Six decades later, the celebrating continues at Happy Bottom -- at least at what's left of it. Destroyed by fire long ago, Yeager showed up at the building's ruins recently for an annual party thrown by locals to honor Pancho and the Cold War test pilots.
"They fix it all up and get some platforms and have a barbecue and most of the base comes out," Yeager said. "You go out there and you look at the swimming pool and you think back over the years and you think about Pancho and her husband, Mac McKendry, and some of the people who used to come out there. When I was flying the X-1, I was only getting $260 a month. The way we looked at it, duty was our guideline. That's the way we all flew in the military."
Visitors at Edwards are not allowed access to the Happy Bottom ruins, a base spokesman said. But free tours of other areas of the base are available -- by appointment only -- twice a month. Highlights include the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, the food court and gift shop at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and a "windshield tour" near the flight line where F-16s, KC-135s, F-22s, F-35s, B-1s or C-17s might be visible, said the spokesman.
The Air Force Flight Test Center Museum features a full size replica of Yeager's plane (the real one hangs in the Smithsonian) and actual aircraft that made the region famous. In nearby Palmdale, locally developed and tested aviation gems can be found at The Joe Davies Heritage Airpark.
Then there's the dream factory of aviation geeks: Skunk Works. It's the official nickname of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs. Entire books have been written about this facility, which gave birth to the Blackbird and other historic aircraft. Nowadays, behind Skunk Works' highly secure perimeter, engineers reportedly are working on the aviation wonders of tomorrow, including a lightweight cargo plane called the X-55A and a bizarre, blimp-like airship called the P-791 Hybrid Air Vehicle, which has special technology that allows it to take off and land just about anywhere.
No public tours are available, but aerospace blogger Steve Harris posted some juicy details about his private visit to Skunk Works. For those who can't get in, Harris told me he only got to see "about 15 or 20 percent of what they could show us. Everything else is something that we don't even know exists." Outside the property, you can see Skunk Works' "big, giant, white, box-of-a-building" easily. The Skunk Works small gift shop is open to the public about a mile or so down the road.
Next, I'd have to travel from the birthplace of aviation icons to the place where they go to die.
That would be a hunk of desert near Tucson, Arizona, known as "The Boneyard."
The Air Force calls it 309 AMARG -- The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (formerly known as AMARC). It's basically the Pentagon's 2,600-acre parking lot for about 5,000 retired military aircraft.
It's sort of like a classic-car junkyard where all the town gearheads want to hang out and pull parts for their customized vehicles.
Access to this place is restricted, but nearby Pima Air & Space Museum offers tours of the Boneyard and -- for geeks with deep pockets -- several companies at Tucson's airport sell scenic Boneyard flyovers, says Chris Slack, who runs Boneyard website amarcExperience.com.
Geek bonus: The Boneyard served as a scene location for the 2009 film "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
I'd definitely hit Pima Air & Space, by the way. It's got 300 choice aircraft -- like several Soviet-designed MiG fighter jets, a Blackbird and an F-111 Aardvark, the first Air Force jet with "swing wings." Fast and last
Seattle's Museum of Flight has some real beauties, including a unique Blackbird variant called the M-21. This particular Blackbird was able to launch unpiloted drones that were used for independent intelligence gathering.
Geek trivia: Although it was developed in the 1960s, the Blackbird still holds the record as the fastest "air-breathing" jet plane in history with a velocity more than 2,100 mph, three times the speed of sound. Wanna sit in the cockpit? Museum of Flight has a mockup, which is about as close as it comes.
What else does the Museum of Flight have? Something for aviation geeks AND politics geeks: a Boeing 707-200 that served as the first jet-powered Air Force One.
This is kinda cool: parked outside the museum is the last supersonic Concorde jetliner to make a commercial flight.
It's really not that geeky -- OK? This thing is the world's fastest jetliner for God's sake.