Field Guide To
One of the most common questions that I get is about the huge airliner graveyards out in the western deserts. Folks ask if they really exist, and if so, where are they? The answer is yes, these boneyards do exist. In fact, it is rather surreal viewing a boneyard given that these planes are so large, and there are so many of them in one place. Equally surreal is realizing that each plane originally cost anywhere from a few million to hundreds of millions of dollars, and they are just sitting there doing no productive work.
As it turns out, the airline industry goes in cycles. The boneyards first filled up after WWII when the military downsized and converted to jet aircraft. It took years to either sell or recycle all of the WWII aircraft. Another wave of aircraft arrived at the boneyards in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the classic prop airliners were sent out to pasture in favor of the early jet passenger planes. Many of these propliners were converted to cargo planes, carrying fish out of Alaska or flowers from South America. The next wave of idle planes happened during the oil crisis in 1974. These planes returned to service after the oil supply stabilized, only to be sent back when the airlines were deregulated in the early 1980s. Deregulation meant that fewer planes were in service, but working longer hours. The stored airliners mostly went back into service, only to be put back in storage during the travel shock of the 1991 Gulf War. At that time, thousands of airliners were sent to the desert. Many of them were the older less efficient and noisy airplanes, so they ended up going overseas. The boneyards were nearly empty by the mid-1990s, which were the happy years for the airlines. The 9/11 attack ended that in a single day. After the flight stand-down, entire fleets of airliners were sent to the desert. With continued terrorist threats, high cost of fuel, and passenger concern, the boneyards remain filled to the brim with aircraft. Ironically, some aircraft that were on order as of 9/11 were rolled off of the assembly line, and flown directly to storage in Mojave without carrying a single paying passenger. Boneyards have again filled up with the wave of high fuel costs and the economic crisis since 2007. Not only have airlines cut back flights, but they are attempting to operate fewer but fuller aircraft.
This web page is an overview of the various aircraft boneyards in the desert southwest, with information on how to visit these sites. Please contact the author if you need additional information.
Note—I am not a scrap dealer, nor do I have any contacts with any of the scrappers. I get a lot of E-mail from people looking for parts and even entire aircraft. The answer is that I do not know of any sources for airplane parts or retired aircraft other than E-Bay and magazines such as Trade-A-Plane and AeroTrader.
Mojave Airport is the civilian and commercial aircraft flight test facility. It is the civilian analog to Edwards AFB, which is just down the road a few miles. Mojave is home to number of cutting edge aircraft companies, including Scaled Composites, which recently flew the first civilian manned space flight. You see all kinds of odd and interesting artifacts when driving around the airport, anything from home-built airplanes made out of styrofoam to Russian Migs being used to fly aggressor training missions against the USAF.
Mojave is in the high desert. It is dry because the mountains near the ocean rob all of the rainfall, leaving central and eastern California with almost no rainfall. The low humidity makes an ideal place to store aircraft, and the hard desert floor is able to support these mammoth beasts without being paved over. The result is that Mojave is a first choice as a storage location for aircraft that you wish to use again in the future. At the current time, there are several hundred airliners in storage. This ranges from the puddle jumpers, small jests like the Fokkers, up to the wide bodies and jumbos such as the L-1011 and Boeing-747. The post 9/11 aviation economy is the biggest reason for airliners being sent to Mojave. Entire fleets have been sent here due to airlines going bankrupt. Secondary reasons include older 727 and DC-9 that do not meet new noise guidelines, and older aircraft who will have a second life as cargo transports.
Mojave is located north of Los Angeles on the Antelope Freeway, also known as California CA-14. There are streets in the airport that are open to traffic, but the storage area is not open to the public. That isn't too much of an issue since it is clearly visible from the main roads. The best view is from just north-east of town on CA-14 and the new CA-58 bypass.
AMARC is the US Air Force Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center. This is the central depot for all US military planes that are pulled out of service and put into storage. The AMARC puts these planes into long term storage, often covering them with a white plastic coating called Spraylat to protect the aircraft from the elements. In many cases, the stored aircraft are refurbished and sent back into service, sometimes after being sold to foreign nations. In other cases, useful parts are pulled off of the aircraft, and the remains are sold to nearby scrappers.
The most recent fleet to arrive at AMARC is the F-14 Tomcat, the former front-line Navy carrier plane, which was retired in 2006. Other aircraft that are arriving in quantity are the C-141 Starlifter and the A-10 Warthog. Beyond that, you will see just about every kind of airplane that the military has flown since WWII. One project is to convert former fighters into drone aircraft to be used as missile targets. All of the stored F-106 were used for this testing, and now F-4 are being used as drones. Even some very new aircraft are in storage. For example, a few B-1 bombers have been pulled from front-line duty, some went to the Air National Guard while others are stored at AMARC. Congress is now considering pulling those B-1 back into front-line service.
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 is located on the grounds of Davis Monthan Air Force Base on the south-east side of Tucson, Arizona. The base itself is not open to the general public. There is, however, a perimeter road that circles the base, allowing a fairly close view of the stored aircraft. There is also a highway that crosses the base which allows for a good view.
The Pima Air & Space Museum is located just south of the base. This museum has a large collection of historic aircraft that were rescued from AMARC. The museum offers a weekly tour of the AMARC storage area. Contact the museum for hours and reservations since the tour times and rules change with the terrorism threat level.
Kingman Airport was once a large US Army Air Force (later US Air Force) aircraft storage facility. The USAF abandoned Kingman and moved the storage facility to Tucson in the 1950s. The airport remains an active aircraft storage facility, again, due to the dry climate. There are currently a number of passenger planes in storage. While there are few large aircraft, there seems to be large number of puddle jumper sized passenger planes in storage. I also saw a variety of former military cargo planes, some in storage, others look like they are active.
Kingman Airport is located north-east of Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is south of the Grand Canyon, and about 90 minutes from Las Vegas via Hoover Dam. The aircraft storage areas are on the far side of the runways from the streets that are open to the public. As a result, field glasses and telephoto lenses are handy tools for tail spotters.
The site of the former George Air Force Base is located in Victorville, CA, between US-395 and I-15. The air base became the Southern California Logistics Airport after the Air Force pulled out in the mid-1990s. There were a few large airliners in storage, mostly MD-11s, when I visited in 1999.
Since that time, the SCLA has become a major aircraft storage yard and boneyard. I counted around 200 aircraft parked on the field in early 2011. Here are some photos from that visit, taken in the very late evening.
Pinal Airpark is a former CIA airfield. It was the headquarters for CIA air cargo operations during the cold war and Vietnam. This included airline names such as Air America and Southern Air Transport. Rumor has it that several other cargo lines were used to the CIA’s advantage, such as the Flying Tigers (the cargo version, not the fighter plane group).
The CIA eventually phased out much of its covert air operations. The huge international cargo company Evergreen stepped in and leased the Pinal Airpark. They use it as their maintenance and repair base. They also store many airliners on the airfield for future use as air cargo transports. This includes a number of Boeing 747 aircraft.
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 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.
Pinal Airpark is just north of Marana, Arizona. Take exit 232 from Interstate-10, and follow Marana Air Park Road. As a heads up, Pinal Airpark was once called Marana Air Park. Just south about 10 miles is an airport currently called Marana Field, which is the former Avra Valley Airport.
As an easter egg, follow the frontage road from exit 232 north a mile or two from exit 232, and notice a road heading off to the east called Missile Base Road. Follow it to the end, and you will find an abandoned Titan II missile silo and communications center.
Note—as of mid-2005, I have heard stories that Pinal Park is more or less open for General Aviation business. While you still cannot drive into the airport, you can fly in. There is a small cafe, and fuel is available at a reasonable price. Please double check before you attempt to land there, however.
The US Navy operated a Naval Air Station in Litchfield Park, Arizona from the WWII era into the late 1960s. After WWII, thousands of surplus aircraft were stored at the NAS Litchfield Park. Many of these planes were put back into service to meet the demands of the Korean War. Those that were not put back in service simply sat out in the dry hot climate for many years. A decision was made to close the NAS in the 1967. The aircraft that remained were either sold off, moved to AMARC, or were smelted on-site.
Today, NAS Litchfield Park is called the Phoenix-Goodyear Airport, and it is located just south of I-10 on the far west side of Phoenix. There is nothing left from the US Navy days. Goodyear still has a large plant located on the airfield. I include Litchfield Park in this field guide since so many of the remaining Navy warbirds passed through Litchfield Park at some point in their history, and folks are still curious about where Litchfield Park was, and if there are still any Navy warbirds remaining in storage at Litchfield Park.
There is actually a longer history of aviation in Litchfield Park. An airbase was built in Litchfield Park early in WWII. That airbase was later named Luke Field. It closed after WWII, but was activated again in the cold war as Luke Air Force Base. Since both Litchfield Park Field and NAS Litchfield Park have changed names, it can be confusing which location is being discussed.
Hawkins and Powers is a major operator of aerial fire-fighting aircraft. Most of the aircraft that they operate are WWII vintage and early post WWII era propeller aircraft. They have some more modern turbine aircraft such as the C-130, but the ramp is littered with the round engine transports such as the KC-97, C-119, C-82, and the Harpoon. Since Hawkins and Powers actively uses many of these aircraft, they are either active and airworthy, they are awaiting future use, or are used as a source of spare parts.
Many of the former WWII aircraft have now been grounded from active fire-fighting use following a series of fatal accidents. As a result, Hawkins and Powers is finding a new market in converting these planes back to military configurations for museums and private warbird operators. Hawkins and Powers also makes a business of restoring and maintaining these types of aircraft on a commercial basis.
Hawkins and Powers is located in Grey Bull, Wyoming. This is a place that you would really have to want to go to. It is hundreds of miles from anywhere in far north-central Wyoming, east of the east entrance to Yellowstone. Once you get there, you can ask for permission at the H&P office, and they will give you a map for a self-guided tour of the storage area and museum aircraft.
Note—a recent US Forest Service ruling has ended the business of using vintage aircraft as air tankers for fighting fires. As a result, H&P has closed. The remaining aircraft were either sold or scrapped following an auction in 2006. If you have any interest in this operation, get there while you still can since everything will be gone by mid-2007.
China Lake Naval Weapons Lab: A number of WWII aircraft were located on the gunnery range at China Lake being used as targets. These planes were never intended to be flown again. A commercial pilot spotted these planes from the air, which began a series of recovery efforts to pull historic WWII airplanes out of the range and restore them to flight. The CAF B-29 Fi-Fi was the first plane out. Another B-29 was recovered a few years ago, and is undergoing restoration to flight status. The China Lake base is closed to the public. They recently opened a museum, and there is a small privately owned museum in Inyokern, California, just outside of the base.
Edwards Air Force Base: This site is the primary location for flight testing of military aircraft, and the home of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. While not a formal storage facility, there are a number of rare aircraft in storage for the opening of the eventual flight test museum. In addition, there is a junkyard that contains the remains of many test aircraft, and a few rare aircraft rotting away on the photo range (notably a B-47 and a B-58). Edwards is no longer open to the general public since 9/11. The base is very big, and little can be seen from off-base locations.
Fox Field: Is the airport located in Lancaster, California, in the heart of the Antelope Valley. Fox Field is home of the CA state fire bomber fleet of aircraft. They have a mix of operating fire bomber aircraft, plus some aircraft that are scavenged for parts.
Update — There are no longer any aircraft stored at Fox Field. The fire bombers also do not winter here, so there were almost no aircraft parked on the ramp when I visited in 2011. The two largest exceptions, a C-97 and C-119, are part of the Milestones of Flight Museum.
Falcon Field: Is the airport in Mesa, Arizona, which is an eastern suburb of Phoenix. Falcon is an interesting airport to visit since public streets run through much of the airfield hangar area (at least pre-9/11). There are several aircraft parts recycling firms located at Falcon Field.
Ryan Field: Is an airport about a dozen miles west of Tucson. It is home to ARDCO, a major fire bomber operator. Ryan Field is their maintenance base. They have both operating fire bombers as well as a small fleet of planes in storage for future conversion as fire bombers.
Roswell, NM: I visited Roswell in the mid-1990s, and there was nothing there to speak of (as far as stored aircraft go). I happened to see an episode of Wing Nuts on The Discovery Channel a while back, and they had some footage of the Roswell airport. There were several dozen aircraft located on the field, mostly DC-9s and Boeing-727s. It appeared that most of these planes were slated to be chopped up given that they were missing engines. Roswell is located in the south-east corner of New Mexico.
Update — Roswell has become a major aviation boneyard. A recent report indicates that hundreds of aircraft are in storage at the Roswell airport. As of the summer of 2009, this includes 10 UPS 747s, older UPS aircraft, a dozen American Airlines 737, several 747s, and a Jetstar once owned by Elvis Presley. The field has had as many as 500 aircraft in storage at one time.
Ardmore, OK : Was once the home of a small scrapper. They had a B-727 and B-747 that were being parted out, the 747 having taken a hard landing and was written off. The scrapper closed up shop, and nothing was left of the operation when I visited in 2006. The airfield itself was interesting in that it is a closed down airbase.
Update — I have heard a report that there are again a few aircraft at Ardmore being scrapped as of late 2009.
Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska was a booming location for air transports in the 1960s and 1970s both to fly seafood to the lower 48 states, and to support the building of the pipeline. As these activities ramped down, the aircraft were simply abandoned in place rather than flying them back down south for storage. Given that much of Alaska is like a cold, dry desert, the planes aged surprising well in that climate. The Anchorage Airport is home to many such aircraft. Some will never fly again, others see action every few years. As an example, one of the remaining C-133 Cargomasters is located at Anchorage, and it recently flew after sitting on the ground nearly a decade.
Update — The C-133 has since been retired and flown to Travis AFB near Fairfield, California, for display in the base airpark.
South Florida: South Florida, including Miami and Ft. Lauderdale were once hotbeds of action as the older prop planes were retired in the US and were put to work in the Caribbean and South America. Some of these projects were legal, others were a little more shady. The wet climate, salt air, and hurricanes meant for a short life for anything that sat around on the ground. As a result, you find few aircraft in long term storage in that area. You do see all kinds of unusual and elderly aircraft cycle through South Florida, often there to get new logos painted on, but they do not tend to remain long.
Maxton Airport: Maxton Airport is located near Laurinburg in south-central North Carolina. It currently is home to several dozen retired Northwest Airlines 727, 747, and DC-10 that are being parted out and scrapped. Maxton is a civil airport that is open to the general public. I have not visited Maxton, but I have been told that you can walk to and around some of the airliners. I would suggest getting permission from airport management first to avoid any homeland security issues.
Update — I received an update from a tail spotter who visited Maxton in October, 2008. He found two 747, two DC-10, and eight 727. In addition, rather than entering the airport, he says to follow the dirt road heading to Charlotte Aircraft Corporation, and that will lead right to the storage ramp. If they are not too busy, they might even allow you to walk out to the airplanes and look around.
Tucson Airport: The main airport in Tucson was once a moderate sized aircraft boneyard. In recent years, the airport has required more room as traffic into and out of Tucson has grown. The result is that aircraft storage has become less of a business at Tucson International. There are still a few older retired military aircraft as well as a few retired airliners stored at Tucson International. The vast majority are on the west side of the airport in the area of the WWII-era Consolidated factory. Like the old Consolidated buildings, the aircraft are mostly just rotting away.
Tucson International is located south of Tucson, and south of I-10. There is a perimeter road around much of the airport that gives good views of most everything. The old storage area and Consolidated factory are located on the west side of the airport, whereas the passenger terminal is on the east side of the airport. I visited pre-9/11, and everything was pretty much open to auto traffic except for the active aircraft areas. Things may have changed post-9/11.
Update — It has been reported that the aircraft in storage at the Tucson Airport have been scrapped or otherwise disposed of. A recent view in Google Earth shows about two dozen narrow body airliners parked at the old Consolidated ramp.
Saint Augustine, Florida: A tailspotter recently alerted me to the existence of a small aircraft boneyard in Saint Augustine, Florida. A local businessman purchased a number of retired US Navy Grumman S-2 Tracker aircraft and parted them out. The hulks are sitting in a lot across the railroad tracks from the airport. The planes have been sitting untouched for 20 years and are largely overgrown with brush. While this is private property, you can see some of the aircraft from a public road, and they are visible in Google Earth.
Update — It has been reported that this site has been cleaned up and all of the aircraft and aircraft parts are gone. The remaining airframes were recycled on site with some parts being shipped for recycling.
Walter Soplata Farm: Walter Soplata was saving historic aircraft long before it was cool, and certainly long before there was big money in the warbird market. He single-handedly saved a several WWII warbirds, an extremely rare P-82 Twin Mustang, several early jets, and one of only five of the remaining giant B-36 Peacemaker bombers. Walter recovered these aircraft as wrecks, as surplus, and even a few that were discarded by the fledgling USAF Museum in the 1960s. He hauled these aircraft home in parts on trailers behind his car and using an old flatbed truck. Years of sitting outside didn't do any of these aircraft any favors, but some have been sold to collectors over the years and have been restored to flight status. Walter's Farm is a tribute to what one man can do given enough passion and energy. The farm is not open to the public, and the family is private, so I am not going to reveal its location other than to say that it is near Cleveland, Ohio.
Update — Sadly, Walter passed away in 2010 at the age of 87.
Art and Furniture: MotoArt — Based in Torrance, California, MotoArt makes high value art and furniture using recycled airplane parts. Examples of their work can be found at the MotoArt website.
Movie: Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man — This 1991 movie features Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. Two fringe characters decide to help out a friend and bar owner by holding up an armored car. When the armored car turns out to contain drugs, every bad guy in Southern California is on their trail. The final showdown was filmed at the USAF Boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB.
Movie: My Science Project — A 1985 sci-fi comedy featuring John Stockwell and Dennis Hopper where a high-school student looking for ideas for a science project sneaks into a boneyard and stumbles across a piece of alien technology. When this device is accidentally activated, objects from other dimensions start to appear and the school becomes the apex of a temporal disturbance.
Music Video: Tom Petty, Learning To Fly — The USAF Boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, was used as the backdrop for a music video featuring rock music legend Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The band was shown performing while standing in, on, and under various aircraft hulks. The band reportedly went to Tucson looking for clouds for the backdrop similar to those seen in old John Ford movies. The video is available online at YouTube and VH1.
Music Video: Suzy Bogguss, Outbound Plane — The USAF Boneyard again is the setting for song about airplanes, but this time, a country song about love gone bad. The video includes a shot of a gorgeous desert sunset with the NASA Super Guppy visible in the background.
TV Series: WingNuts — A reality TV show based on the staff at the MotoArt Company as they struggle to create expensive artwork using recycled aircraft parts while running a business that is short on funds and at risk of closing. In the end, they do manage to make each of their deliveries, but not without problems and delays. The show ran during 2005 on the Discovery Channel.
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2014, all rights reserved.
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