A 1940s Lockheed Harpoon at the Aviation Warehouse
All images used with permission of their respective photographers
A slight creaking noise can be heard above the gentle gusts of desert wind. Is it a propeller moving? Or perhaps the door to a cockpit not quite shut? Amidst the rigid or even skeletal remains of old commercial and military airplanes, footprints in the dust mark the routes taken by those who have explored these strange vehicular graveyards. With little more than the pale moon or pounding sun as their companion, these explorers have attempted to unearth secrets that lie dormant in and among the carcasses of battered and gradually decaying old planes.
A Boeing 747 husk at the Aviation Warehouse
Airplane boneyards – not the easiest of sites to access at the best of times – have become even more tightly guarded since the events of 9/11. Luckily for us, there are some photographers who gained access to the graveyards before it became so difficult in the US, and who’ve taken some incredible photographs of the grounded and lifeless giants that lie therein.
Image: Chris Luckhardt Photography
America has seen its airplane graveyards swell and then slowly ebb in size in various waves as the retired aircraft are sold, recycled or scrapped: first, following WWII, when the military downsized its number of planes while developing its technology; and later, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s as commercial airliners became jet-powered. The oil crisis of 1974, airline deregulation of the early ‘80s, and the 1991 Gulf War all saw the boneyards fill up too, while 9/11 had a notable recent impact, as whole fleets were packed off to the desert.
High fuel costs and the recent global financial crisis have also both hit the aviation sector, with yet more planes grounded. As a result, large storage facilities like those shown here are undoubtedly a necessity – albeit one tainted with an implacable feeling somewhere between eeriness and melancholy.
Why is it that most of the airplane boneyards shown here are located in arid climates or deserts? Decay. The low humidity and lack of rainfall help ensure that the stored aircraft rust and corrode as little, or as slowly, as possible, so that some of them, at least, can be used again. Plus, almost like concrete, the hard desert ground can withstand the weight of the giant machines of the skies, which have fallen so far from their former glory.
A gutted plane sure is a strange and unfamiliar site. Here we have a view that one certainly does not get to see as a regular passenger.
As suggested, there are various reasons why planes are sent to these final resting places. Wars, changes in the aviation industry, airline bankruptcies, earth-shaking events such as 9/11, and the recent recession can certainly act as grim reapers for airplanes in different ways. Other more specific factors can sound the death knell too. For example, a time came when older aircraft like Boeing 727s and McDonnell Douglas DC-9s no longer conformed to noise regulations, while other older planes simply eventually served their time as commercial airliners.
10. Mojave Air and Space Port, CA
Located north of Los Angeles, Mojave Airport can be reached via the Antelope Valley Freeway but is visible from miles away. Today, it’s a commercial and civilian aircraft flight-testing and storage facility, but it first opened in 1935 as a small, rural airfield for the local mining industry. The airport’s humble beginnings became a thing of the past in 1942, when it was redeveloped into the much larger Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station. Later, it would become home to a massive airplane boneyard, which has now existed for decades.
Situated at an elevation of 2,791 ft (851 m), the airport is up in the high desert. Because its dry climate, Mojave Airport has been used to accommodate hundreds of old aircraft over the years, from tiny planes such as Fokkers to massive jumbo jets like Lockheed L-1011s and Boeing 747s. All have been flown in to be chopped up into pieces, smelted down or, if they’re lucky, restored and returned to service.
A first generation Air India Boeing 747 ripped apart, ready for recycling
According to aviation history and airplane graveyard expert John Weeks, in early 2011, Mojave Airport housed only about 75 stored aircraft. Since it was turned into a commercial spaceport in 2004, many planes have apparently been relocated to other resting places including at least one other bonyeyard featured on this list.
Many of the airplanes in Mojave Airport have been stripped down and gutted – like this old FedEx Boeing 727, sawn in half so that now only the tail section remains. The result is quite bizarre looking – indeed, almost macabre – as if a giant child appropriated an airplane for a toy and ripped it apart.
Here’s the front section of another FedEx 727, glowing eerily in the moonlight. In the background, you can see a digger and the husks of other large airplanes – at least one of which seems to be another that belonged to FedEx. The world on time? Not any more.
Boeing 707s and Convair 880s lined up in neat rows
Photographer Troy Paiva was as lucky enough to visit this amazing airplane graveyard twice – once in 1990 and again in 2003. Recalling his visits, he says: “The ghostly atmosphere in this graveyard is palpable – the banging and scraping of doors and control surfaces in the slightest breeze, constant. These old planes seem to be sighing and groaning as they settle onto their tire rims at the end of the runway, standing as silent sentinels under the slowly circling stars.” Beautiful yet at the same time chilling.
For those inspired to visit Mojave Airport – or any other airplane cemetery for that matter – be advised that it won’t be easy. Permission, if granted at all, needs to be requested well in advance – and there’s not much point in packing your camera these days, as we found out…
Photographer Kevin Balluff told us this about his visit to the Mojave Airport’s airplane boneyard: “I legally shot those images in 1997/99. However, after 9/11, much changed here in the USA. Security is now very tight and you can’t just walk up to the planes anymore. Photography is actually prohibited at Mojave Airport now.”
9. Aviation Warehouse, El Mirage Dry Lake, CA
The Aviation Warehouse is a privately owned airplane graveyard at El Mirage Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert. This boneyard began its life 1980 when the airport located here – itself a former WWII auxiliary airfield – was bought by one Mark Thomson.
If it looks like a treasure trove of aeronautical props, that’s because it is: Thomson’s business is selling the aircraft parts for use in the film and TV industries – although the site is also something of a private museum and scrap yard for bits and pieces from planes beyond repair.
Photographer Troy Paiva took the photo of this Vietnam-era “Huey” helicopter – not to mention many other stunning, moonlit night shots – at El Mirage Dry Lake. Says Paiva: “Quiet and deserted, the sprawling Aviation Warehouse yard is an overwhelming sight. It’s easy to get lost wandering the winding sandy trails that separate the different types of planes and parts… [Mark] Thomson is well aware of the history and romance of his collection. The smashed and shredded debris is arranged around the twisted Joshua trees in strangely artistic piles.”
Indeed, images like this one of a 1960s Learjet in the sand evoke an eerie atmosphere while also offering a glimpse into times gone by. Though the Aviation Warehouse is closed to the public, lucky for us, thanks to these images, we can visit again and again.
Image: Kyle Boyd
8. Pinal Airpark, Marana, AZ
There is a certain beauty to airports – and indeed their sepulchral counterparts, airplane boneyards – when they are viewed from above. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of planes – or the way they have been arranged in an ordered fashion but also a little haphazardly, here against Arizona’s desert backdrop.
Marana Army Airfield opened in 1943 and was a massive training base for pilots during WWII; then later, during the Vietnam War, it was used as the headquarters for all CIA operations. Today, it is leased by international cargo airline Evergreen as a maintenance, repair and storage facility. Many of the planes, among them quite a few 747s, may never take to the skies again.
Image: John Meneely
If you’re wondering why we can only show aerial shots of this place, it’s because the public is forbidden from wandering around on the premises. Says boneyard buff John Weeks: “Pinal Airpark is still a very secretive place. In several attempts, I was not able to gain access to the facility. The roads on the airport are closed to traffic and are fenced off. There is a high dirt berm [noise barrier] around the airport, making it impossible to see anything from the road. The area is home to lots of nasty desert wildlife, which makes going cross-country on foot something that a novice should not attempt.” You’ve been warned.
7. Edwards Air Force Base, CA
Like many American airplane cemeteries, the boneyard at Edwards Air Force Base is no longer accessible to the general public in the wake of 9/11. The base has traditionally been used for flight testing military aircraft and is the location of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, which houses some of the most advanced planes in the world. However, in spite of such future designs, the remains of vintage aircraft, some of them rotting away, have also been stored here for use in the Flight Test Center Museum that has since opened on site.
Built in the early 1930s as Muroc Field, the dry lake situated next to the site is so flat that it could initially be used as a giant airstrip, and today serves as a natural extension of Edwards’ existing runways.
Edwards Air Force Base is in an ideal location for testing, and the airfield has witnessed many aviation breakthroughs. However, as we can see, it has also been the location of a junkyard for old airplanes. This Convair B-58 Hustler, whose retirement was called for in 1965, was once a high-performance jet bomber. It was the first plane of its kind capable of Mach 2 supersonic flight. Now, this once proud aircraft seems to be missing pretty much everything except for its shell.
Here’s a close-up of the gutted B-58. According to aircraft-list.com: “A number of B-58s were used for special trials of various kinds, including one called Snoopy used for testing the radar system intended for the Lockheed YF-12 interceptor.” Sounds exciting – but, alas, days long since past.
6. Unknown Airplane Graveyard, Possibly Serbia
These rusty military jet fighters were photographed at an unknown location, possibly in Serbia. The way they’re casually parked in a field – where what looks like a previously amputated wing lies strewn in the long grass – seems to indicate that these jets aren’t going to take off any time soon, and quite possibly never again.
As this close-up shows, the once state-of-the-art fighter aircraft is now beset by signs of wear such as chipped paint, while its windscreen is covered with grime.
Image: Susie Williams
5. Walker Airforce Base, Roswell, NM
Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico is an airport that has actually only recently grown to become the location of a large airplane boneyard. While in the ‘90s, there were maybe a few dozen aircraft there – mainly DC-9s and 727s – today, as many as 500 aircraft lie in storage here at any given point.
Image: Expert Infantry
Opened in 1941, the facility was known as Roswell Army Airfield during WWII and renamed Walker Air Force Base early in the Cold War before closing in 1967. The site of a UFO incident in 1947, now the eeriest thing about the place is probably the sight of hundreds of grounded and forsaken planes. According to John Weeks (whose website is a must-see for aviation enthusiasts), as of mid-2009 these included “10 UPS 747s, older UPS aircraft, a dozen American Airlines 737, several 747s, and a Jetstar once owned by Elvis Presley.”
4. Castle Air Force Base, CA
Originally opened in 1941 as Merced Army Airfield, a pilot and aircrew training facility, Castle Air Force Base in Central California had its heyday during the Cold War era when it was a Strategic Air Command center.
In 1995, Merced Airfield was converted for civilian commercial use, and today it is home to remnants of the past like this old Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” bomber – apparently one of the last aircraft of its kind in existence.
Although its days are over as a launch pad for noteworthy operations – including several non-stop long-range flights – the aircraft that remain in Castle Air Force Base are reminders of its past glory. What’s more, even today there are certain restricted areas that are off-limits to visitors. To protect Cold War era secrets or newer classified information, we wonder? This North American B-25 Mitchell bomber makes a beautiful sight but has long since revealed its secrets.
Interestingly, not only aircraft like this Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird have been left at Castle Air Force Base, but also some of the original structures. Photographer Troy Paiva, for example, unearthed “the ‘War Room,’ the nerve center of the base, a blast-proof, partially underground barracks-bunker where B52 and KC135 crews lived, an engine test structure, a decrepit DC9 parked on the flightline used for education and a few of the dozens of abandoned dorm buildings.” Impressive stuff.
Image: Bobak Ha’Eri
3. Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA), Victorville, CA
As with some of the other airports with airplane boneyards pictured here, Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) started life as military facility. SCLA was originally named George Air Force Base, which was operational from 1941 to 1992. The site was converted into a public airport not only to help the community recover economically from the closure of the base, but also to satisfy the logistics demands of large businesses in the area.
Yet Victorville Airport (as it is also known) has not quite abandoned its military past. Many of the old buildings and housing facilities are now being used for “urban warfare training” by the Army and Marine Corps, and the airport itself has featured in Hollywood movies such as Jarhead and Face/Off.
Image: Chris Heaton
While the site remains active, SCLA also has a more sepulchral side: an airplane boneyard of impressive size that, sadly, has continued to grow over recent years. During difficult economic periods, airplane graveyards do brisk trade. The more planes that are grounded, the more work there is to do at these aviation cemeteries.
As reported in 2009, business has been particularly good for the boneyard at Victorville, a reflection of how hard times currently are for the aviation industry. Almost 200 aircraft could recently be seen there, prompting the LA Times to remark that SCLA is “more crowded at times than Los Angeles International Airport.” And yet the site isn’t even close to full capacity: the boneyard can accommodate 100 more planes.
It’s worth noting that in places like these, the airplanes are not simply carted to their storage place in the sun and left. Some parts, such as the engine, need to be removed, the windows must be covered and the fluids drained. Such funereal-esque preparations – called ‘pickling’ by industry insiders – are par for the course when it comes to the long-term storage of planes. We can see why terms such as this and ‘mothballing’ fit so well, given that planes can stay preserved for years in the dry desert climate.
Though the owners of grounded fleets are perhaps hopeful that their airplanes’ retirement will be only temporary, by one estimate only 10-20% of such planes ever fly again. Some get sold to airlines in other countries while others will simply be recycled as scrap. SCLA can expect to see quite a bit more business, too. Together with AMARC in Tucson, Arizona and Walker Airforce Base in Roswell, New Mexico, Victorville is one of the largest, and therefore gloomiest, of the USA’s commercial boneyards.
2. St. Augustine, FL
The small airplane graveyard in St. Augustine is a prime example of what happens when airplanes are left in anything but dry climates. Florida, known for its pleasant yet humid weather, may not be the best place to store old aircraft. That’s why this handful of retired US Navy Grumman S-2 Tracker planes of the 1960s and ‘70s, will never take off again. Left for a good 15 years already, they’re here for good. And they’re here to rot.
These once state-of-the-art anti-submarine aircraft – formerly used to detect and destroy underwater targets – have now all but lost the battle with forces from underground that themselves reach up to the sky: vines and weeds which have slowly begun to choke the old planes.
According to one knowledgeable commenter, the plants in the St. Augustine graveyard that have taken such a stranglehold on the planes are the strangely named Smilax, which belong to the lily family Liliaceae. These vines are known for aggressively enveloping anything in their way, meaning it is not unlikely that they will make a green grave for these S-2s soon.
The site in St. Augustine is privately owned, as are the planes. Both were bought by a local businessman who apparently had the valuable parts from the planes stripped and sold to military and civilian aircraft producer Grumman – now called Northrop Grumman – which is a major employer not far from here.
What’s left are carcasses not unlike those of beached whales – and as big as some of said beasts: once proud planes, now with wings permanently folded or severed, engines and propellers missing, and noses chopped off. Submissive, the planes appear to be waiting for the ultimate merging of nature and machine – or, beyond that, a point when vegetation and corrosion will have completely taken over, leaving behind only a crumbling and buried heap of metal.
It’s hard not to become philosophical and reflect on the fleeting nature of everything – humans as well as their mechanical creations – looking at these photos. And yet some memories seem to transcend time. A retired S-2 US Navy pilot summed up his experiences and feelings quite poetically upon seeing the St. Augustine images: “I have many memorable flight hours and carrier landings in my log book,” he wrote. “The ghostly, silent hulks that confronted you were once alive to me.”
The former serviceman continues: “I have a vivid recollection of memories: intercom conversations among the crew, long hours in the air, consumption of inflight lunches, adrenalin-pumping night landings on the carrier following 6 to 7-hour flights, post-flight debriefings in the ready room, plane captains exhibiting their pride in keeping their birds more pristine than the next guy…”
Image: Walter Arnold
“These machines were alive and had individual personalities, not the stoic headstones you witnessed.” The former pilot concludes: “The ‘hobbit’ hatch you saw was not the restrictive hole confronting you, but the entrance into a new experience and opportunity for achievement each time a pilot manned his plane.”
Image: Boneyard image from Bigstock
1. AMARC, Tucson, AZ
By far the biggest airplane graveyard featured here – indeed, it’s often simply referred to as ‘The Boneyard’ – the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) is to be found on the premises of Davis Monthan Air Force Base, southeast of Tucson. Established in 1946, it remains a place where not hundreds but thousands of aircraft come to be stored, or scrapped. The photo shown here is fairly recent; it was taken in April of 2010.
Image: Frank Kovalcheck
For any airplane fanatic, visiting this site would be (forgive the cliché!) like being a kid in a candy store. Rows upon rows of different aircraft have been lined up here – many of them still in service – from aerial refueling military aircraft like KC-135 Stratotankers to bombers such as the Rockwell B-1 Lancer and anti-tank aircraft like the A-10 Warthog.
Fighter jets old and new have also been laid to rest in The Boneyard, among them F-4 Phantoms and F-106 Delta Darts – which have been reused as drones – and more recently F-14 Tomcats, retired from active US Navy service in 2006. Myriad planes, old and new, lie nose to tale, awaiting a return to action, or a sorrier fate. As John Weeks puts it: “You will see just about every kind of airplane that the military has flown since WWII.” Mightily impressive.
The conditions in which the largely military aircraft are to be found varies: some are ‘mothballed’ – their fuel tanks filled with heavy oil, and other parts covered in a plastic coating called Spraylat to protect them from the elements and allow them to be refurbished and used for future assignments; others have been gutted and cannibalized for spare parts; and yet others are just doing time in the dry desert air. Yet, whatever the different planes’ destinies, the Arizona sky certainly makes for a dramatic backdrop.
For anyone wanting to visit AMARC, there’s good news and bad news. It is possible to visit the site, but you’re fairly restricted while doing so, and the policy apparently changes according to the terrorism threat level.
Photographer Frank Kovalcheck, who visited in February 2011, describes his experience of taking the trip: “The only way to visit it is to take a tour that leaves from the Pima Air and Space Museum,” he explains, adding: “The boneyard is great to see but hard to photograph – you are in a bus with highly polarized window, the bus doesn’t stop, you can’t get off, and to shoot out of the other side of the bus you have to shoot around people.”
There’s a story behind the famous Boeing B-52 Stratofortress seen here and what they’re doing at AMARC. John Weeks shares what he knows on his website: “The most dramatic use of AMARC was the B-52 fleet reduction to meet the terms of the SALT treaties. Hundreds of the giant B-52 bombers were set out in the desert. A huge guillotine was used to chop off the wings, then chop the fuselage into pieces. The parts were then piled up neatly and left in place for months to allow Soviet satellites to verify the destruction of these strategic bombers.”
AMARC – or indeed any other airplane boneyard – is an amazing place and a must-visit for any aviation enthusiast.
For one, it is not often that one gets to look at so many incredible planes dating from the WWII era up to the present day, regardless of how rusted, neglected or otherwise worn down by the elements they may be.
Forlorn and in various states of disrepair as many of these old airplanes are, there’s something about them – be they commercial or military aircraft – that sets the mind on flights of fancy with thoughts of air shows, battles, and times when air travel was still thought of as mighty adventurous.