Looking at Bones

May 18, 2020  •  1 Comment

Over the past 15 years, I have spent many days with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. The facility is colloquially referred to as "the boneyard," a term I also use because it's recognized by most people, though boneyard is not a particularly apt descriptor of the function of the 309th AMARG. Most coverage of the boneyard shows off the fast movers — the fighters and bombers. I've photographed those also, but am often drawn, or hired, to photograph the less usual objects or scenes. I'll share a few of those photos and, of course, talk a bit about the photography. It's a bit of a behind-the-scenes tour that few people have, or could have, seen. Enjoy.

Helicopters don't get the kind of coverage the fixed-wing aircraft get, but I've shot the rotary-winged residents many times. The tan Cobra, above, had been there two years when, in 2006, I captured this image while shooting for an article in a trade magazine. The composition manages to emphasize the skeletal appearance of the protective coatings, shows there are more than one Cobra in storage — along with ranks of other aircraft, closer on the right, farther on the left — all in a desert environment. The sizes and positions of those various elements lead the eye through the composition, communicating a rich story without jumbling them up.

Purgatory is a better analog for the most visible elements of these 2,600 acres, the many thousands of aircraft* baking in the sun. However, these fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, cargo, and miscellaneous other, vehicles are most often not headed for the scrap heap, not rotting in a graveyard, but are being maintained at some level of readiness, pending a future need. That need might require a flyable aircraft, or it might be a spare part from one of these denizens of the desert, with "spare part" being anything from specialized hardware to hydraulics, avionics, or major structures. The Cobras were there in the role of parts donor.

This sad UH-34 Choctaw has been hanging around for quite a while, having arrived in 1973. It was one of at least three helicopters that served President Eisenhower as "Army One." It might yet be restored and displayed somewhere, but for now…

Notice how I positioned the camera below eye level for both this and the Cobra photo. It is often good compositional practice to not run the horizon across the middle of a photo, since that arrangement is usually less visually interesting, all things being equal. From below eye level, you aim the camera somewhat up at the subject, which puts the horizon lower in the image. In the Cobra photo, the low camera position also kept the distant aircraft from intruding as much on the subject. For the Choctaw, looking up from the low position imparts a grandeur to the subject, yielding what is called a "hero shot," which seemed appropriate for a former presidential transport.

Not every airframe gets such presidential treatment, though…

The preceding trio are a true rarity among photos from AMARG: destruction in action. These C-141 Starlifters were some of the last of their kind and we see, here, their final moments as recognizably Starlifters. The tracked Caterpillar is using its grapple to tear through a wing root of one, after which it dragged the disarticulated wing off to the side, then it chewed through another's fuselage, aft of the wing box — we see the empennage falling away — then, from the other side, chewed through forward of the wing box.

Witnessing the fuselage lifting a bit, then dropping, repeatedly, then rolling on its side, was oddly emotional to me. It honestly felt like watching a helpless animal being torn apart by a predator. I tried to capture some of that motion, most visible in the middle of the three images, by choosing a very slow shutter speed and, thus in that frame, recording the blur of the vertical and horizontal stabilizers as they fell.

The successor to the C-141 was the C-5 Galaxy, and that's what we see next.

This is the front office, the flight deck, of a Galaxy. They have subsequently applied opaque coatings over the windows, so you can no longer see both inside and out. The challenge in being able to see out is: the sun can come in. Thus, this image is a high dynamic range assemblage of five different photos, shot from the same spot (I think I had to jam my camera against the ceiling, since I wasn't equipped with a tripod), each shot made with different exposure settings to capture the full range of brightnesses.

Without this technique, the brightness levels are of such extreme difference, from direct sunlight on parts of the interior, to other areas in deep shade, no single shot from a camera can show everything clearly. (You can read more about the technique in a couple of earlier articles: Looking Inside HDR and Taming Dynamic Range. The latter explains the technique using yet another boneyard aircraft that is no longer available — the Boeing 747 that was outfitted to carry an ICBM-destroying laser. It was scrapped in 2014.)

At the other end of the C-5 is a passenger compartment with seating for 75 or so. The seats face the rear of the airplane, which is surely safer, though it must feel a bit odd compared to the forward-facing seats we're all used to. And don't think you can watch the world go by, albeit backwards, in flight — there are but two windows, one each in two emergency exits. The one in this photo is on the starboard side of the cabin, and that rope hanging on the right is how you are to make it to the ground which, I think, is 20+ feet below.

Behind that passenger compartment is the empennage of the massive aircraft, its interior visible through a pair of large circular panels on the back wall of the compartmnet. I've heard it told that the volume of this space, not used for anything but access to some of the mechanicals back there, is larger than the cargo compartment of the C-130 Hercules. I can't say that's true, but it is a fascinating sight nonetheless.

One of two Boeing YC-14 prototypes, this one stored with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona.

Speaking of the C-130, there's one in the above image, but I figured I'd feature a far more rare aircraft, a Boeing YC-14, both enjoying a rare meteorological event for this desert town — fog. Only two of these Boeings were built, and I've photographed them before, but I was quick to take advantage of the fog to make this, and many other, images. The weather was not what I expected, and it cleared up soon after this, but you know what they say: "When life gives you lemons, take photos of the lemons!" (Or something like that.)

On the opposite end of the rarity scale is the F-4 Phantom II, which readers of mine will know I have a fondness for; my father was a Phantom pilot in the Air Force. While the aircraft was made by the thousands, they left USAF service in 2016 and are nearing the end of their service with a few of our allies (this is May of 2020, so they might all be retired when you're reading this in the future). I covered the last USAF flights at Holloman AFB, but there was a less spectacular milestone at the boneyard a couple years before that, and we see it below.

This RF-4C, 68-0599, is getting its final preflight, then taxiing out, for its final flight before being converted to a QF model. It had been resurrected and would be flown elsewhere to receive the remote control radios and actuators to function as a target drone. 0599 was the last Phantom pulled from the boneyard for such service.

I'll admit the taxiing photo suffers by the nose of the F-4 visually running into that A-10, but by the time the Rhino (a nickname for the type) rolled past the Warthog (a nickname for that type), the crew were not looking my way. You do the best you can in a dynamic environment, right?

Indeed, it was as high-speed target drones that the last Phantoms flew for the Air Force. But if that ended in 2016, what aircraft model has the service been targeting and, if planned and succeeded, shooting down? The answer is: the QF-16 Fighting Falcon. Yep, they've been pulling older Vipers out of the boneyard so the Air Force can put them back in the sky to track, target, and terminate. Of course, this means AMARG has been busy.


wanted a wide shot of this hangar, which housed not only F-16 work but, as evidenced by seeing a bit of a Warthog on the left, some work on the A-10. (In the past, AMARG had completed a service life extension program (SLEP) on the A-10, but I don't recall what they were doing with them here; I was there for a QF-16 story.)

This is yet another high dynamic range photo, required due to the image encompassing both outside, fully sunlit, and interior elements that I wanted to show together. I also used a bit of the building's structure, forming this wide, sideways, "V" at the right, to frame the workspace, adding more visual energy and immediacy than if I'd positioned my camera outside the structure.

The opposite of that wide view, I suppose, would be this inside view of an F-16 engine compartment, sans engine. It's not a common sight, and it helps illustrate two aspects of the aircraft's design: the serpentine shape of the intake, seen at the front and, centered on the left and right edges, those gray blocks are the mounting points for the engine. Two steel pins, one on each side bolted into a gray block, form the bulk of the structural, mechanical, connection of the engine to the airframe. All of the thrust of that engine is transmitted through just those two points. Amazing.

I'll end with my most recent photo, from a series I shot for a trade magazine. I flew over the boneyard, back and forth, at 300 feet, capturing the expanse of the place and the variety of aircraft. I won't name all the models visible in this one shot, but they include Sea Knight, Sea Stallion, Galaxy, Lancer, Eagle, Stratotanker, Stratofortress, Tweet, Hercules, Hornet, and Phantom.

Most people are amazed at what they see here, and rightly so, but they should also be proud that we have the foresight and wherewithal to maintain this critical stockpile of materiel that can be flown out or picked apart to support not only our own armed forces, but those of our allies, too. Around half-a-billion (that's billion with a "b") dollars of aircraft and components are reclaimed and returned to service every year. No, this is definitely not a boneyard — it's a treasure house of some of our greatest machines.

Of course, I must give a large "thank you" to the folks at AMARG. I've been interfacing with, and been hosted by, some of the same people this entire 15 years. They've always been super cooperative and I hope to keep working with them in the future.

* While it was heavier-than-air craft that were originally placed on ice (hah!) in Tucson, with the addition of some ICBM-related hardware in the 1980s, the facility changed its name from Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center to Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, then later to Group. Despite those rocket parts plus, unless it has gone elsewhere, a Navy blimp's gondola, I'll just use "aircraft" to take in the entire sweep of their inventory.


Joe Cronley(non-registered)
You linked this page to a Quora comment I made - thanks for that. I grew up in an aviation family, and my father retired from Lockheed during the '90s "peace dividend" drawdown.

I haven't been to a boneyard - I know about Davis-Monthan and I have heard of a nearby civil aviation boneyard - as I live in Atlanta and don't spend much time out West. I've been to many aviation museums with different levels of preservation. There's a particular smell of an aging disused aircraft that is distinct but hard to identify. It's not entirely unpleasant, not foul, but certainly not an inviting fragrance. I think it's the deteriorating rubber and wire insulation, perhaps with residual jet fuel. Aircraft in use don't smell like that, only those parked and left alone. You may better know how to describe it.

That is the overwhelming sensation I get when looking at your photographs. That smell. It is evocative, and you have captured it.
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