sabre Jet fuselage just lying on the ground. No wings. No rudder. No landing gear. Like a beached whale stuck in perpetual low tide.
Want wings? There’s a whole fenced-in area with nothing but wings. Airfoils of every size, shape, and length, with wires, tubes, and rods sticking out of where they were attached to a plane in some former day. Lots of them, stacked high like ultra-large toy parts for mix-and-match airplane design for tinkerers. Is this where angels pick out their wings? Or are these the wings of fallen angels?
Finally, there’s a huge site-it must be square miles in area-inaccessible and far in the distance where decommissioned planes are stored. This is where unused planes went after 911. That tragic event took lives in New York and also the useful lives of commercial planes in the skies of the entire U.S. The nation’s airports shut down and airline businesses shut down as aftermath from the shocking new terrors apparent in air travel. Mojave is where these once productive planes lay in wait, probably forever. There are many such airplanes out there in the distance, all still, quiet, and all facing in the same direction. Haunting!