American Way cover story, Nov. 15, 2010

"Arizona's Otherworldly Appeal"

As I gaze in the distance, a hot blast of wind and dust whips across my face, clouding my vision. My eyes tear up as I strain to see. What is that scrawny creature tucked into the shadow? The blistering desert sun doesn’t help. I move closer, then watch a gangly coyote emerge from the underbelly of an airplane fuselage and amble away. For just a moment, this seems like his natural habitat. A typical desert scene. Until I look around and regain my senses.

I have come to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Ariz. — better known as the boneyard. It’s the American military’s only aircraft-storage site and the largest of its kind in the U.S. More than 4,000 aircraft rest here now, as far as the eye can see. No, even farther.

Covering four square miles and chosen for its dry climate and hard ground, the boneyard is an aviation lover’s dream, including everything from B-1 bombers to C-9 medevacs and aging stars: a helicopter that ferried former President Dwight Eisenhower; an A-4 Skyhawk, the type of plane once piloted by then Navy Cdr. John McCain; and the last chopper to leave Saigon, in 1975. Some will be used for parts, some will be refurbished and used again, some will be converted into drones, and others will end up in museums (including the nearby Pima Air & Space Museum).

Much like an ancient city or ancient burial ground, the Tucson boneyard transports you back in time and overwhelms you with its hard-to-grasp magnitude. Lined up side by side and nose to tail in the blinding desert light, the parked machines create an eerie, otherworldly feeling, one that can make you wonder just where exactly you’ve landed.

That landing pad is Arizona, which is both a geographic entity and a vision-inducing state of mind. This strange, often overheated locale can play tricks with your sense of reality — or at least it’s done so with mine. It’s a state that often leaves you wondering about the curious concoction of geology and history that defines its identity.

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Arizona's Otherworldly Appeal--PDF

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