Thursday, March 15, 2012

Resting and Remembering Places

You all know I can't discuss my work, past or present, on a blog, or my aviation background. But, for the brave, for the fallen, wherever they lost the fight - fair winds and blue skies.

What is it about old places filled with the past that fascinate so?

The landscape of the desert. The feel of machinery against our shoulder. The smell of oil and might on the breeze. I had a chance to re-visit a resting place of old aircraft.

In the desert just outside of the city of Tucson is a a place where old airplanes go to die. Davis Monthan Air Base and it's resting grounds. My job had me down in the Southwest for a day or two not long back and there was a place I just had to visit again. The"Boneyard" in the desert has been a fascination, a place where titans of the air rest before going on their way to the aviation afterlife.

The Air Force calls the desert facility "Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center" (AMARC), many visitors refer to it as "the boneyard". We are probably both right. Here the U.S. Air Force mothballs planes until they either need them again or it's time to salvage them for parts. Whenever the U.S. sells surplus planes to foreign governments part of the sales pitch is that there will always have a ready supply of spare parts. Some are turned into pilotless drones and used for missile target practice. Many, too many have all the earmarks of being skeletal.

There are only three ways to view the aircraft at the heart of the Davis-Monthan facility: fly over the place (tough unless you're riding in on an F-15); from a satellite; or by Bus from the PASM. Since I can't afford either an F-15 nor a KH-12 Spy Satellite, I rode with a couple dozen other tourists and took the bus tour.

There's enough information on the place on the web and numerous aviation blog posts, so I won't get too wordy here, but suffice to say there's about every military plane ever made here, including the leviathans of the site; 100 plus B-52s, all that remain of nearly 400, slowly being destroyed as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, and the force reduction treaties. These bombers are chopped up using a 130 ton blade, then left for a week or more to allow the Russians to photograph and confirm their destruction. I have watched several airmen view a documentary of those aircraft being dismembered and I know, that had they been alone, they would have been crying, tears for the incredible creativity as well as the terrible destruction that man is capable of.

Just beyond the remaining Buffs, where the bus turned to make its way back to the museum, are two parks of odd looking equipment. The equipment is the tooling and jigs for the B-1 and B-2 bomber production lines. One day those bombers will take up residence under the clear blue Arizona sky, and there might still be B-52s to keep them company.

It's an amazing, still place. The first time I went there, security was much freer and we were able to get up closer and look. Wander among the husks of aircraft. The aircraft, sharp and large against the backdrop of a desert sky, holding so many stories in the empty spaces they form and contain. It's mysterious, exciting, the kind of place where as a kid your dreams went. It's even more mysterious as night falls on the Sonora Desert. There, the aircraft stand like ghostly sentinels upon the hard earth, under unfathomed sky. They loom, over tiny scrabbles of cactus and the small desert creatures. They wait, on hard earth splayed with the tracks of tiny feet, and larger feet, making their own shadows of violent shade until the unrestrained stars come out at night. Their forms, so silent, yet with so much to tell.

My Sensei once said, that "emptiness is form and form is emptiness", a phrase I never really understood until that moment, staring at those cavernous behemoths of the sky. One moment they are simply an empty form, in another memory brings back to life the souls they contained, the might they rendered, the absolute force in which they sliced the sky.

Some of the airmen that flew many of these aircraft have died already, so many aircraft, so many souls on board. As I think about that, their empty bodies float in my mind, light, unfettered by gravity, I became aware of my own heartbeat in the setting sun, the labor of my lungs against my chest. Form is emptiness. Emptiness form, I say as with warm and eager breath I take in the landscape, as my mind grasps just how real, how tangible these husks of aircraft still are, even as some of their crews are but dust.

Overhead, desert thunderstorms loom and erupts, heavy drops of water hitting us as we scurry for the tour bus, threads of moisture hitting the packed earth like gunfire. The sound of thunder echoes across the boneyard, nature's taps playing as the sky weeps for the dead with crystal purity.

These thoughts were broken by the chatter of some of the other tour members. For a moment I wanted to hush them, as this was a solemn place. To tell them to be quiet. . . . . or something. Something about interfering with the shuttered windows of these forms, the dark alleys of an airplane's final resting place and the sky's remembrance of such places, filled with the elemental silence of those who have flown away.

- Love, Brigid


  1. They are machines after all is said and done. The only thing that gave them a life and a soul was the brave crews that actually gave them a purpose and a will to live.

    This brought about nose art, now not politically correct. The fact that you could feel a machine as it was an extension of you body that you prayed, born of steel and fire would get you home.

    You bonded with it. Many did make it back, some did not.

    I have observed the technical prowess of many aircraft. The B-58, the XB-70, the BUFF, the P-51. They are all bodies awaiting a soul.

    The soul is the crew and yes the person sitting in the left hand seat up front. They set the tone for the rest.

  2. Back in '69 my Dad bought a Cessna 150 that had been ground looped. He rebuilt it while getting his private pilot's license. Because he worked next door at Goodyear Aerospace (many of the Apollo moon buggy welds were by his hand) he based his new toy at the former NAS Litchfield Park, now known as Phoenix Goodyear Airport. Back in the day it was a storage and salvage facility for military aircraft.

    Many, many days, I roamed the place while he was off flying, or fiddling with his plane with his mechanic buddies. I climbed through and explored many old aircraft.

    With a vivid imagination, and after brushing the pigeon poop off the seats, I piloted many a commie killing mission over enemy territory.

    The best planes were across the runway from the big hangars and I often sprinted across to "fly" those planes. The dudes in the tower either didn't notice, or didn't care. Somehow I don't think you could pull that runway pedestrian thing off today.

    Nice memories.

  3. My Dad was stationed at Davis Monthan during the Korean Conflict and now live a half hour drive away from there. Last time we were out there we took the bus tour from the Pima Air Museum over to the AMARC. (Dad refuses to call it the boneyard) You could tell there were a lot of Air Veterans on our bus because of the silence as we drove through. You could almost feel the respect for the retired aircraft.

  4. I should have mentioned that this was after Litchfield became a municipal airport and no longer under military control. I have no idea why so many planes were left behind.

  5. this made me think, and reminded me of the fantasy scene in Porco Rosso where "having been chased by fascist pilots, Marco passes out and climbs above the clouds until he reaches a "cloud prairie" with no-one else around. Soon other planes, with their rotors no longer turning, rise out of the clouds and float up to join a belt of planes above. We realise we are seeing the afterlife of pilots, whose spirits live on to endlessly circle the skies..."

    it is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in any of the Miyazaki films I have seen

  6. Love you mention your visits to AZ!

  7. The 'Boneyard' IS a special place... Nuff said...

  8. Well said Keads. You are so right. Many folks have an emotional attachment to those aircraft. I too am guilty of that, but it is only because I either turned wrenches on them (KC-135E/R/Ts) as a crew chief, or flew them (C-130E/H/H1s) as a Flight Engineer.

  9. It's truly shameful that the todays brave Airman are still flying the same aircraft their grandfathers flew. I've watched many a scramble of the B52's at Barksdale and Ellsworth over the years. It's truly awe inspiring. I've seen them as piles of debris, burning wreckage at Beale and March. Just devastating. They, like myself, have reached our time to retire.

    War WAS our profession...


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