Where airplanes go to die

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, has just led this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory took them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark sent us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Boneyard, Tucson, Arizona

Adjacent to the PIMA Aerospace Museum, outside Tucson Arizona, is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Here at any time, around 4000 planes, valued at an estimated $33 billion, wait to be sliced, shredded and recycled for parts, earning it the name The Boneyard. Visitors tour the site by bus and are greeted by the magnificent sight of a sea of tail fins, eviscerated engines and bisected fuselages stretching from horizon to horizon.

The planes here date from the Vietnam era or newer and many of them represent models still in active service, like the venerable C-130 Hercules transporter, which has seen around 60 years of duty. Most of the planes have seen surgery of some sort, either at the sharp end of the giant guillotine that slices them cleanly into sections, or have had specific components removed, their wounds covered in what look like white plastic bandages.

The lineup of aircraft at the Boneyard is always changing and depends on what’s being broken up on the site. As a fierce lightning storm crackled overhead, the Unknown Fields personnel carrier sailed past numerous aviation legends and curiosities. Highlights included the infamous Lockheed D-21 drone, launched from the top of a modified A-12 / SR-71 Blackbird and capable of flying at Mach 3 at 95,000 feet. The drone proved too powerful for its own good and was shelved after only a handful of missions, one of which proved fatal to the pilots launching it. Also on parade was the DC-10 seen above, modified by Raytheon to be a target for aircraft-mounted laser weapons; the colossal B-52 Stratofortress; several F-14s, being entirely destroyed, apparently so that parts can’t get into the hands of a certain unloved Islamic state; and an F-117 Stealth Fighter in full optical stealth mode and so invisible to the naked eye (yes, USAF humour at play there).

Elsewhere were rigs and jigs for the giant B-2 Stealth Bomber, once the pinnacle of aviation technology. These are left out in case new planes or parts need to be built, but we were told that they’ve been sitting there a long time now, so it may not be long before that mighty beast, or at least part of it, is laid to rest at the Boneyard– and that will be a sight worth traveling a very long way to see.


  1. I think DeLillo’s “Underworld” has a great scene about this place, or one like it in the Southwest – one of many great scenes in his book.  Wonder if it’s this place, or another like it.

  2. Throw “kolb and irvington, tuscon, az” into google maps and see this massive airplane graveyard in all its glory.

      1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCA0_bNXAao  A local band, Calexico, filmed this music video in Tucson and several segments were shot in the boneyard.
        Two years ago, on daily drives past the facility, we watched as a manganese blue and white “Air Somalia” plane was slowly taken apart.   We wondered how it ended up in Tucson and what service was like on that airline, long before the country was as troubled as it is today.

  3. The Pima Museum next door is where you can catch a tour bus which takes you all over the Boneyard site which is massive. Both are well worth a visit. But the operators don’t call it the Boneyard -that would be too familiar and disrespectful.  Instead they call it something like The Facility for Careful Dismantling and Storage of Really Nice Old Aircraft.

    1. I visited there about 5 years ago, and they were dismantling ICBMs in accordance with the nuclear disarmament treaties with the Russians.  Yay!

  4. It’s just part of the landscape here in Tucson, although I do take delight in flying over it when I get the chance. It’s a bit hard to see from the streets.  Nicely complements the nearby automobile graveyards.

    Some of the aircraft are sealed against the weather with that white plastic film, left in a state of suspended animation so that they may be returned to service if needed. They are parked in neat rows. There are others that are dismantled as needed to keep their brethren flying.

    The Google map pictures are rather awe-inspiring.

  5. NAON (nearly apropos of nothing), it continues to perplex me that my grandfather flew bodies home in three different wars (in C-130s during Vietnam), but remained warhawkish to his death. Impressive planes though. Their scale is cartoonish.

  6. A B-2 did a flyover above San Francisco last year.  Not just a level once-over, but a couple of nice banking laps of the bay.

    Now, I dig warplanes, but damn – that plane looks like a big, fat blood-filled tick in the sky.

    1. My father in law, who flew B-52s in Vietnam, picked up a B-52 steering wheel there. It hangs in his workshop to this day.

      He also flew one of the B-52s that’s parked at the Pima Air Museum.

      1. Awesome story! My B-52 is taking up my entire garage! I have got to get it up and running. Just kidding, it awesome that he has that…

  7. I actually tracked down this graveyard to check out after reading DeLillo’s “Underworld”.  I think there is a facility close to Los Angeles that is very much like the one at Tucson, so I am not sure which is the model.   Very cool place, and you were lucky to be there during a rainstorm.  It can get so brutally hot on that unshaded pavement.  An additional eye-opener were the AirForce Ones as collected. 

    1. Yes, there is a smaller scale “boneyard” in Mojave CA at the airport, which is near Edwards AFB. Mojave is also the location of many progressive aerospace startups, as well as Scaled Composites and the Mojave SpacePort. Grab a bite to eat at the aiport cafe, where you just might run into Burt Rutan while watching planes land 100m from your table. It’s a fun day trip for any plane-loving Los Angelenos, only about a 1.5-2 hour drive from N. Hollywood.

  8. Finding parts for my Iowa-class battleship is tough.

    But real men groove on warships. Wimps want wings like puny little tweety birds.

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