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Welcome to the Boneyard, a desert tomb for US military aircraft

Under the hot Arizona sun lie hundreds of aircraft... waiting. Waiting for destruction or reprieve. This is AMARG. This is The Boneyard.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
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The Boneyard. The name evokes a space bereft of life: dry, hot, desolate.

And that's about right. The Boneyard's official name is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, or AMARG. It's where the US military stores its surplus aircraft. Sometimes these airplanes get refreshed and reused. Other times they get parted out to keep the active fleet flying.

It's a fascinating, albeit creepy, place. Rows upon rows of identical aircraft. All silent, all shrouded in protective covers to keep them from disintegrating in the brutal Arizona sun. You may have seen pictures of this place from above, and you've almost certainly seen it in movies. Here's how it looks on the ground.

Arizona's incredible Boneyard is purgatory for aircraft

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There's only one way into the Boneyard if you're a civilian: as part of a guided tour that starts from the Pima Air & Space Museum. You'll need a government-issued ID (driver's license or passport). No backpacks or large camera cases are allowed. AMARG is an active military base, part of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. There's a security check as you enter the base, and you can't get off the bus once you enter.

That's OK though, as you get to see quite a lot. It's so massive, walking would be pointless. Each tour includes a guide, telling you what each airplane is, plus a bit of history about them.

What's striking is just how many aircraft there are in the 2,600 acre (11 square kilometer) facility: over 4,400. And it's an eclectic mix, often with many fairly recent aircraft. To take up space at the Boneyard, an aircraft has to be fairly new -- or at least new enough that active models are still flying (or only recently decommissioned). But they also need to be old enough to be "out of warranty," so to speak. So you'll see F-15s and 16s, C-5s, A-10s, B-1s, and countless C-130s, but no F-22s or F-35s (not in sight, anyway).

The Pentagon claims that for every $1 it spends on storing aircraft at AMARG, it saves "nearly $11" by being able to reuse parts and even entire aircraft. Some planes, past their usefulness for the Air Force, are sold to US allies, further offsetting the cost of the facility.

Even though the Boneyard is in an ideal location (dry, fairly high altitude, alkaline soil), a lot of work still needs to be done to get a plane into shape for long-term storage. The engines and weapons get removed. All liquids drained. Any classified or important hardware gets stripped out. Then the aircraft is washed, dried and sealed from the dust and heat. That's the white coating you see on the cockpit windows and other important bits.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Once towed into position, the airplane sits. How long is unknown. Sometimes it's a slow end, pieces getting removed one by one. Some of the aircraft in the military fleet, like the B-52 and A-10, are decades old and still in use, though no longer manufactured. To keep these airframes flying, parts are donated from decommissioned aircraft. Rarely, the planes are brought back into service.

But more often, they sit until they're beyond their usefulness and eventually scrapped.

As the bus drives through the facility, you'll see aircraft in all stages of this. Some look brand new, ready to fly except for their white-out coatings. Others are missing big and small chunks. An engine here, a tail assembly there. Wings or even entire sections of the fuselage could be gone. There's something haunting about it all.

And that's probably why it's been used in movies and TV shows for decades. Wikipedia notes "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man," even Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" music video.

The nearby Pima Air & Space museum is one of the best in the world. Add in the unique experience of the Boneyard, and you've got one of the most incredible days you can spend as an airplane fanatic.

Tours of the Boneyard leave from Pima usually twice a day, Monday through Friday (but not government holidays). It's only $7, separate from the Pima museum entrance fee, and are sold first-come, first-served. Definitely worth doing both.

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube