No Bones About It: Pima Boneyard Tour

There are no bones on a Pima boneyard tour. It doesn’t involve a cemetery or a medical school anatomy class or even a skeleton. What it does have are airplanes, lots of them. A boneyard is where old planes go to live out the remainder of their useful lives, either as back-up planes or for spare parts, until they are deemed completely obsolete and are shredded (sold for scrap). One of the largest boneyards in the world, and the only one available for public tours, is located at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

Being allowed on the tour is no mean feat. Since getting to the boneyard requires going through the active Davis – Monthan Air Force Base, precautions are taken to ensure no undesirables are on board the tour bus. Pre-approval 2 weeks in advance is absolutely necessary. Ever so cautious, I had applied 4 weeks before providing all requested information, but heard nothing in the promised response time of 3 days. I sent another application and still heard nothing. “Maybe I was no longer a good security risk?” I wondered. Was it because I no longer had a job? Maybe I shouldn’t have told the customs officer I didn’t have an address when he asked where I lived.

Beginning to panic, I started to leave voice mail messages at the museum, but was never able to connect. Finally, 4 frantic phone messages later and 2 days before the deadline, I received a confirmation email. I was cleared to take a 5 minute bus ride across the Air Force base as long as I didn’t carry firearms, knives or backpacks and promised to obey all commands regarding photographs.

On the day of the boneyard tour, I arrived with an hour to spare at Pima. Although the boneyard  was my primary objective, the Air and Space Museum has plenty of other historic aircraft. Despite the heat being 43 degrees, I walked outside and looked at some of the planes. An Air Force One which had ferried Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was there, along with a B-36, a Blue Angel and some crazy looking NASA contraption.

The Museum was staffed by lots of volunteers – all pilots or persons with connections to the Air Force. Each was eager to share their flying stories with everybody. As I was looking at an early model Learjet, Mark approached me. He was in his 70s. He had contracted polio as a youth and been left with a bad leg (he was in a wheelchair). He had been rejected by the military, but still learned to fly and had been doing so for nearly 50 years. He asked if I wanted to fly, but I admitted my nervousness of flying. He said flying was the second best thing one can ever do. Suckered in, I asked him what was the best. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he had probably done hundreds of times before, then replied: “landing.”

We boarded the bus for the boneyard tour with our confirmations and a 2nd show of our passports and purses (to make sure there were no guns in them), then drove to the base where we all dismounted and gave our passports (3rd time) over to an air force person. We waited in a hot, dark shed for about 10 minutes before he returned, gave us our passports back and reboarded the bus.

Our docent, Thomas, was a former air force pilot who had originally trained at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Once he left the military, he had continued to fly for a state national guard. As the bus drove, he delivered a treasure trove of information. The boneyard contains 3400 mostly military aircraft, down from a high of 6,000. Upon arrival at the boneyard, each aircraft is inventoried by a specialized parts manager, then readied for its stay. It is first covered with a black sealant, then its windows, engine faces and nose sprayed with a white sealant, giving all the planes a ghostlike appearance.


The white seals have the effect of maintaining the interior temperature 15 degrees cooler than the Tucson desert. The interior instruments can be damaged at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the seals give the necessary cushion if it gets over 130 degrees.

One plane, of course, did not need the seals. It was the Stealth, which as everyone knows, is invisible. Here it is:


A little boneyard humour (courtesy of Thomas).

As we drove through the boneyard, seeing plane upon plane, Thomas narrated information about each plane. A common naming system meant the starting letter of each plane indicates its function, so an A plane is an Attack plane, a B (like in B-52) is a Bomber, C (as in C-36) is Cargo. The F-18 is a Fighter and Thomas added that he hoped when the sequel to Top Gun is made, Tom Cruise would play the grandfather.

Words cannot adequately describe the sight of thousands of planes sitting in the Arizona sun, so I shall end with pictures.

Probably hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes lined up like toy cars in a store window. It was quite a sight.