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.

World War I Trenches in the Saint-Mihiel Salient

Not so well-known to the public as the ‘fort city’ of Verdun, the region between that town and the baroque city of Nancy, France, was theatre of fierce fighting in WWI. German troops poured in the area immediately in 1914, and the Fifth Army conquered the region while the advance of the Kaiser’s forces was in full swing almost everywhere between Belgium and the Alps. By the time the line of the front was consolidated at the end of 1914, a salient was established between the villages of Les Eparges and Pont-a-Mousson, extending about 12 miles to the west into French-controlled territory, reaching the small town of Saint-Mihiel. This anomaly in the shape of the front line would be hard to clear, and in spite of several brave actions by the French armed forces, it was to last in place until the closing months of WWI in 1918.

Coincidentally, the United States had started deploying their forces to help those of France, the British Commonwealth and their Allies on the German western front. The silencing of the Saint-Mihiel salient was part of the final assault to the German lines, leading quickly to the end of the conflict, and the first campaign the American Expeditionary Forces of General Pershing were in charge of. The attack was launched on September 12th, 1918 and lasted one week. It involved both ground artillery and troops and the US Army Air Service, and it turned out highly succesful, the salient being totally taken over.

Today the place represents a less-known, highly interesting field of exploration for war historians. This section of the front was the stage of a prototypical static war of attrition, lasting the full duration of the war. French and German trenches faced each other at a distance of a few yards, and they were consolidated and fortified to last for long. Today some of these trenches are still visible, and the region is pointed with memorials erected after the war, just like the theatre of the Somme and that around Ypres (Jeper), north of Verdun (see this post). The difference is the very much lower number of people visiting, which allows a more ‘concentrated’, less ‘touristic’ visit.

A distinctive sight in the region is the imposing memorial to the US forces, commemorating the succesful action against the German army in the salient, and those who died in the operation.

The following photographs were taken during a visit to the area in August 2016.

Getting there and moving around

The area of the former salient is extensive and located in a nice, relaxing countryside, making for a good destination for a bike tour. If you like to concentrate on war relics, I would suggest moving by car from site to site, accessing each site by foot – this was my choice. The war sites are all freely accessible with no restrictions, and none of them requires special physical ability for touring. The only danger to be noted is that of unexploded shells and explosives, which albeit remote is always real in this and all other former WWI theatres of operations. It will suffice avoiding touching any suspect item you may come across. Local explanatory panels and maps can be found in many of these sites, but directions for reaching them only appear very close to the sites themselves.

I listed the sites I’ve explored in this area on the map below. I spent more than half day exploring these sites. I approached from Toul and drove directly to Flirey, which I suggest adopting as a starting point. Then I moved westward via Montsec to Saint-Mihiel. Finally I left north, following the trench of the Calonne and the old service road reaching Verdun (see map).

Your exploration may take less or more than mine depending on your level of interest. There is not a great ‘hardware difference’ between the various trenches, so if you get bored after the first one don’t expect to regain interest from the others… If you – like me – have an interest in retracing the history of the salient and the attacks in its different sectors, then you will likely enjoy your stay in the region.

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Sights

Flirey – destroyed village

Most people know of the air bombing of Europe during WWII and of the destruction it caused to many cities on both sides. What is less known is that WWI brought a sometimes deeper and more complete destruction to villages and non-military buildings. Of course, differently from WWII, this was mainly the result of artillery shelling, and this happened only relatively close to the front, as a ‘side effect’ of firing against enemy troops. The village of Flirey ended up on the border between the invading German forces and the retreating French troops. When the line of the front was consolidated, the village was caught in a kind of ‘nobody’s land’, hence suffered the fate of many towns and villages in similar conditions, being rapidly reduced to ruins.

Today a small part of the planform of some of the original buildings is preserved in a dedicated small park. There you will find also informative panels about the history of the salient.

‘Sentier historique 1914-1918’ – historical walkway with preserved trenches

A local society of enthusiasts made a precious preservation work on a portion of the French and German trenches just a few minutes from northwest of Flirey, with the support of local institutions. Here you can walk in the original trenches, getting explanations from some panels placed along the trail. The German trenches are notable for the very advanced design with a serious use of concrete – making their trenches really durable and ‘fresh-looking’ even today.

In some points the French and German trenches are placed at a distance of a few yards from each other.

There is a map at the trailhead (see map above for the position of trailhead). I suggest taking a pic of it with your phone for moving around without difficulty.

Butte de Montsec – Memorial of the American Expeditionary Forces

The American Battle Monument Commission had this monument erected on top of  a hill, with a scenic view over Lac de Madine, a local lake, and the hills around it. This is an open air memorial, accessible all day. There is a local office offering explanatory leaflets, but it was closed when I passed by. Anyway, a placard with detailed explanations about the history of both the actions in the salient and the monument is placed at the base of the site. The memorial can be spotted also from quite far away, due to its size and location.

Bois brulé – German and French trenches

This is one of three sections of well-preserved trenches closer to the village of Saint Mihiel. Fighting in this area was particularly deadly on the French side from the first days of the war in September 1914 up to June 1915. A refurbished part of French trenches provides an idea of the harsh conditions soldiers had to withstand, especially if you go on a rainy day…

Also here the enemy trenches are located extremely close to each other. The ground is pocked with craters from artillery shelling.

Trench of the Bavarians and Roffignac

This site is next to the previous one, and you can walk from one to the other following the old trenches. A more heavily fortified section of the German trench lines can be seen here, with engraved German words over the entry to some underground deposits. This section of the trenches, despite being fairly well-kept, was very lonely when I visited, and I came across some wildlife.

‘Trench of the Thirsty’

This last portion of the trenches in the forest of Ailly (Bois d’Ailly) close to Saint Mihiel was the stage of a heroic battle in September 1914. Trying to gain a favorable position on top of the hills close to Saint Mihiel, in order to enable artillery shelling on the village, the French attacked the German trenches and occupied some of them. Later on, men of the 172th Infantry Regiment were caught in a trap and isolated by German troops, who had advanced to their sides into their former positions. The isolated French soldiers opposed a fierce resistance in very difficult conditions, having no food nor water supplies for three days, and fighting in very warm weather and in a smoky, suffocating atmosphere.