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.