This past weekend we had plans with some friends to head out to Tombstone and Bisbee Arizona for some well deserved R&R, and a weekend of shutter clicking in the picturesque settings of southeast Arizona. As we were driving down from our home base in Phoenix, we caught a glimpse through the roadside brush of hundreds of aircraft sitting in the desert sun.
We have certainly heard and have read about these places. The largest of these facilities is “The Boneyard” which is located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base roughly 40 miles southeast as the crow flies from where we stood at Pinal Airpark. While we didn’t get the opportunity to head on down to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base this time around, we did get to poke around Pinal Airpark for a bit and get a taste of the scale of an aircraft boneyard.
Pinal Airpark is about 1500 acres in size, which is much smaller when compared to the grandaddy of aircraft boneyards, located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. While Davis-Monthan is home to some 4,400 aircraft, arranged over nearly 2,600 acres (10.5 sq km), Pinal Airpark only hosts about 120 airframes at any one time.
Opened in 1943 as Marana Army Air Field, the airport was used as a training base during World War II. When the government began giving away its military airfields after the war, it deeded the property to Pinal County, which in turn leased the facilities and most of the airport’s operations to various tenants, including the CIA. Reminders of the facility’s secret past are everywhere, beginning with the abandoned guard shack at the end of the narrow two-lane road leading into the air park. Weathered signs still shout “No admittance” and “Authorized personnel only.”
Rumors abound about some of the history of this location. Some of these rumors include that of a front company used to disguise black-ops missions into Vietnam, Tibet and Bangladesh in the 1950s and ’60s and a daring mission to retrieve two agents from an abandoned Soviet base in the Arctic. Regardless of the rumored history, the site hasn’t completely abandoned its military past. Just past the north end of the runway the Army National Guard has a training site, principally to teach pilots how to operate the Apache attack helicopter. It is also home to the U.S. Special Operations Command’s parachute training facility, which plays host to elite units, such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6.
The climate in Arizona – dry heat, low humidity, little rain – mean that aircraft take a lot longer to rust and degrade. An added bonus, is that underneath the top six inches of dirt topsoil is a clay-like sub layer called caliche. This extremely hard subsoil allows the planes to be parked in the desert without the need to construct expensive new parking ramps. Planes are expensive machines when they are built and even more expensive to maintain over their lifetime. Even when their flying days are over, they still have their uses. It takes a lot of room – and a lot of money – to store these unused planes in the kind of hangars needed to keep them warm and dry. It’s much cheaper to store them in the kind of conditions found in southeast Arizona.
One of the big differences between the boneyard at Pinal Airpark vs, “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan is the differences in storage prep work on the airframes. While all aircraft have their fuel tanks and fuel lines drained and flushed with a light oil similar to that used in sewing machines to ensure all the moving parts are lubricated, the planes at Pinal Airpark for the most part are decidedly less “sophisticated”, as they are mainly old commercial fleet jetliners. Many of the abandoned aircraft — Airbus A300s, Boeing 747s and 767s, McDonnell Douglas MD-80s — still carry the distinctive paint schemes of the companies that flew them. Meanwhile at “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan, the planes are of the military variety and have much more prep work to be done. Any planes that have served on aircraft carriers have to be thoroughly washed to get rid of corroding salt. Also, all explosive devices (like ejection seat activators, etc.) are safely removed. Then, any ducts or inlets are covered with aluminium tape and the aircraft are painted over with a special easily strippable paint – two coats of black, and a final layer of white to help deflect the fierce desert sun and keep the aircraft relatively cool.
Catching a quick view of the aircraft boneyard at Pinal Airpark was a nice added treat to our busy weekend schedule which included visits to Tombstone, and the Bisbee areas. We’ve marked it for a future trip and hope to bring you more photos from inside this boneyard, and maybe we’ll even have a future trip to Davis-Monthan for a view inside the real “Boneyard”. We’ll bring that to you just as soon as we can arrange the permissions and clearances. You can also look forward to more posts coming soon with pictures from our weekend adventures. Just a few hints of things to come include the oldest continously used baseball field facility, not only in Arizona, but in the entire United States (yes, even older than Wrigley Field!). We’ll also have photos to share of the Lavendar open pit copper mine that is located just outside of Bisbee. It was the economic engine of the area during the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. We also dropped into Lowell, AZ, which is just south of Bisbee. As luck would have it, we visited that location on a late Saturday afternoon, and the place was absolutely deserted. It made for an eerie trip back in time feel. You have to understand that Lowell has a certain street that can transport you back to the 50’s or 60’s with the way that they keep it. It was a filming location for both Stephen King’s Desperation, and William Shatner’s Groom Lake. We’ll also have some photos of the largest Rose Bush in the world for you, (out of season, but check out the size! Impressive!). It’s located right there in Tombstone. Plus a visit to a historic church located in Bisbee, and many other photographic treats from the area to share soon, right here in the gallery at JnGmedia.com!