Wednesday, September 28

Where do planes go to die?

If you’re a US military aircraft there’s only one place you’ll end up at the end of your flying days; the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. This site, also known affectionately as the “boneyard” is the official storage depot for all surplus, retired or decommissioned aircraft. It’s currently home to 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from the Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and several federal agencies including NASA. As you can imagine, with so many aircraft in storage the site covers a huge area. Unsurprisingly, its presence makes Tucson a high-priority military target for nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Garry and I we lucky enough to join a guided bus tour of the boneyard, arranged by the nearby Pima Air and Space Museum. It’s an amazing sight! The might and power of the US military becomes all too apparent as the bus tour unfolds. The array of equipment is truly mind-boggling. There are acres devoted to storing jet engines, wing tip extensions and all manner of accessories. You then come across hundreds of neatly parked jet fighters, helicopters and giant high-speed B1-B bombers, all stretching as far as the eye can see.

The entire scene is made even more surreal thanks to the preservation method used on site. Despite the areas’s protective dry desert environment, every aircraft is carefully preserved by wrapping it in a special white plastic clip film. The result is row after row of ghostly white objects of all shapes and sizes. The weather also played along by adding it own dramatic flair which included a sudden burst of torrential rain, lightening and thunder.

Pima Air and Space Museum was an equally impressive attraction. The site covers a huge area upon which is stored an incredible variety of aircraft. Highlights include several lovingly restored Super Constellation aircraft. These were the workhorse of the long-haul commercial aviation industry prior to the start of the modern jet age. I’ve always wanted to see one for myself. I was thrilled to discover that the Museum has one painted in classic TWA colours. It was like an old grainy photo from the 50s come to life.

Inside the museum’s numerous hangers we saw the world’s smallest plane and the smallest jet plane (which was only slightly larger); both of which looked like large toys. However, the Guinness Book of Records has verified that they really did take to the air. Elsewhere we came across a World War II plane flown by Lt. Louis E. Curdes, the only pilot to be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross medal for shooting down a friendly plane.

Apparently, the wayward American aircraft was preparing to land on a runway that had been recaptured by enemy forces. The quick thinking pilot tried to warn off the pilot to no avail. In the end he carefully shot the plane’s engines forcing it to ditch miles short of the airport. The plane landed close to another friendly aircraft pilot who was also preparing to be rescued.

All in all we spent half a day wandering among literally hundreds of planes, many of which were one-off test craft, others which held a unique place in aviation history. For example, we saw a plane that was used by President Kennedy and President Johnson as the last propeller-driven Air Force One. Was this the aircraft that carried Kennedy's body back from Dallas?  Nearby was NASA’s aptly named Super Guppy cargo plane. It looks much like a giant tadpole with wings. It was used to transport segments of the Saturn V moon rocket and more recently segments of the International Space Station. I was also thrilled to see my first Sikorsky S-64 sky crane helicopter. There are incredibly powerful, heavy-lift helicopters that look much like a praying mantis.

Finally, being the true space geek that I am I was thrilled to see the B-52 bomber that had been specially modified to carry the X-15 rocket plane aloft. The X-15 was the first such craft to fly to the edges of space and return to earth as a regular plane. This twin vehicle concept has since been adapted by Virgin Galactic as it prepared to launch its first commercial sub-orbital spaceflights. Needless to say I went back to our hotel a happy lad, while was probably relieved to be doing something different!

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