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I recently visited Roswell, NM, and was surprised at how many flight tests have been performed there. Even the fatal Gulfstream flight test crash happened there. My research shows that a lot of flight tests happen at places like San Bernardino, Roswell, Fresno, and Moses Lake. My research turned up only simplistic explanations for why these airports are so popular like "Boeing chose the San Bernardino facility because of three factors: hangar size, availability and weather." (Source: The Sun News) Is that really all they consider in determining flight test locations?

I've heard that you can't do flight tests at just any airport, though I haven't been able to find any relevant legal restrictions. The airport choice doesn't even seem to be just the obvious factors like weather, runway length, and GA availability. (I also don't care about specialized testing that would require unusual airports like long runways or specific temperatures.) There are a few dozen low-volume long runways in the arid American West and similar regions. Why are just a few so popular? Are there any FAA (or EASA) restrictions on doing flight tests at any old airport?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you want it broken down by type of test activity -- i.e. post-maintenance, customer acceptance, production test, type certification, experimental? $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Jun 1 '16 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'm mostly interested in the certification and development testing, like brake testing for certification or "let's see if the avionics for approaches are actually working correctly" tests. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jun 1 '16 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @CodyP Would like to see a reference for "Fresno," as I have never heard it was a popular location for flight test in my many years of flight test professional experience. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jones Jr. Jan 13 '18 at 13:43
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You can do flight tests from almost any airport, but it helps if:

  • The weather is dry and stable,
  • the field is not too far from the factory,
  • there is a large unpopulated area nearby, and
  • you have support facilities available.

The support facilities were installed by the Air Force, and the other factors were already taken care of by Mother Nature in the case of places like Fresno or Roswell. Given that the distance from Los Angeles, a major aviation industry hub, to Fresno is only a bit more than 200 miles, flight testing in predictable weather and over the open terrain west of Fresno becomes very attractive. If you look at Lancaster, the next town near the vast Edwards Air Force base, the driving distance to Los Angeles is only 70 miles. This should help to explain why Edwards is today the main Air Force test base. Once you have a long runway and some experienced flight test engineers in place, other manufacturers will also converge on this location in order to make their flight testing more predictable and effective.

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  • $\begingroup$ Most of this seems to be correct, but proximity isn't always a driving factor. Roswell isn't close at all to Gulfstream or Boeing HQ, or really anything that's not military. Even Fresno doesn't seem like an obvious choice based purely on proximity to LA and nearby unpopulated desert considering all the alternatives like Palmdale, Palm Springs, Bakersfield, Edwards/Mojave, and even Yuma. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jun 2 '16 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I do wonder about Fresno and weather, though. In winter, the San Joaquin Valley tule fogs often reduces visibility to near zero. In summer, dust and smog make it less than unlimited. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 14 '18 at 3:24
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The FAA does regulate "where" flight test can be performed, in 14 CFR Part 91, which says:

§91.305 Flight test areas.

No person may flight test an aircraft except over open water, or sparsely populated areas, having light air traffic.

Application of this rule differs depending on the stage of flight test. The FAA also provides guidance on how to extrapolate takeoff data in Advisory Circular 23-8C. In particular:

When the basic takeoff tests are accomplished between sea level and approximately 3,000 feet, the maximum allowable extrapolation limits are 6,000 feet above and 3,000 feet below the test field elevation.

Therefore the elevation of the field at which testing is performed matters a great deal. In addition to the length of the runway and stable weather conditions, the elevation of Roswell, NM (~3,500 feet) allows for a greater range of extrapolation than an airport closer to sea level.

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For a couple of your specific examples:

Roswell is specifically chosen for braking performance tests because it is one of the few remaining >10,000 foot long ungrooved runways in the US. Braking performance testing requires ungrooved pavement for the wet runway data.

Moses Lake is the closest (relatively) low traffic airport with a long runway to the Boeing factories, and the weather in eastern Washington is generally better than west of the mountains (especially in winter), making it a convenient choice for tests.

San Bernardino (and Victorville) are lower traffic airports in Southern California with facilities for a transport category aircraft. Southern California tends to have better weather than Seattle in the winter, so some tests get moved down there depending on time of year. They provide access to the restricted airspace at Edwards (R-2508) and off the coast (W-291). A lot of the test flights out of KSBD head out over the water.

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