Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Emptiness and Form - A Trip to the Aircraft Boneyard

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. A business trip had me down that way so I made the effort to go visit.  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.

I could picture these craft in their prime, in the flight line each morning as each bird began its wandering life.  As men bustled about, shafts of light struck polished metal in thin lines of gold, bending and then twisting over the cowlings as if rendered molten by the touch.  The engines still slept, hushed by an absent hand and watched over by a gentle breeze.  As always, there would be one aircraft off on its own, having a heavy (maintenance) check, bearing the ground with the excitement of a disenchanted philosopher.

Today, all is still, their only remaining the shells of what was once thunderous with life.

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.

I can almost hear the echoes of the words shouted over the sound of the ramp. "Clear Two" is shouted out just before that first engine rumbles to life in that that strong confident tone that is used when heavens fall and justice is served, unheard words that now hang on the air as gentle as dew, as hard as molten lead.

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.
When I was a student of the Martial Arts, 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 as they dealt with life or death that oblidge no delay

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 remains of the aircraft fall behind us, the forms of inevitable truth here in a world so often less than truthful.

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.

- Brigid


  1. I about cried when I saw the rows of T-34 Mentors there that they will never sell to the public, and a handful of O-2As...Very sad.

  2. I used to rack out at the BEQ at Marana when I was on AT in Tucson.

  3. One of the most powerful things I've seen in a movie is at the end of The Best Years Of Our Lives, where Dana Andrews is sitting in the bombardiers bubble in a bomber in the boneyard, recalling the panic and purpose he used to feel in his "office".
    All the planes being cut up, in a sense emasculated, reminding him of his lack of purpose in his current situation.

  4. thanks for posting this story. I have always been fascinated with the bone yards. I went to Edwards back in the 70's and saw their yard. Sad to see, but know its history on display. Saw Enterprise in her hanger between test flights/drops. Speechless.

  5. I have not been there, but when I think about it I believe it would feel about the same as a long forgotten, overgrown cemetery I once found.

    Shadows from the past - forgotten by nearly everyone.



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