What words can possibly do this place justice?
It’s surely one of the most famous pieces of aviation real estate in the world. Its dusty, orange soil has had more aircraft types – and in greater numbers – in-situ than anywhere on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of classic designs, legendary types and mass-produced workhorses have ended their flying days here. We are talking an almost incomprehensible number of aircraft, making for an even less imaginable sight over the decades that have gone before.
But whilst hulks of once-proud war machines have ended their sky-scudding careers here, sat in endless rows along this Arizona wasteland, that’s not where the story ends. So much work is done here to keep the military machine alive and kicking, on the frontline, doing what it does best, thanks to the ingenious work of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) personnel. When an airplane lands here, the work has only just begun.
To give you more of an insight into exactly what happens when an aircraft lands at The Boneyard and the acceptance process and indeed how spare parts and other reusable elements are recycled, you’ll need to listen to Episode 77. Suffice to say that this plane-lover’s ‘Bucket List’ location is a vital cog in the warfighting wheel (and not just in America either, with many foreign military sales customers also involved).
I have been over to Davis-Monthan AFB, the host base of AMARG near Tucson, Arizona, a great number of times since the mid-1990s. I still remember approaching it for the first time, driving around the corner of Kolb Avenue and seeing all those tails. All. Those. Tails. It never gets old. Of course, the shape and size and type of tails will change pretty much every time you visit, as the American airpower fleets ebb and flow and technology moves on.
Some of the most noticeable changes I have photographed over the years are the THOUSANDS of F-4s in rows — the American Phantom’s last haunt in never-ending rows of historic jets and units (including the conversion to QF-4 drones, now QF-16s).
I’ve wandered the landmass of B-52s and stood beneath mighty Stratofortresses snapped and smashed into neat ‘BUFF’ chunks for Russian satellites to observe peace Treaty compliance. Luckily, I caught a few of the Cold War jets (literally just a handful), and I have been around long enough to have the weird sensation of having shot specific airframes in full-on afterburning action, and then to have placed my hands on their roasting hulks in the middle of this arid graveyard.
Another (bittersweet) gem was the sight of the US Navy’s final Tomcats – there’s been F-14s in and out of The Boneyard for years, but when the Fleet retired the formidable fighter and all of the last jets were here in once place, all wrapped up with nowhere to go, it was a surreal feeling of silent, sleeping airpower on the sunset on the Grumman design.
Of course, all of this pales into insignificance when compared to what this place must have been like after WW2, or the golden jet era of the 1950s and 1960s… the colourful units of the 1970s and 1980s. But, wow, you can still feel their ghosted histories, even now.
There are four corners to this galaxy of aviation. One is the US Air Force’s Davis-Monthan AFB with its operational assets of the 355th Wing and 55th Wing, plus other tenant units. Next, right in the middle of the facility is the arrivals de-militarising and processing ramp, with its adjacent QF-16 drone conversion facility. Then there’s the two main storage zones –one that sprawls from the centre and out to the west as the primary regeneration area with aircraft sealed from the elements and lying in wait and the other to the east, which is the airframe storage area… if there’s an aircraft on this side of the fence, its useful days are pretty much over with its carcass stripped of parts, and a major structure of the airframe broken up.
It’s actually this side, the point of no return, which heralds some of the best photographs from my point of view. It’s here where a jet’s broken back will protrude from the desert, guts and innards of fly-by-wire hanging out and dragged to the dust… and yet still they convey something of majesty, their past history still alive in the spirit of airpower that lives in the viewer’s imagination.
It’s a sobering sight, seeing jets you grew up with and shot in full power now sitting empty, broken and fading. But man, the artistic photography is through the roof – almost bestowing a brand a new lease of life and emotion onto the airframe.
Unfortunately, walking around AMARG is nigh on impossible nowadays. Command structure changes, PA changes, security changes and risk advances (and snakes!) have all combined to severely limit access.
Another chapter in the tale of The Boneyard is the world class Pima Air & Space Museum (PASM). To me, this is absolutely one of the best museums anywhere in the world. Even without a camera (in fact, I recommend doing it with AND without), it’s a seriously cool place to hang out and inhale aviation. It has enjoyed a special relationship with AMARG for decades and its collection is testimony to the machines that have either landed in The Boneyard and been selected for preservation or the museum itself has sourced and restored the airframe. It is a total ‘must shoot – but make sure you spend a good amount of time there (the morning light and the afternoon light make for two totally different shoots here). Combined with AMARG and the sheer amount of aviation in the region, it has to be one of my favourite neighbourhoods in the world!
Unfortunately, real world events and structural changes have rendered the possibility of museum-led bus yours of AMARG a thing of the past. They never returned after COVID and are, as of 2023, "never to return".
This is a great shame, it was awesome. Event though the bus windows were heavily tinted, the road bumpy and often too fast to shoot out the windows(!), it was so good. As such, it's worth a nostalgic recap.
The tours would last a couple of hours in total. You'd board at the museum itself and head straight into a stringent security check at the Davis-Monthan AFB main gate. You'd then pass through the base (strictly no photography) and then enter what is called ‘Celebrity Row’. Here's were some of the one-off designs or significant types are lined up in a row, purely for visitors. You'd drive along the entire dusty road and could shoot either side if you have a co-operative passenger opposite you and do it carefully! The tour guide was full of the facts and figures about each of the types on show. You'd then pass by all of the other main storage areas, with two chances in some areas to shoot as you drove in one way and out the other.
It was a great experience but not without its photographic challenges. Primarily, you were in a coach with tinted windows… This would require you to boost your exposure by around +1 stop, and to shoot RAW to allow for the best chance of colour/tint adjustments (they come out quite flat and green). You would also need to shoot fast! I’m sure it was just me, but the drivers always seemed to go slow passed some pretty standard types, and then speed up by some of the more juicy stuff! And it’s bumpy…! You couldn't use a lens longer than about 150mm due to the thickness of the coach’s glass. Finally, reflections. You had to wear black, cover your sleeves, and use a rubber lens hood or similar to avoid them – they really were a pain.
People do scoff that you cannot get off during a tour, the windows are tinted, hard to shoot, reflections, ‘it’s only a bus tour’… but honestly, you could get some really, really good shots from it, but you had to work at it (like everything else, right?!), and it certainly gave a great insight into the enormity of the site. It is missed.
Finally, I cannot recommend enough booking an overflight of AMARG. This too has suffered from the recent security and structure changes. There’s a couple of specialist companies based at Tucson that operate the service. I use Double Eagle. You are required to submit your passport and it needs a full security clearance before anything can be entertained. And it's not over yet.
Double Eagle has a fleet of Cessnas and you can put three people in them at a time to share the cost (a couple of hundred bucks in total). For a photo flight (hey, you don’t always need to take your camera to appreciate this place!), I’d recommend two people – one in the front and one in the back (the latter so you can shoot both sides). Use as much zoom flexibility as you can! I use a 28-300mm and an 80-400mm when I fly with them… You simply have to have a wide angle to convey the vast landscape and the massive storage lots, but do zoom into specific areas to highlight a row of aircraft or to play with the lines of aircraft. You can go out to a couple of hundred millimetres with ease. Then, on a second body because you can’t change lenses up there, you can use a longer telephoto to zoom into specific aircraft (such as the B-52s in their broken shapes). It’s epic, but again hard work.
The Cessnas have good glass, but the windows open and you can shoot through – they stay open in the airflow. It is bumpy! There’s a lot of hot air around and you are at pretty low level, so take any meds and precautions! One of the main things to bear in mind however is the lack of certainty over what kind of fly-over access the US Air Force is going to give you to fly overs its base, or even happen in the first place.
But... This is an active, military installation… Air Traffic Control can refuse any overflights, no matter the time or day of the week, without notice. Your best bet is always very early (sunrise!) at the weekend, or sunset of course. The shadows at this time of day are really quite something to behold. So artistic. But don’t be put-off by any overcast or dull weather (not that there’s a lot in Arizona, but it does happen!). The flat lighting means you get a totally new, different perspective on the area, and every time you do it you will get something different – not only because you see something new, but also the ATC controllers will often clear you to different heights (usually around 3000ft AGL). One other bonus is that, way up to the north, you can also fly over a commercial aircraft graveyard. It costs more due to the extended flying time, but to shoot rows of withdrawn Boeing 747s is definitely worth it.
So yes, whether you visit to take images of historic machines in bygone markings, to wonder in awe of the magic of the place, to shoot artistic images of faded glory, The Boneyard and everything around it will never disappoint.