Airplane graveyard

Ransom Riggs's photo-essay on the airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert features astounding imagery of ancient, rotting aviation hardware bleaching its bones in the desert sun.

I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat. For years afterward I’d ask people what they knew about it, and I kept hearing the same thing: the place has been on lockdown since 9/11, and they won’t let civilians anywhere near the boneyard. But last week my luck changed — I met a very nice fellow who works there, and with a minimum of cajoling on my part he agreed to take me beyond the high-security fence and show me around. Of course, I brought my camera.

(via How to Be a Retronaut)


  1. Why do photographers think that shots from airplane- graveyards have to have this horrid HDR- look? Personally I like it more subtle like the series “Off the Radar” from German car photographer Marc Trautmann couple of years ago.

    1. Could you explain why it is “horrible HDR?”  As a former pro photographer I found his images to be captivating.  As someone who used to spend a good deal of time in that part of the desert I think the images convey a beauty that is hard to capture when shooting in the naked noonday sun.

      1. Can´t talk for nemo, but for me the overly applied effect ruins the picture. It´s like highlighting every single word of a script with textmarker. Look here! No, look here, this could also be important!

        HDR has by now being applied to half of every junkyard picture ever been made, including Chernobyl, some derelict city in Japan and most of Havannah. Enough already.

  2. Reminds me of flying in Russia.  Landed in Krasnodar and several jets were in various stages of disassembly right there on the tarmac. Saw the same thing at Moscow-Sheremetyevo as well. 

    1. I saw the same thing at the airport in Budapest. Sometimes aircraft are sitting at an airport when the owners’ interest/ability to go on flying them expires, and they just sit there until someone takes the time and money to move them. This can happen even at busy airports- there was a de Havilland Comet parked at Chicago’s O’Hare from 1976 to 1992. Anyone know where that aircaft is now?

  3. Impressive, let’s see him get into AMARG in Tucson, which must have some amazing photos just waiting to be taken.

  4. The Tucson area has two of these, the military one at Davis-Monthan and the civilian one in Marana. The Marana one is also known as Evergreen Air Center, Evergreen Air being a CIA front company used during the Iran Contra shadiness. We also have the Pima Air & Space Museum, which rescues noteworthy specimens form the D-M boneyard for display.

  5. What the hell does 9/11 have to do with anything? Are they worried that terrorists are going to covertly refurbish these aircraft to flightworthiness and then crash them into something?

  6. I’ve passed this lot before on my way to Vegas. The “mean-looking perimeter fence” that “keeps onlookers far away.”, as shown in the photo set, is just a plain chain link fence with barbwire.

  7. I’ve driven through this with a friend of mine who paints bomber nose art on riveted fuselage metal. It’s eerie as hell — great postapocalyptic landscape. Also very cool to climb through stripped-out 747s & such. I’d think this would be a photography gold mine.

  8. The Greyhound shop I used to work at had a similar (if much smaller) boneyard. There’s something eerie about walking past half-disassembled pieces of equipment – burned-out husks with frame chunks sawz-alled off, smashed-up wrecks with luggage still in it.

    Even the things I had a part in tearing apart had a sad, bereft feeling. We spent so much time putting those things back together, that to tear one apart felt… wrong. Saved us a lot of money, but it was still not something you ever got used to.

  9. There’s an active boneyard right next to the Pima Air and Space Museum in AZ. It’s a separate admission ticket to take a bus through there from the museum, but there are regular tours of it, though it is on an active military base. You need to show ID at the gate, and you stay on the bus, though you hardly need to know an “insider” to go there. Still, it’s pretty cool seeing rows and rows of old airliners right next to rows of Tomcats and other fighters. And the museum has an SR-71 Blackbird, that’s a big plane for a one-or-two-seater!

  10. I find it very sad that this huge amount of metal and various other exotic materials is simply left to rot. It’s such a waste of resources. Maybe they should bring in some of those workers from China and India  who can breakdown a ship and recycle it in just a few months.

    1. Actually, they are not left to rot in the desert, they are in the desert specifically to preserve them from decay via weather and humidity. Many of the planes at Pima AZ are wrapped in white plastic, and some are reactivated when sold to other countries, used as trainers for new pilots, as parts sources, and sometimes, sadly, as targets.

  11. The airplanes make a pretty sight on their own what’s with the HDR turning the scenes into some kind of video game screenshot? :-(

    As far as that “mean looking perimeter fence” is concerned…You can check streetview for that location…Some part of the fence is indeed elevated from the street but there are parts that are level with the road and you can easily watch inside…

  12. I read some of the comments before looking, and was expecting much worse HDR. I normally rally against it too, but here it wasn’t *that* distracting (except in a couple shots).

    I think a lot of the “worthless” stuff would be good for decorating your home or office.

  13. There’s an airfield outside the small airport in Ulyanovsk, Russia (also Lenin’s birthplace) which is half museum and half graveyard and very worth visiting if you’re into old planes.   One of the Soviet aircraft factories was located there.   I stumbled in when a flight from Ekatarinburg was diverted and delayed for half day because of the forest fires around Moscow.   A couple of bucks gets you in, a couple more got me into the cockpit of what was claimed to be Khruschev’s personal plane, the one he flew to the UN when he (apocryphally) banged his shoe on the table.    Too bad the camera with the pics was stolen few days later…

  14. Very cool. I’ve spent some time in airplane junkyards, including this one, and the USAF one at Davis Monthan, and two in Russia… and I think these pictures do a good job of capturing the atmosphere. As someone who works at an airplane manufacturing facility and who has some kind of understanding of the massive amount of human effort that goes into creating each of these machines and making them as perfect as we can… the sight of these beautiful creations chopped up and left in the desert has a special kind of sadness, like when a post-apocalyptic movie shows great artwork being burned for warmth. How can the product of some of the smartest minds and most precise manufacturing hands and modern factories on the planet, taking years to develop and weeks to build, with performance numbers that were pure fantasy just three generations ago, have no value any longer and just be dumped in the desert? :[

    (And in case anyone is curious, that picture of the Scaled Composites hangar shows both White Knight One [lower tail boom with red swirls] AND White Knight Two [taller tail that says “Virgin” on it]).

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