Aircraft and Missiles Around Tucson

The dry desert ranges of southern Arizona make for a perfect habitat for warbirds – the almost null humidity percentage and ‘sky clear’ conditions prevailing year round are particularly attractive when it comes to store rust and corrosion-prone pieces of machinery, like aircraft are.

For this reason the region between Phoenix and the border with Mexico is scattered with larger and smaller aircraft-centered businesses, going from pure airplane and engine storages, to refurbishment shops, parts resellers and so on.

Of course, if you own an old aircraft you would like to preserve, it would be a good deal finding a place in the area. This is what some people from the Government must have thought when they placed the famous AMARG in Tucson, in the southernmost part of Arizona. It was likely the same motivation which brought the largest private collection of aircraft in the world – Pima Air & Space Museum – down to the same location.

These two attractions, both perfectly accessible on a regular basis, already make a visit to Tucson a true ‘must’ for aviation-minded people. But the area offers also another unique site surely to be found in the shortlist of every aviation enthusiast – the only inter-continental ballistic missile silo you can visit in the US!

In this chapter you can see a series of photographs I took during a memorable two-days visit to these places back in 2012.

The 309th AMARG at Davis-Monthan AFB – Tucson, AZ

The acronym AMARG stands for ‘Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’, a group which is operating under the Air Force Materiel Command. The most conspicuous part of their facility at the Air Force Base of Davis-Monthan – also home to the 355th FW – is a huge open-air storage area in the desert. This is made of two parts.

The first is where surplus aircraft from the various branches of the Armed Forces of the US and some of their Allies are stored. Before being placed out on the desert, these aircraft are treated to better preserve them, sealing all doors, windows, holes and slots. Some parts are covered in a special white rubber coating, to protect them from direct sunlight exposure. The process can be inverted, and all aircraft preserved in these conditions can be re-activated and return fully operational.

The aircraft stored here in a mothballed condition are really many and make for an unbelievable sight! You will not find the same amount of planes in the same spot anywhere else in the world! And if you think this is just the ‘not strictly necessary part’ of the Armed Forces, well, it’s hard to imagine what the sight of all the aircraft on duty would be like!

In the same part of the installation there is also a kind of ‘commemoration alley’, where an exemplar for almost every model ever stored on the base have been preserved, so as to keep memory of the past activities of the AMARG. These aircraft are placed to the sides of a straight road in a mothballed condition.

The second main part of the AMARG is known as ‘the boneyard’, and it looks more like a huge scrapyard. Here aircraft which are not intended to ever return to active service are stored. Thanks to the good climate, their condition probably appears more derelict than it actually is. Most aircraft here are used as donors for spare parts to supply others still on duty. The business is not limited to within the national borders. At the time of my visit, there were still many General Dynamics F-111, which until recently had been used to supply spare parts to the Royal Australian Air Force, which had just finished to phase out that model from active service.

Geographically in the same area of ‘the boneyard’, it is possible to see also some larger aircraft on storage, up in size to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, plus some unique exemplars, like the incredible Boeing YAL-1, a modified 747-400 mounting an experimental laser cannon!

There are also some large missiles, and some mystery aircraft with civil markings, as well as a less attractive but really important asset – all the factory rigs necessary for re-booting the production of discontinued plane models.

Other items not on shortage here are jet engines. There are hundreds of them, some stored in dedicated cases, some just placed on a sand lot in open air.

The AMARG is very busy also with maintenance and conversion activities. At the time of my visit, they were working on the conversion of some McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom into target drones for weapons testing.

Leaving the installation you can spot close to the fence of the airbase – and besides a parking area for sequestered cars – a small deposit for aircraft. I don’t know much about it, but noticed a pretty good number of interesting items, especially a series of Grumman Albatross.

Visiting

This is an active military installation, and visiting is managed only by the Pima Air & Space Museum through a special agreement with the Air Force. The museum is located at a short distance from Davis-Monthan, just south of downtown Tucson. You will need to go to the museum reception to arrange a visit. Tours are offered on a regular basis, but it is not possible to book tickets, so you will need to go early to make sure you get your tickets. Full info from the website of the tour here.

The visit will take a couple of hours in total. You will board an air conditioned bus and you will tour the AMARG facilities without stepping off, which is nice as the temperature maybe crazy outside. The guide during my visit was a friendly former Super Sabre pilot and war veteran. Taking pictures was allowed at the time of my visit, except when military personnel were in the scope of your camera and in some specific spots your guide told us. A very enjoyable visit to a truly unique place! Totally recommended for aviation enthusiasts.

Pima Air & Space Museum – Tucson, AZ

Besides being the largest privately run collection of aircraft in the world, this museum has adopted a very interesting acquisition policy and also boasts an active restoration facility, making the place interesting not only for plenty of aircraft, but also for their variety and condition of preservation.

The museum is organized with some large hangars, close to the reception and gift shop, a huge open-air part and some smaller hangars scattered over the property.

The first hangars showcase some items from the collection which were restored to a very good non-flying condition. These include a very rare Martin PBM-5 Mariner, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, an A-10 Warthog, a F-14 Tomcat and a F-4 Phantom! Also a super rare North American F-107 is part of the collection. Already enough for a visit, these are just a starter…

On the outside you will find a representative for virtually any model ever in service with the USAF or the Navy since the Fifties, from fighters to bombers, transport and observation aircraft.

These include a B-47 Stratojet, two B-52 Stratofortress, a B-36 Peacemaker – it looks like a real monster even parked outside, where things look shorter! – and some special aircraft, like a ski-equipped C-130, a veteran of operation ‘Deep Freeze’ to Antarctica, a Super Guppy and the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker christianed “Weightless Wonder V”, used for parabolic zero-gravity flights.

In a somewhat secluded part of the open-air exhibition you will find a shortlist of extremely rare aircraft, including a Beechcraft 2000 Starship, a twin turboprop design by Burt Rutan with a canard configuration, made for the executive market, and a Budd RB-1 Conestoga, an aircraft proposed during WWII when an aluminium shortage was feared, and mainly made of steel! Both models never entered serial production. Nearby there is also a Boeing YC-14 prototype, which participated in a competition for a STOL aircraft to replace the C-130.

Other highlights on the outside include a Convair B-58 Hustler and a Douglas VC-118 Liftmaster – a version of the Douglas DC-6 propliner – serving as Air Force One transporting Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on some official travels. But the list of interesting aircraft here would be really long!

Some aircraft in the exhibition are pretty rare to find at least in this part of the world. These include a French Sud Aviation Caravelle passenger aircraft, several British aircraft including a Fairey Gannet, and also some Soviet models.

The restoration facility could not be toured during my visit, but on the outside I could spot a rare Avro Shackleton patrol aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm – an unexpected sight in the desert of Arizona!

Among the warbirds preserved in the smaller hangars, a B-17, B-24 and B-29 from WWII are surely worth mentioning. Another interesting sight is one of NASA’s X-15 rocket planes.

You can choose to tour the huge open-air exhibition with special covered trolleys departing at certain times instead of moving around alone. I elected to go on my own, but I experienced a certain level of dehydration – as it is typical in deserts, a combination of intense sunlight, hot air temperature and very low humidity triggers intense perspiration from your skin, but this goes unnoticed to you, for sweat evaporates fast and has not the time to accumulate to form droplets, so you don’t realize anything strange is happening… until your mind starts to feel light and your legs very heavy! Luckily, there is a restaurant offering cold drinks inside the museum – there I consumed the fastest ‘tall size’ of Coke in my life during my visit!

Visiting

The museum is open year round and almost every day. Check the website here for further info. The location is quite close to downtown Tucson, and can be easily reached by car.

To help your plans, if you are an aviation enthusiast consider that the combination of a visit to this museum and the AMARG facility described above will easily fill a 1-day schedule, for this collection is extra-large and also very interesting. This is especially true if you are interested in taking pictures – something you are encouraged to do by the clean, perfect light typical of desert areas.

I visited in August and the temperature was very high. You can bear it easily thanks to the low humidity rate, but be sure to take precautions to avoid dehydration. Visiting in other seasons may be indicated to enjoy milder climatic conditions.

Titan Missile Museum – Sahuarita, AZ

This museum encompasses a full Titan II missile launch facility. The Titan II was constituted by a liquid propelled, two-stages missile capable of reaching targets more than 6000 miles away, transporting a 9 megaton W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful ever deployed operationally by the US.

There were just above 50 such launch sites in the US, in southern Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas, and this is the only one which can be visited today. The operational life of the missile spanned from the early Sixties to the mid-Eighties. Even though it was soon superseded by the Minuteman missile fleet, the mighty Titan II remains a true icon of the Cold War era.

Being more than 100 ft tall and weighing around 350’000 lb, this missile could not be moved easily, and was in fact kept in a concrete interred silo specifically built around it. The cylinder-shaped silo is a relatively small part of the installation, which is composed also of a number of underground passages, control rooms, staircases, storages, safety doors, air ducts, cables and literally tons of equipment.

The whole site was designed to withstand the blast of a nuclear attack directed to the silo, itself a designated target for the enemy of the time – the Soviet Union. To this aim, a large part of the structures in the underground facility are standing on a complicated elastic base, with springs and dampers to compensate for intense vibrations coming from the ground in case of a nuclear attack.

During your visit to the museum you will receive a briefing about the history of the Titan II in a service house. You will be given a helmet before accessing the underground control part.

The most interesting stop in this area is by the control room of the missile, where the condition of all systems was constantly kept under control. It was from here that the missile could be armed and launched in case an attack was authorized. During the visit you are shown a simulation of the launch sequence. This is a very lively experience, for all control panels are lighted on as they used to be when the system was actually working!

After exploring a bit of the underground site, you reach the inside of the cylindrical silo, where a Titan II is still standing today. Here you can appreciate the monstrous size of this ICBM, and the complexity of the system – many pipes going in and out, cables and other systems.

In the final part of the visit you leave the underground facility and return to the ground level, where you can have a look at some pieces of machinery like dismounted rocket engines, pumps and other equipment connected with the function of the site.

All in all, this museum represents a unique destination for aviation enthusiasts as well as historians, veterans of the Cold War and everybody with a fascination for relics of the duel between the two Superpowers. Even if you are not an expert, you will be astonished by the size and complexity of this missile, so there is definitely something for everybody in this site!

Visiting

The Titan museum is located south of Sahuarita, less than 15 miles south of Tucson, AZ, along the I-19 going to the Mexican border.

The museum is actually a friend of the Pima Air & Space Museum, but it is a separated entity, so timetables are different. Visiting is possible only through guided tours, which are organized on a regular basis. Full information from their website. They also offer special-themed tours to usually inaccessible parts of the site. Taking pictures is possible anywhere, for the installation is today decommissioned and declassified.

Touring the underground facility may ba a little uncomfortable when moving in groups – the rooms where not intended for tourist groups! -, there are several flights of stairs and the terrain is sometimes uneven. That said, for the average person there is really nothing to worry about during the visit.

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