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.

The Aerospace Valley

Among the most intriguing places for aviation enthusiasts, the ‘Aerospace Valley’ is the name attributed to the flat desert area extending North of the town of Palmdale, which can be reached with an about 70 miles drive north of central LA along N.14.

This large desert basin, which extends further north to Mojave, some 35 miles from Palmdale on N.14, encompasses two installations of major relevance for the history of aeronautics and for todays air power research, namely Edwards AFB and the close-related Plant 42.

The former has been developed for decades basically with aircraft testing in mind, and is located on the dry Rogers Lake. Today it is still an active AFB, home of the 412th Test Wing and other units. It is also operating a NASA research center named after the first ever moon-walker Niels Armstrong. The installation has more than ten runways, some of them paved in sand. Visiting is obviously prohibited – there used to be planned visits, but this appears to be not any more the case today. This site is really huge, and would offer many interesting sights to the enthusiast, including some relics from the past abandoned in the desert far from the main buildings of the base – some buildings and runway have moved over time for convenience and trying to cope with the natural movements of the desert sand, altering the slope and shape of the dry lake basin.

Obviously, the base is constantly guarded, so you may come close to it but you cannot really get close to what is in it without an authorization. In any case, I found exciting just being around where the sound barrier was passed by Chuck Yeager in 1947, and if you like deserts of the westernmost part of the country, touring this area would be interesting just for the natural setting – and even more if you are an aeronautic-minded person.

Plant 42 is actually not a totally separated entity from Edwards AFB. It is a unique installation, where some of the most iconic aircraft factories in the history of US military airpower – Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ division and Northrop-Grumman – have some of their production and assembly hangars. These are all around the same airport, which is not an airbase – in the sense it’s not home to any units of the USAF – but is nonetheless owned by the Government and leased to the companies operating on it. Today Plant 42 is configured to supply and support test aircraft operated at Edwards AFB.

There is also the NASA Dryden research center installed on the premises of this airport, which is physically located on Plant 42 but is nonetheless administrated by Edwards AFB.

Even though Lockheed moved its Skunk Works division here only after the assembly of all exemplars of the SR-71 well in the Eighties, it was here that during the last decade of the Cold War the Blackbird fleet underwent maintenance. Also the reactivation of the U-2 production line with the TR-1 in the years of the Reagan administration implied production of new aircraft was carried out here.

Other most notable items produced here include the Space Shuttle orbiters – the hangar for their assembly is still standing and can be clearly spotted. Northrop produced here the world-famous F-5, before merging with Grumman. Today Northrop-Grumman, Lockheed and Boeing have active support lines here.

As you see, the area has been a focal point for aeronautics since long, fully justifying the name of ‘Aerospace Valley’.

But it’s not over. There are more sights of the kind around. Mojave has been for long a place for storing aircraft of all sorts and size – a properly sized airport, capable of operating a Boeing 747, obviously being a promptly answered necessity for companies in that business – taking advantage of the dry climate of the Californian desert. Literally tens of large liners of all sorts can be found parked waiting for reactivation, resale or scrap on the apron of Mojave airport. In more recent years, the place has grown to higher fame for being used as a base for space tourism operations. Consequently, the airport has been proudly renamed ‘Mojave Space Port’.

The following photographs from these and other sites in the Aerospace Valley have been taken during a visit in summer 2014.

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Aerospace Valley – View and Hangars

There is a panorama point with a placard approaching Palmdale from N.14. From there you can see Palmdale and reach beyond to Plant 42.

Among the hangars scattered around the area of the airport in Plant 42, it is possible to see the Boeing facilities, with new Boeing liners around. One of Boeing’s hangars has an asymmetric roof. This is where all Space Shuttles were built, the higher part of the roof made to fit the tall tail of the orbiter. The name ‘Northrop-Grumman’ can be seen standing above the airside door of probably the largest hangar of all. Both Boeing and Northrop-Grumman occupy the northern part of the airport.

The emblem of the ‘Skunk Works’ can be spotted on the Lockheed-Martin hangar to the south-west of the complex. Further East the NASA Dryden facilities occupy the south-eastern part of Plant 42.

Skunk Works

In front of the gate of Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ on Plant 42, at the end of 15th St. E in Palmdale, it’s possible to reach a small park with an F-16A and an F-104N, both Lockheed designs. These exemplars were used for testing by NASA Dryden research center, and are actually on loan from NASA Dryden. The F-16A is the only civil registered aircraft of the type, where the F-104N, one out of three specifically designed for NASA for pilot’s proficiency and for use as chase aircraft, logged more than 4000 hours flying for NASA.

Note: I involuntarily triggered a security inspection having ventured by car on the road running along the Lockheed hangar nearby the gate – the road is called Lockheed way. This is probably because the road is private property of Lockheed – even though it runs along the outer side of the fence. I was spotted and reached by pickups of Lockheed security – nothing bad, but better avoiding this if you can. The hangar with the Skunk Works emblem can be photographed from a little further, near the railway track to the west of the airport.

NASA Dryden

Two sights attracted my attention on the apron of Plant 42. Both could be clearly spotted from 40th St. E in Palmdale, running along the eastern side of the plant. Placidly parked on the apron where NASA Douglas DC-8 – as far as I know the only one still operated by NASA, which is using it for satellite testing, new sensor testing, space vehicle telemetry and atmospheric studies – and the massive Space Shuttle Carrier N911NA. Today the latter is on permanent display in Palmdale, the photos were taken before it was prepared for display. This is one of only two Boeing 747 converted for transporting the orbiter, the other (N905NA) being in Houston.

The DC-8 is being operated by NASA Armstrong research center, from the ‘neighbor’ airbase of Edwards, but I found it at NASA Dryden.

Note: photographs of what is on the apron of Plant 42 from the distance are virtually impossible during the day due to excessive thermal turbulence close to the ground. Consider going near sunset for avoiding such annoying effect.

Blackbird Airpark

This spectacular exhibition can be easily reached driving on E Ave. P, to the South of Plant 42, Palmdale (website here). It can be clearly spotted from the road. The most peculiar display is to the front of the small museum building, and is composed of three Lockheed ‘black’ aircraft, namely an A-12, an SR-71 and a U-2. Also there are a D-21, a ramjet propelled drone mounted on a modified A-12, the engines of both the A-12 and SR-71 and of the U-2, and two different spooling mechanisms for starting up the engines of the A-12 and SR-71.

This is the only place on Earth where an A-12 and a SR-71 can be spotted together.

Close to the door of the museum building there are models of the A-12, probably built for wind tunnel testing. Inside the building, first and foremost you can find some air conditioning… there are also artifacts, videos and a nice shop with books and items about Plant 42 and the three ‘black’ aircraft outside. I personally met Bill Flanagan, who collaborates in managing the airpark on a regular basis, and is a former RSO on the SR-71 – he was very nice and told me many interesting stories about the aircraft outside on the apron. Some of the vids you can see there (they are also selling a DVD) were shot by Mr. Flanagan on duty.

Many other aircraft can be found on the Joe Davis Heritage Airpark, accessible to the back of the small museum building.