Airplane boneyard in the Mojave desert
This is where planes go when they die. Vast hulks of metal that cost millions to build, now grounded in obsolescence, taken out to the boneyard to be shot in the head like Old Yeller. Their long neat lines look a lot like the white tombs of fallen soldiers at Arlington cemetery, seemingly endless in number, waiting for the day they will be hacked open like sheet-metal pinatas to get at the valuable guts within.
Fallen soldiers at a final roll call in the boneyard.
The boneyard is just one part of the Mojave Air and Space Port, the same facility from which Richard Branson’s Space Ship One was launched into space. The boneyard is simply rental space provided for airlines that no longer have an immediate need for their planes. It’s a giant storage bay, though one not all planes return from- some sit there for years in the baking heat, slowly roasting like foil-wrapped potatoes.
Some planes are used as fodder and a source of spare parts, engineers dipping in and out of their empty hulls to prize free delicate avionics equipment, engine parts, even whole rotundas of fuselage. Some meet their fate at the hands of giant machines which tear them to bits to expose their cabling, ducting, and inner wall electronics for cannibalization.
This post is in large part fuelled by an excellent article by Ransom Riggs of mentalfloss. All the HDR photos of the boneyard interior belong to him. In his article he describes first spotting the planes lined up in the desert, their insignia painted over, their doors and engines coated over with white plaster masks, and wondering he was looking at a mirage.
After 9/11 the whole facility was clamped down though, and access seemed impossible. After years of inquiries and hoping though he finally met a guy who worked in the airport, and took him inside the boneyard for a tour.
Wrapped in gauze and ready for the pyre.
The Mojave desert is an ideal place to retire planes as it ‘has a dry, clear and virtually smog-free climate that helps minimize corrosion. It has an alkaline soil so firm that airplanes can be towed and parked on the surface without sinking.’
Only tyres for a nose-cone, beyond the veil.
Jet engine without a jet.
Tail suspended on rail spars.
A gutted cockpit.
The process of putting these planes out to pasture is called ‘mothballing’, and is not simply a matter of pulling up to a vacant lot and turning off the engine. ‘Planes that are to be mothballed, if only temporarily, go through a meticulous process to prepare them for exposure to the desert environment. On arrival, the planes are inspected. Fuel tanks are filled with heavy oil, which provides a protective coating for engine parts. Canopies, engine intakes and other openings are sealed with layers of “Spraylat,” a latex-based, permanently flexible substance that is easy to remove.
The gutting yard, from Scott Haefner.
Like a game of Axis and Allies.
The top layer of ‘Spraylat,’ which is white, reflects enough solar heat to keep a plane’s interior at nearly the same temperature as the outside air. Without Spraylat, the interior could quickly heat up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit during hot summer days. The coatings protect the plane’s most vulnerable parts against sun, wind, dust and nesting animals. Every four years, the planes are brought into an open hangar for a checkup.
Greened in their individual patches, from Getty Images.
Most of the airplanes that sit in desert graveyards today date from the Vietnam era or later. They are divided into four categories, depending on their future prospects.
- Category 1000 planes are preserved with an eye toward possibly flying again, should international political conditions warrant.
- Category 2000 planes are maintained for spare parts. Some parts from older aircraft, are available nowhere else.
- Category 3000 planes are kept in near ready-to-fly condition, awaiting a more-than-likely new deployment.
- Category 4000 planes are destined for “static display” in museums, town squares or Air Force base entrances. Most, however, will be sold as scrap metal, eventually finding new life as razor blades, soft drink cans or car fenders.’
This text from desertusa.com.
Distinctive Troy Paiva night shot of a smashed fuselage (prepped for a movie).
Super slow night shot by Joe Reifer.
Tip-off credit for this post goes to David Meyer, who sent a link to an article about a Pan-Am fan who goes to the Mojave boneyard looking for vintage Pan-Am parts to outfit his replica Golden Years Pan-Am cabin in his garage. That was on the post about the South Korean couple who spent all their cash buying the world’s first commercial 747 to use as a restaurant. Cheers David!
See a curation of curious world ruins here.
See all my ‘haikyo/ruin’ explores in Japan here:
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Read my stories inspired by ruin here.
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