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The Boneyard – Where Old Planes Go to Die

By Phil Buehler
In the Arizona desert is one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever come across in 25 years of exploring ruins––AMARC, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, also known as “The Boneyard.” It is next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and was created after World War II––it’s where old planes go to die. Some are actually just kept in storage until needed, some are converted into pilotless drones to be used for target practice, some are sold to foreign governments, while others are picked clean for parts. But in the end most wind up being sold for scrap to the half dozen or so aircraft salvage yards located around the base.

Right now there are over 4,000 aircraft in the base––that’s around $30 billion in tax dollars. I first visited in 1989, and have gone back several times since. When I was first at AMARC there were thousands of F-4 Phantom’s that were used in Vietnam and were then being retired from the Air National Guard. Today F-14 Tomcats are showing up more frequently as they’re being retired. There are even B-1 bombers, which cost over $300 million each to build.

On one trip I chartered a helicopter for a couple of hundred dollars and with the Air Force Base’s permission I was able fly over AMARC to photograph. A door was taken off the chopper and I was strapped into a harness so I could sort of hang outside with my feet on the skid. The duct tape they put around the latch as a safety precaution didn’t actually make me feel safer. We flew over the base and I got to direct the pilot to hover over the planes while I leaned out and shot. Every now and then the base controller––AMARC is adjacent to Davis-Monthan Airforce Base––would come on and tell us to move out of the way, some F-16s were coming in to land. We’d then shoot up from treetop height to 5,000 feet. Which was sort of fun to see the ground receded quickly until I realized it was getting freezing cold and I was only dressed in shorts and a t-shirt since it was 100 degrees that day on the ground.

I also took photos of many of the planes on the ground. When I first visited in 1989, there were hundreds of B-52s there. Most have since been destroyed as part of the START treaty with the Soviet Union––they used this huge guillotine to chop them into large pieces. They would then leave them in place for 90 days to let Soviets satellites verify their destruction before scrapping them.

The B-52’s were painted in either gray, if they were with the Strategic Air Command, or camouflage if they were used in the Vietnam War. I climbed into the belly hatch of one and made my way to the cockpit to take some photos with a fisheye lens. For such big plane it was incredibly cramped inside––I couldn’t stand up straight and there were rows of electronic equipment racks lining the aisles. Later, I

was warned not to climb into any of the planes as rattlesnakes like to go inside them to stay cool.  Getting killed by a snake on a plane that could’ve killed millions would certainly be an ironic way to go.

I also photographed the two-stage Titan II missiles, which were once tipped with nuclear warheads and scattered around the U.S. in protected silos. Now they’re kept in storage until they’re needed to launch satellites. The Titan II’s and the B-52 bomb bays reminded me of the “duck and cover” drills we did in grammar school in the early 60’s.

I wandered around a field of old 707’s that were from the dawn of the age of commercial jet travel, many with the logos of since bankrupt airlines like Pan Am and TWA. They were brought to AMARC so their engines could be used to upgrade KC-135 Stratotankers. Inside I found a old seat back safety card showing a stewardess in a 1960s uniform––it was a bit of a step back in time to when air travel was glamorous.

A fence keeps you from getting close to the C-123 Providers. That’s because the C-123s were used to drop millions of gallons of dioxin-containing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to defoliate forests to deny cover to the North Vietnamese. During one of my visits I heard that the military flew the planes in and parked them, and that the civilians that work there can’t touch them because of OSHA rules (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). So they could still be there in fifty years. Perhaps they should simply be declared a monument to the soldiers and civilians harmed by Agent Orange.

So if you’re in Tucson and want to see something truly surreal, drive around AMARC, or, better yet, take the tour offered by Pima Air Museum – www.pimaair.org. If you don’t get out that way, I’ve got more photos of my trips to AMARC on my website – www.modern-ruins.com. There’s also a great website about AMARC at www.amarcexperience.com. And you can also have fun at Google Maps––just search “Davis-Monthan Air Force Base” and zoom in and around the planes.

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