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Pima Air & Space Museum (Arizona, USA)

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Includes a bus tour of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center(AMARG)in Arizona, USA

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      07.10.2010 20:19
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      An unforgettable experience.

      I think my recent holiday to Tucson in Southern Arizona incorporated a visit which will make a life-long imprint on my mind. Prior to my trip I had indentified a potential location which, I thought, promised an exceedingly interesting venue for an excursion; what I experienced though went far and beyond the exhibits I saw on that seeringly hot afternoon in September. I am referring to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), also known as "The Boneyard Tour". This is put simply a bus tour around a graveyard where planes, mostly military, are finally laid to rest. It is a shuddering reminder, not only of past military capability, but of current activity as the place is located close to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. During the visit military exercises go on all the time, and the sky is electric with the rumble of aircraft as they fly low over their retired predecessors, who lie mostly in peace, their wheels firmly embedded in the boiling sand of the Arizona desert.

      Locating the graveyard is easy as the tours begin at the Pima Air & Space Museum which is at the same location.
      6000 E. Valencia Rd.
      Tucson, Arizona 85756.

      If you are coming by car from Phoenix, which you may do if you are extending your holiday having already enjoyed Northern Arizona, then it's about a 2 hour drive down the I-10 from Phoenix. Take exit 267 southeast of Tucson, and follow the signs for The Pima Air & Space Museum.
      This museum and the plane graveyard are just inside the city limits of Tuscon, which is a city which sprawls over 30 miles. This location means that the graveyard is remote, and the views beyond the planes take your eye as far as The Santa Catalina Mountains. These giant peaks illuminate the horizon and provide a contrast to the sun-baked terracotta earth of the desert.

      I am not going to talk about the museum in this review as it is not a place I actually visited. I requested the tour to be put onto the Dooyoo catalogue as a separate entry, but they have listed the museum itself as this is the departure point for the tour. As the two are connected I will proceed to explain how your choice can be made about what to visit and when.

      On arrival at reception you have two options, either to visit the museum which is one of the largest in the world and houses over 300 aircraft and spacecraft, and or to book your place on the boneyard tour. It was the latter I wished to focus on during this, my first visit to Southern Arizona, but some plane lovers can incorporate both into their day, as the former can be walked around alone, or as part of a guided tour which begins daily at 10.30.

      So arriving to book our place on "The Boneyard Tour" involved some close questioning and we also had to present our passports. They will also accept a driver's license, military ID or a green card. You must ring ahead to ascertain departure times, and then present yourself at the reception one hour before to satisfy the criteria necessary to complete the trip. A place on the tour will cost $7 (£4.41) with children 4 and over costing $4 (just over £2.50). It is a question of first come first served and in our case the trip was fully booked by the time it left at 2pm. The tours only run on weekdays, and generally there is at least one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

      The tour bus departs from the car park and you must be there fifteen minutes before departure to present your tickets, and to show your identification once again for the tour guide to see. There is a serious air to the procedure regarding this visit, and you are only allowed to take one small piece of hand luggage onto the bus.

      So before I explain the details of the tour I will just explain exactly what the boneyard is and isn't. Initially I had very little pre-conception of what the aeroplanes would be, but I think a part of me expected them to be old relics of British Caledonian DC9 passenger aircraft left over from the early days of holiday charters. Yes there were one or two airliners with civilian connections, but this is primarily a military storage facility where planes go not only to die, but to be scavenged for parts.

      Before you board the bus one or two things may help you to enjoy the journey. The tour takes one hour and the sun streams through the coach windows. Secondly you are not allowed to leave the coach at any time on the journey, so take water and sunglasses with you. It gets very hot on the bus so be especially carefully if, for example, you have a young baby. Queuing to board the bus also requires a few minutes standing in the full sun, so a hat is a good idea at this point. There is a water machine close to the bus boarding point, and a small gift shop provides soft drinks and snacks. Free drinking water is also available at reception, where there is a comfortable air-conditioned waiting area. Improvements are in the process of being made, and a restaurant is shortly to be available on site, which would be a real asset in my opinion, as the importance of turning up one hour before for security reasons can leave a long gap to fill between booking and boarding. There is a gift shop to look round, but is rather more geared towards those with a love of military history. Of course you can park and drive off, as long as you return for the check in time fifteen minutes before. The car park has ample parking so this isn't a problem.

      So To The Tour
      -------------------


      The bus swings out of the car park and takes the five minute drive to the graveyard where again there is strict control on the gate. You are then faced with the most incredible view I have ever seen in front of you. For as far into the distance as the eye can see are planes. They are lying in rows and their noses are lined up as if they were about to depart for new pastures. I was speechless and so were my son and husband. It was very moving to think these were war machines and that they were lying silent, their turbulent histories behind them.

      On arrival at the boneyard the planes are drained of their fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluid and any very expensive parts are removed and stored more safely. Ironically they are all coated in a white protective layer called Spraylat which protects them from the sun, and so they lie in pure lily white dressings, almost as if they were symbols of peace. You can't think that for long though because soon the tour bus guide enlightens you further into each of their military histories, their capabilities in the field, in terms of bombing and surveillance, and their supply runs and the medical emergencies they have dealt with. It was the graphic description in depth of their global capabilities to operate in war torn places that was an eerie reminder of loss of life - to me anyway. I found it very moving, especially as the words were punctuated by the roar of low flying aircraft which were silhouetted against the backdrop of the mountains of Southern Arizona.

      I have no doubt in my mind that many of the tour bus occupants were ex military personnel who were making a pilgrimage to see the remnants of planes they served in many moons ago. In fact the driver of the bus offered an insight into "his" aircraft, and the guide was certainly ex military, I knew this as I had read that they offer volunteer positions for these trips to those with an interest in the field. His knowledge was superb as he guided us through the rows of the lily white bandaged noses pointing eerily at us. Photographs are allowed and these make a stunning reminder of the place - what they can't do though is to capture the sober nature of the establishment and the images. For me it may as well have been a human cemetery for the respect and almost horror it represented.

      The planes are arriving all the time and now number over 4400. Some will languish there for years, some may fly again, others will be dismantled for parts - hence the name given to the location- "The Boneyard". In reality many of these planes will fly again, but it is the skeletons of the older models which give this place the graveyard feel.

      The history of the place dates back to the end of the Second World War when the air force base became a storage facility for B-29 and C-47 aircraft. Since then it has expanded on a massive scale as the climate in the Arizona desert is perfect as it has low rainfall, and so the planes suffer less from rusting and are preserved in a better state for longer. The climate has low humidity and an alkaline soil which is also very hard, and consequently parking the aircraft does not require concrete or steel ramps.

      What really struck me was the vast space this place occupied. It is 2,600 acres which is the same as 1,430 football pitches. It is possible using Google Earth and typing in the location to see this place, and it is quite something from the air.

      Leaving the site you can also see many scrap yards. These are the real bones of aircraft death, and many parts lie here for decades, scavenged and then languishing in the scorching Arizona sun. It is said that they provide perfect homes for rattlesnakes and scorpions, not to mention black widows, and tarantulas! Many real enthusiasts spend many hours wandering the perimeter fences of the graveyard and scrap yards, as well as doing the tour, as this gives them the opportunity to take things at their own pace. If this is you then I strongly suggest you check out the website at www.amarcexperience.com which is an unofficial site offering a brilliant insight into the place and how to make the most of your visit!

      The diversity of the planes stored here is immense. Some are refitted and sold onto allied governments all over the globe. Some will fly again, while others sit for decades as static reminders of conflict many miles away across oceans and continents. There is one thing for certain a visit here is a sobering reminder of war and a graphic illustration of weaponry. No one can walk away and not feel moved. There was quite a sombre feeling amongst us as we headed home that hot September afternoon. I think a visit here is an experience if untaken you will never forget.

      This review has also been published on Ciao under my user name Violet1278 with photographs.

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