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Davis-Monthan AFB; aka the 'Boneyard'!

Under a hot desert sun...By Alistair Maclean

Dreams are made of this.

For as long as I can remember 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. When the chance came a few years ago to visit Tucson, Arizona (and my wife let me out of her sight to find the facility) I was finally able to see this modern marvel. Since that first visit I have been back twice more, each time taking in more of the changing scenery. The most recent visit took place at the end of November 1999.

The Davis-Monthan airbase sits just inside the city limits of the quiet southern Arizona city of Tucson. You will quickly bump into the air base fences whenever you head south through the city. The only good road to cross through the base from the city is Kolb Road, which conveniently connects with Valencia, the road that runs by both the Airport and the Pima Air & Space museum. From the Santa Catalina mountains in the north, the base is a vast tan coloured space in the centre of the urban expanse of Tucson, but from ground level you see only a small percentage of the base and its content.

For many years the US Air Force ran tours of the base and the AMARC, née "Boneyard", so on the most recent visit I looked up the Air Base phone number and called to book my place. After being redirected twice I finally found myself speaking to a woman at the Pima Air & Space Museum (PASM) (Tel. 520 618-4806), who booked me onto one of the new base tours. The new schedule is much easier to handle and fit in to a trip: Monday to Friday (Except US Federal Holidays) with five tours each day. The PASM web site has all the details of the tours, including the costs.

The Air Force calls the desert facility "Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center" (AMARC), the rest of us call it "The Boneyard." We are probably both right: this place serves a special purpose to US Forces keeping many types flying long after production ceases, however, many of the aircraft also have all the hallmarks of being skeletal.

View from the fence

There are several roads that have views of the "Boneyard," three good ones are: Kolb Road (dangerous but possible); Escalante and Irvington. There are other roads around the base that offer views of the private scrap yards, which in themselves can be quite interesting. A tall wire fence separates the base from the riff-raff aircraft enthusiasts, but is easy to see through and in places look over: rental cars are useful camera platforms. Escalante & Kolb front a part of the facility that seems to be home to the most recent entrants. The area you can see is in the order of two-thirds ofa mile square, and is temporary home to some 500 - 800 aircraft at any given time. This part of the base is quite active, in geological terms, as aircraft move in-and-out of here in short order. Currently the area is home to A-10s, F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, P-3s C-130s and more F-4s than you can shake a stick at.

The view from Irvington is quite different. This borders a part of the facility that is home to guests that will not be leaving on their own wings. Many types adorn the land. Most aircraft are propped up on concrete stands, there to allow the aircraft to be raided for parts. There seems to be little order to the scene, I saw RB-57s mixed with F-111s and F-15s, all mixed in with P-3s and KC-135s. You will not bore of picking out rare and unusual aircraft. Bring good binoculars!

A bus ride in the sun

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 (see Microsoft Terraserver, to view the US Geological Survey's images on the subject); or by Bus from the PASM. While wealthier than some, I cannot afford an F-15 nor a KH-12 Spy Satellite, so I mixed it with twenty-four other fanatics and rode the bus.

The trip brings you into the AMARC facility by the back door, off Kolb Road. We were driven passed a line of example aircraft, a line-up showing the most common aircraft at the facility and a few unique items (like a D-21 drone for an SR-71/A-12 and Century series fighters). The tour then wandered through a mile or more of assorted fighters (mostly A-10s, F-16s and F-4s) and P-3s. A couple of German Airforce Tornados were also amid the throng to give an international flavour to the scenery. We stopped a short distance from one of the Maintenance sheds. The shed was interesting for only one thing: six EF-111 Ravens. It is now just after the Kosovo crisis and the publishing of various reports on how little EW support US and NATO forces had over Yugoslavia, and here at the AMARC they are dusting off the Ravens. Coincidence?

The bus recommenced its travels, passing a cleaning shed where a number of F-4s were being showered before going on to become missile fodder as target drones. We re-passed the entrance, and proceeded across the Kolb Road bridge and into the largest part of the site. Lines of Boeing 707s, most tail-less, disappeared over a low ridge on the right of the bus's path. To the left were many aircraft, most in advanced stages of cannibalisation. A row of RB-57s here, a line of T-38s there, dozens of F-111s; Navy patrol aircraft, including Hawkeyes, F-14s, an A-6, even a line of F-106s. A massive line-up of UH-1s, kept here because their sale might precipitate a collapse in the civil helicopter industry, drab green examples from the Vietnam era forming a dark line over the same ridge the 707s are trying to hide behind. Then 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. 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.

 

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