They served in combat from Korea to Afghanistan. Dangerous missions all over the world. Dropping bombs and protecting soldiers on the ground. Now, they lay here in the Arizona desert.
These veterans aren’t people — they’re planes.
All kinds of military aircraft are lined up in precision formation as if ready to soar into conflict. But if you look closely, you can see why that’s impossible. Many of the planes are missing engines, wing parts or cockpits.
And that’s why they call this place The Boneyard.
‘If only these planes could talk’
It’s a sprawling field where planes are stripped down for parts for resale or are ‘regenerated’ to be sold to soar again to a country allied with the US. The desert, with its low humidity and limited rainfall, is the ideal retirement home of sorts for aircraft packed with metal that could rust or corrode.
There are more than 3,000 aircraft here — the largest storage and preservation home of its kind in the world. The imagination roams as you walk under a hot sun looking up at the large planes parked here. It makes you wonder. Did this jet take incoming ground fire? Who was on the receiving end of bombs dropped out this bay?
“If only these planes could talk … What stories they could tell,” retired Brigadier General Keith Connolly said, tapping the wing of an F4-C jet, the kind he flew in 176 missions in the Vietnam War. Connolly and several other US military veterans strolled the Boneyard with CNN. They may not see again the exact fighter jets or trainers they flew, but it was easy to feel the emotional pull of what the old planes — and those who flew them — meant to each other.
Lieut. Col. Ron Prunce rode with Connolly on many of those Vietnam War missions. During dozens of combat flights, the men sat back to back, jammed in the F4C. They now both live the Tuscon area, which is not that far from the massive Davis Monthan Air Force base that contains the Boneyard.
Prunce grew emotional as he described seeing planes landing.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t look up and wish I was still up there,” he said. His voice broke as he reflected on his aviation past and connection to the base.
“Mentally,I think I could get into the F4 and we can go fly,” Connolly said, standing next to his old cockpit buddy. “I would have trouble remembering how to start it.”
Charles Gebhardt flew a much larger plane: the B-52 bomber. He quickly recalled details like the “108” bombs it hauled, as he stood under the towering aircraft. He said he appreciated being able to walk around the B-52, a type of plane still in use by the military.
“This is not a museum,” said retired Colonel Scott Hines, who flew a variety of aircraft here helping to train thousands of other pilots.”It’s a special place,” he added, admiring the rows and rows of aircraft neatly parked in order.
The Boneyard, according to Hines, also represents the US military air service that powered America to victory in faraway lands.
This visit here was a real-life version of a famous scene from one of the best movies ever made about soldiers after war. “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946 featured down-on-his-luck vet Dana Andrews coming to terms with his life as he climbed into a bomber about to be chopped up for parts.
These veterans, however, have lived full lives — with serving their country at its heart.
A graveyard of new life
The Boneyard is also still active helping the US military in current battles. The Marine Corps announced in June that it was going to resurrect 23 F/A 18 Hornets from the Boneyard to meet fleet requirements while a long-delayed F-35 fighter is eventually delivered.
In a hangar, an F-16 was being “regenerated,” preparing to roar through the skies as part of expanding drone surveillance operations.
Timothy Gray, deputy director of the Boneyard, said air power has been the signature element that has defined America in combat.
For 70 years, this desert facility has been a final resting home for that power and still a source for valuable pieces for planes that live on to showcase American strength in the skies.