The Aircraft Boneyard: Where Aircraft Go To Die

Continuing Environmental Graffiti’s “lost” theme this week, Chris Ingham Brooke – Chief Graffiti Artist had the chance to catch up with legendary night-time photographer Troy Paiva to talk about his work: Lost America.

aircraft boneyardPhoto:

Junk airliner, broken and painted for use as a movie prop sleeps under fast moving monsoon clouds at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, 2 minute exposure, red-gelled strobe flash. Canon 20D

On full moons, in the middle of the deserts, abandoned aircraft lie in entropy. The huge masses of steel look like carcasses, slowly being reclaimed by nature. This is the aircraft boneyard: where aircraft go to die.

These former shells may have already disappeared: crushed, melted for scrap or perhaps vanished underneath the desert sand. The images taken capture a rare moment in time. They capture an America that is slowly disappearing; a lost America.

This was the aim of Troy Paiva, who took these incredible images and who has been exploring junk-yards and abandoned roadside towns at the dead of night for over twenty years. He practically invented Urban Exploration and what’s more, through his innovative use of lighting and time exposures, he has been able to share snapshots of his experience. Environmental Graffiti had the chance to catch up with him:

What inspired you to take images of abandoned and discarded airplanes?

The easy answer is that they’re just so spectacularly cool! But yes, it goes deeper than that. Thematically, my “Lost America” photography is about recording the passage of outdated facets of American culture as they are discarded and forgotten, replaced by new technology and ideas.

abandoned helicopterPhoto:

Viet Nam era Huey and incoming aircraft at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, 2 minute exposure, red-gelled strobe flash. Canon 20D.

and what do these particular images mean to you?

The aircraft boneyards are the perfect example of the completely disposable society we’ve created for ourselves. They are an unsettling reminder of the fragility and impermanence of our technological world.

Why are most of the images taken in the dark?

I am a night photographer. All the work on my websites is shot at night.

While most photography captures an instant—a fraction of a second—night photography is about recording a span of time measurable in human terms. Capturing a scene takes on different meaning with the knowledge that moonlight is slowly accumulating in the camera with every tick of the watch. Minutes-long exposures record the stars spiraling around Polaris as the Earth rotates. Trees blur in the wind, and clouds are smeared across the sky, reflecting the glow of cities beyond the horizon. People moving through the frame never appear, while planes and cars leave arcing ribbons of light. As the moon travels along its path, shadow edges become indistinct, softening the overall quality of light. Recording these deserted places with time exposures reveals their stillness, but also, the ever-changing world they inhabit.

abandoned planePhoto:

The fuselage on the left was broken and painted with black paint to simulate the remains of a crashed and burned airliner, and the “PRA” (Indiana Jones?) logo was painted on the nose section of a DC6 at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, natural and red-gelled flashlight. Canon 20D. Composite of 2 images.

what’s it like taking them?

It’s as surreal as the photos look. Night photography in abandoned places, junkyards and ghost towns is not for the faint of heart or people who believe in ghosts. Because the exposures are minutes long there’s a lot of time to relax and take in the atmosphere of the scene. It’s a meditative, zen-like process for me.

So just where do you go about finding these aircraft boneyards? I’ve never seen one before!

The huge storage facility at the Mojave Airport can be seen from the highway, so they’re pretty well known here in California and the desert southwest. These places have been featured in many movies over the years, the first being the 1949 best picture oscar winning anti-war film “The Best Years of Our Lives.” The boneyards are deeply entrenched in American mythology and a source of fascination for millions, world-wide.

It took several years worth of inquiries and phone calls to gain access to the 2 boneyards I’ve shot (I risked sneaking into a third). The US government has a facility in Tucson AZ that’s filled with thousands of decommissioned military aircraft. It’s highly restricted and considered the holy grail of boneyards. Public access (except for short bus tours) is virtually impossible, but I’m still working on it . . .


Airliner engine nacelles among the Joshuas at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, 4 minute exposure, Canon 20D. Tungsten balanced. Available light only

What equipment did you use to take this set of images?

I started doing night photography in 1989 with junky old flea market cameras and lenses. It felt artistically pure for me to be shooting discarded junk equipment WITH discarded junk equipment. In 2005 I moved to digital with the first wave of DSLRs that could actually manage noise-free time exposures.

What were your favourite moments whilst taking these pictures?

Getting into locations where access is restricted and difficult to acquire always feels like a major triumph. It’s very fulfilling to show a property owner some of my work and have them say “Wow, I’d love to have you take pictures here!”

Equally what were the worst? Did you have any nasty experiences?

Getting chased back to the car by a pack of wild dogs, finding a Black Widow spider as big as my thumb crawling up my leg, being chased away by crazy desert rats waving shotguns yelling “Git offin’ mah propity!” It’s always an adventure.


This Cold-War era “Delta Dagger” fighter sits in a field behind Castle AFB museum awaiting restoration. Night, full moon, 100VS film 4 minute exposure, red-gelled strobe flash and green-gelled flashlight.

Is there anything you’d recommend to anyone who wanted to do something similar?

Night photography has become immensely popular in the digital age. The ability to chimp the shot on the fly has made it much easier, so there are millions of people experimenting at night with time exposures and light painting now. Practice is key. Start out shooting easy locations first until you figure out what works and what doesn’t. Shoot stuff in your garage or basement with the lights of and experiment with flashlights and strobe flash. If you have the urge to shoot abandoned places, all the usual common sense rules apply: don’t go alone, have a cellphone, carry samples of your photography (because the sheriff won’t believe you), and tread lightly.

Further Resources

Below you can watch an interview with Troy for the British TV show “Artland”.

Troy also has a new book coming out which you can pre-order here

You can see more stunning pictures at Troy’s website