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.

Aircraft Carriers of the West Coast

Among the countless interesting places and sights the States of the West Coast have to offer, even aircraft carriers need to be mentioned. There are three ‘capital sites’ that will surely appeal to war veterans, pilots, seamen, historians, technicians, children and everybody with an interest for ‘CVs’ – an acronym for ‘carrier vessels’. Two are super-museums in California, where the USS Hornet and USS Midway are permanently preserved and open to the public, and a third is the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, which is an active installation of the US Navy in the premises of the Naval Base Kitsap, where maintenance work is carried out on the current CV-fleet, and where part of the reserve fleet – including most notably some aircraft carriers – is moored.

Here you can find some photos of these sites from visits of mine in 2012 and 2014.

USS Hornet (CV-12) – Alameda, CA

This ship is an Essex-class carrier commissioned in late 1943. Since then, she saw extensive action throughout WWII in the Pacific theatre, being involved in frontline operations leading to the defeat of Japan. As a matter of fact, aircraft from this ship totalled a number of downed aircraft ranking second in the general list of aircraft carriers of the world, behind USS Essex – which enjoyed a full year of service more than Hornet during the war with Japan.

The original appearance of the ship was much different from today’s, first and foremost due to the straight-deck construction of the Essex-class – just like all other carriers until the Fifties. For Hornet the current shape of the deck is the result of SCB-125 modification in 1956, introducing an angled landing deck. This feature, which came along with other major changes to the overall structure also resulting in a significant weight increase, allowed independent take-off and landing operations. Differently from other ships of the class, Hornet wasn’t upgraded in the late-fifties with steam-powered catapults, retaining hydraulically powered ones instead, thus being incapable of launching heavier aircraft like the Phantom, Intruder, Vigilante, or even the Hawkeye. It was then assigned to a support role as an ASW carrier, equipped with Tracker aircraft and helicopters for anti-submarine missions.

In the late Sixties Hornet was involved in the race to the Moon, serving as a rescue platform for the first moonwalkers returning from the succesful Apollo 11 mission, and subsequently in the same role for the astronauts of Apollo 12.

Similarly to all other Essex-class vessels – with the exception of the venerable USS Lexington, operated as a training ship until late 1991! – it saw limited action in the Vietnam War, when much larger and more suited carriers had become available for war operations, and it was retired in the early Seventies.

During your visit you are basically free to move all around the many well-preserved areas under the flight deck.

There you can see the striking proportions of this relatively ‘small’ carrier. The mechanism of the central elevator can be seen to the bow of the ship. An impressive table with the number of targets hit recalls the primary role this ship had in WWII.

On the main aircraft storage level there are some preserved aircraft, not all from the history of this unit. Among the many interesting features in this area, a replica of the helicopter which took the astronauts of Apollo 11 on board. This very helicopter was used in Ron Howard’s movie ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks. Also the mobile quarantine facility for the astronauts can be found here. Neil Armstrong’s very footsteps from the helicopter to the quarantine facility are marked with white paint.

Moving back to the stern of the ship it is possible to visit a very interesting technical area for aircraft maintenance and servicing, as well as for mission preparation. It reminds the primary role of aircraft carriers as a frontline-deployed, moving airbases, with everything that is necessary for operating the aircraft onboard on a regular basis for offensive missions. A hatch leading to the compartments on the lower levels has been left open, and this allows to appreciate the actual size of the ship, really huge, with multiple storage levels for aircraft spare parts and ordnance.

Also very interesting are the big fireproof sliding doors for cutting the aircraft storage deck into compartments in the event of fire – possibly due to some ordnance piercing the deck of the ship, as well as to accidental causes.

Further interesting sights in the self-guided part of the visit include the operational briefing room, some service rooms, dormitories and a large area for the anchor moving mechanisms.

A second part of the tour is guided. You move around is small groups and you access the flight deck and the ‘island’, the command and control center of all operations – deck management, flight mission control, and ship control & navigation. The guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic veterans, able to tell you detailed explanations of what you see as well as anecdotes from the history of the ship.

The Presidential Seal has been placed where president Nixon was standing to oversee the recovery of the moonwalkers from Apollo 11.

This part of the visit will be extremely interesting for more technically minded subjects – you will see original wind signals for landing aircraft, an original LORAN navigation device for sea navigation, the normal and emergency arresting systems, the Fresnel optical landing aid system, and tons of other extremely interesting items which were actually used in real operations.

From the stern of the ship and the flight deck it is possible to take fantastic pictures of downtown SFO.

Extra Feature – Treasure Island Pan Am Terminal

A little ‘extra’ you can find on your way if you are travelling from San Francisco via the SFO-Oakland Bay Bridge to the site fo the USS Hornet is Treasure Island. This artificial island was taken out of the water at the end of the Thirties for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Coincidentally, Pan Am, which had recently inaugurated its trans-Pacific ‘Clipper’ air service with the huge Boeing 314 seaplane, built a facility on the island, with a passenger terminal and service hangars for maintenance. Operation of the Clipper were moved here for good, and the aircraft took off and alighted on water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, the smaller natural island to the south – the cove is today called Clipper Cove. Later on the service was relocated to Alameda as the island was taken over by the military.

Unlike most of the buildings dating from the exhibition, wiped out soon after it, the terminal survived and it is a proportionate, nice example of the airport building style of the late Thirties.

Also the foundations of some of the original passenger pier, as well as concrete slides for seaplane operations on the shore of Clipper Bay, can be seen still today. The Pan Am terminal building was used to simulate the terminal at Berlin Tempelhof in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Treasure Island is also a good place for taking pictures of downtown SFO, as well as the most famous items on the bay – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting There

The ship is permanently anchored by one of the piers close to the former Alameda NAS, on the southern side of the island of Alameda. It can be reached very conveniently and quickly from downtown San Francisco via the Oakland bridge (I-80), and from Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and all districts on the eastern side of the bay. Full explanation and info on their website. Treasure Island is located roughly mid-way along the Oakland Bridge. Visiting the Pan Am terminal is a quick detour from the interstate. Large parking nearby both sites.

USS Midway (CV-41) – San Diego, CA

This is the first and the only remaining of the three Midway-class ‘super carriers’ – which included USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea. The origin of the class dates back to WWII, when it was decided that larger, armored, metal decks were to replace the vulnerable wooden decks of the Essex-class carriers. USS Midway was commissioned in September 1945, immediately after VJ-Day, with a straight deck, albeit steel-made. The steel construction was considered a relevant asset for jet aircraft operations, and all three carriers were kept in active service following the progressive transition to the new type of aircraft propulsion, with only minor modifications needed to the flight deck.

USS Midway was involved in the early stages of US missile experimentation, with the first tests of sea launched V-2 rocket clones, originating from the German design, and Regulus I air-breathing cruise missile.

The current shape of USS Midway is the result of subsequent major modifications. Program SCB-110 in the late Fifties added the angled deck to enhance simultaneous launch and recovery operations and flexible flight deck operations. Also the curved ‘hurricane-proof’ bow was added, together with steam-powered catapults.

In 1966 this ship was the only of the three of her class to receive the very expensive SCB-101.66 modification, resulting in a lengthening of the flight deck, the adoption of more powerful steam catapults and a new arrangement of the higher-load elevators. All three ships were on active duty in Vietnam, USS Midway apparently launching the first and last US air attacks of the war.

Even though USS Midway – the largest and best equipped of the three – could not operate the Tomcat, it could take four squadrons of Hornets, thus remaining effective in frontline service well into the Gulf War in the early Nineties, the last major operation in which she was involved before retirement and re-opening as a permanent exhibition – notably among the most popular in San Diego alongside the zoo.

Similarly to the USS Hornet described above, the tour of the Midway starts with a self-guided exploration of the aircraft storage deck and of the air deck. Among the tons of interesting sights here, to the bow you can find under the air deck the steam reservoir for the catapults and the system for moving the anchors.

Further back the main hangar for storing the aircraft is really huge. You can get an impression of the size of the ship by looking at the lower storage levels, where jet engines and air-launched ordnance are still visible.

With respect to the USS Hornet the exhibition is somewhat more ‘lively’, also with some reconstructed scenes, notice-boards, prepared dinner tables and so on. On the cons side, the place can get really crowded.

You can explore the crew areas, with dormitories, kitchens, canteens, medical services – including a fully equipped surgery compartment.

Most interesting is the propulsion system. Midway-class ships, as well as the later Forrestal-class, were all conventionally powered – non nuclear. Oil was supplied to burners, heating water and generating steam. By supplying steam to turbines mechanical power was obtained and transferred to the propeller shafts. This involved monstrous reduction gears. You can see the control room of this very complex system as well as burners, turbines gearboxes and propeller shafts, all explained with technical schemes – this will be extremely interesting for technically minded people. Close by, the similarly important air conditioning and ventilation system – an ancillary system at a first glance, it is absolutely necessary for all computers and electronics.

Other interesting sights are the briefing rooms for both flying and non-flying personnel, the chapel, and the inertial navigation system – buried close to the buoyancy center of the ship to reduce the influence of oscillations.

On the deck there is a collection of aircraft, most of them from the operational history of this unit. Also visible is the Fresnel optical landing aid.

Similarly to the USS Hornet, you can join a guided tour for a visit to the ‘island’. This is much roomier than that of the older Essex-class ship. You are provided clear explanations by very competent guides as you tour the navigation room, flight control and ship control areas.

From the deck you are offered a view of North Island NAS. Until she left for her new home port in Yokosuka, Japan, you could often see here USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), a nuclear powered, Nimitz-class carrier commissioned in the 2003 and home based in San Diego at the time of my visit.

Other Nimitz-class carriers are currently based here.

Getting There

The USS Midway museum is among the best known museums in Southern California, and it’s really hard to miss it due to the prominent place on the waterfront next to downtown San Diego. Large parking on the pier nearby. For planning your visit have a look to their website.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Naval Base Kitsap – Bremerton, WA

The Naval Base Kitsap with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard are major installations of the Navy. The Shipyard dates from before WWI, and albeit a small museum on the topic exists close to the ‘civil’ port of Bremerton, clearly the installation is not possible to visit, for it is surrounded by the base. Luckily, the Shipyard is neither much hidden nor far from the street running along the waterfront, and the size of aircraft carriers makes them rather difficult to deceive… This leaves the opportunity to take a look at what is moored here by simply moving around a bit in the hilly area of Bremerton until you find a suitable spot for taking pictures. You can also walk to the waterfront, and find some isolated spots from where you can take some impressive shots without even coming close to violating the perimeter of the base.

Some pictures can be taken from the sea if you are leaving or arriving with a ferry-boat.

The Shipyard is where modifications are carried out on most vessels. Besides running the Shipyard, the Naval Base Kitsap acts as a home port for some ships, including some active aircraft carriers and many submarines. The Shipyard facility has been used for storing vessels in a mothballed condition and for stripping those to be sold for scrap of some lighter hardware. The latter are those placed in the most peripheral area of the base, and the easiest to see.

When I visited in 2012 the base was very busy.

In the pictures you can see two Forrestal-class ships – USS Independence and USS Ranger – and two ‘Improved Forrestal’, Kitty-Hawk-class ships – USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation. As of late 2016 Ranger and Constellation have been transferred to Brownsville, TX for scrapping, while Independence is to follow and is awaiting towing for early 2017.