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Capt. Glen W. Edwards
Capt. Glen W. Edwards
Capt. Glen W. Edwards, an Air Force test pilot, was killed when the YB-49 flying wing prototype bomber broke apart during a test flight. All members of the crew were killed. Muroc Air Force Base was renamed Edwards AFB in his honor on Dec. 8, 1949. A plaque located in front of the Air Force Flight Test Center has a tribute to him. (Courtesy photo)
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Glen Edwards was a new breed of military test pilot for the newly independent Air Force, one who combined the talents of a highly skilled pilot with the technical expertise of an engineer. He was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, in 1918, raised in Lincoln, Calif., and maintained dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship throughout his life. After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, Edwards enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces on July 15, 1941.

After completing his flight training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant at Luke Field, Ariz., in February 1942. Assigned to the 86th Light Bombardment Squadron of the 47th Bombardment Group, he departed for the North African theater of operations (Tunisia) as a flight commander in October 1942. There he led his flight of A-20 Havocs on extremely hazardous, low-level missions against German tanks, convoys, troop concentrations, bridges, airfields and a variety of other tactical targets.

When the Germans broke through the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, his undermanned and undersupplied squadron flew 11 missions in a single day, repeatedly attacking advancing armored columns and blunting their thrust. On one of these missions, Edwards and his crew set a record by completing a combat mission--from takeoff to landing--in just 19 minutes. His squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for this action. During his tours in the North African campaign and the invasion of Sicily, Edwards completed 50 combat missions and was awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses and six Air Medals.

Returning to the U.S. in December 1943, he was assigned to the Pilot Standardization Board at Florence Army Air Field, S.C., and then, in late 1944, to the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, Ohio. He graduated from the Flight Performance School (initial designation of the USAF Test Pilot School) there in May 1945 and was assigned to the Bomber Test Operations Section. Though assigned to Wright Field, he spent much of his time at Muroc Army Air Force Base, on California's high desert. There he tested a wide variety of experimental prototypes such as the Douglas highly unconventional pusher-prop light bomber, the XB-42 Mixmaster. In December 945, he and Lt. Col. Henry E. Worden set a new transcontinental speed record when they flew this airplane from Long Beach, Calif., to Bolling AFB, in Washington, D.C., in just 5 hours and 17 minutes.

In 1946, he was the principal project pilot for the jet-powered Convair XB-46 prototype bomber. It was also during this period that he acquired his first experience with a flying wing, as he familiarized himself with the flying qualities of the Northrop N-9M, a single-place, 1/3-scale mock-up of the giant XB-35 prototype bomber. Living modestly on a captain's salary, he also somehow managed to help put two of his nephews through college. His superb skills as a pilot, engineer and officer were held in such high esteem that his immediate superior, Maj. Robert M. Cardenas, recommended him as project pilot for an unprecedented program--the first attempt to exceed the speed of sound in the Bell X-1. That assignment, however, went to Capt. Chuck Yeager. 

Edwards was, instead, selected to be among the first to be sent to Princeton University for graduate study in the aeronautical sciences. The recent war had spawned truly revolutionary advances in aviation technology and it had become apparent to men such as Col. Albert Boyd, the chief of the Flight Test Division, that a new breed of military test pilot, one who combined the talents of a highly skilled pilot with the technical expertise of an engineer, would be required to effectively evaluate increasingly complex aircraft and onboard systems. When Glen Edwards graduated from Princeton with a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1947, he represented one of the first of this new breed.

In May 1948, he was selected to join the team of test pilots and engineers at Muroc who were then evaluating the Northrop YB-49, the all-jet version of the exotic flying wing bomber. After his first few flights, he was not favorably impressed, confiding to his diary that it was "the darndest airplane I've ever tried to do anything with. Quite uncontrollable at times."

On June 5, 1948, he was flying as co-pilot with Maj. Daniel Forbes when the airplane departed from controlled flight and broke apart in the sky northwest of the base. All five crewmembers were lost. One of Colonel Boyd's first orders of business, when he assumed command of Muroc in late 1949, was to rename the base in honor of someone who had given his life to the cause of experimental flight research. By tradition, Air Force bases were named after distinguished individuals who were native sons of the state in which a base was located. Boyd could think of no one more deserving than the bright young Californian whose promising career had ended so tragically in the skies over the western Mojave.

On Dec. 8, 1949, Muroc AFB was officially redesignated Edwards AFB and, during ceremonies on Jan. 27, 1949, a plaque was unveiled which commemorated his achievements. That plaque is now located in a place of honor in front of the headquarters of the Air Force Flight Test Center. The tribute at its base reads: "A pioneer of the Flying Wing in the western skies, with courage and daring unrecognized by himself."

Source: Dr. James O. Young, Air Force Flight Test Center historian




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