Strange Geographies: The Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard
I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat. For years afterward I'd ask people what they knew about it, and I kept hearing the same thing: the place has been on lockdown since 9/11, and they won't let civilians anywhere near the boneyard. But last week my luck changed -- I met a very nice fellow who works there, and with a minimum of cajoling on my part he agreed to take me beyond the high-security fence and show me around. Of course, I brought my camera.
(If you're interested in getting prints of any of these photos, they're available here.)
The first thing to know is that the Mojave Air and Spaceport, as it's officially known, isn't just a graveyard for inactive planes. It's an active airport, home to one of the nation's only civilian test pilot schools, and most famously the place where Space Ship One was developed and performed the first privately-funded human spaceflight in 2004. But it also functions as a giant parking lot for hundreds of jets owned by dozens of different entities, from major airlines to private individuals. If an airline doesn't anticipate needing some of its planes for an extended period of time, it's much cheaper for them to park those planes in the desert and have maintenance crews check them out once every few weeks than to keep them active.
Some planes have been there only a few months -- some have been there for years and years, owned by companies that rent space at the boneyard by the acre.
The most fascinating part of the facility, to me at least, is the boneyard itself. This is where planes that are no longer valuable enough to be repaired and put back into service -- totaled, as it were -- are cannibalized for spare parts. It's not a delicate operation: the planes are ripped apart by big machines, torn into piles of fuselage that look, standing amidst them, like the aftermath of terrible crashes.
Other owners dismantle their planes piece by delicate piece, leaving most of the jet intact save some crucial part:
Inside some planes, you'd hardly know they weren't simply waiting for the next planeload of passengers to take their seats.
Whole sections of a plane might be removed, but otherwise be intact. They sit like donor organs waiting for a transplant candidate.
Decapitated planes abound:
Further inspection revealed that the insides of these "plane heads" are often empty, stripped of their valuable avionics.
Some of the worthless bits become part of the landscape.
Aisle or window?
This tail section is held up by a hand-stacked pile of railroad ties.
I hope I never fly on a plane equipped with landing gear salvaged from the boneyard. But I suppose I would never know.
Inside an old cargo hold (I think) --
Salvaged inflatable emergency slides, ready to be shipped off to new homes.
A jet engine without a jet.
Air Canada planes giving the grass a shady place to grow.
Elsewhere at the Air and Space Port, a glimpse of a few of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space planes. I believe that's the White Knight Two, designed to ferry Space Ship Two into suborbital space. The juxtaposition of the deeply broken and the cutting edge at Mojave is jarring.