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Grounded for Life: The Mojave Airplane Graveyard

At the junction of State Highways 58 and 14 sits the old road town of Mojave. Located on the western fringe of the upper Mojave Desert, the town is famous for its large airport where Burt Rutan designed and built his around-the-world-without-landing “Global Flyer” and his more recent X-Prize winning “Space Ship One.”

Since the 1970s, the airport has also seen the storage and ultimate demise of countless airliners. The lined-up tails can be seen for miles in every direction. Most of the planes are put into mothballs by struggling airlines during economic downturns.

Many more are the entire fleets of now defunct carriers. Inventory peaked in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks when there were 360 aircraft in suspended animation lining the taxiways and runways, their windows and engines covered with plastic to seal out the blowing desert grit. Someday these planes will fly again. Behind the stored aircraft on the far side of the runway is the boneyard––the place where the old planes go to die. Most jet airliners reach the end of their operational lifetimes in about 25 years.  An airliners life span is not measured in years, but in pressurization/depressurization cycles. After thousands of take offs and landings the planes can no longer withstand the pressure of high altitude flight without major parts replacement. These worn out planes are then parked on the desert flats and cannibalized to keep newer versions of the same model flying. Eventually, when the series is retired the entire manufacturing run of planes makes its way to the boneyard where they are recycled. When the last parts of remaining value are removed the skeletal fuselage is dragged to the recycling area, systematically dismantled, shredded and melted into raw aluminum ingots.

At any given time a half dozen planes are in various states of disassembly. Some airframes are nearly complete, only a few high value parts removed, others are just broken chunks of random fuselage, stacked on piles of railroad ties or just flopped on their bellies in the dirt.

With Mojave’s relative proximity to Hollywood, a few planes are held in reserve for use in film work. Dozens of action movies and videos have been shot at Mojave including “Speed,” “Die Hard 2” and “Swat,” If the movie has a scene with blowing up airliners, it was probably filmed at Mojave.

The first time I was granted night photo access (sneaking in would guarantee instant arrest and potentially being eaten by guard dogs) to the yard was in 1990 and I visited again in 2003. Almost all the planes that were there in 1990 had since been scrapped by my second visit, replaced by newer iron from the 70s and 80s. Instead of DC-8s, 707s and Convair 880s, the place was now full of the 1st generation of wide-bodies being dragged to the smelter one piece at a time.

Poking around in these junkyards at night is an unforgettable experience.  Chopped and gutted like fish, their huge tails lay in the sand, weeping fluids and moaning in the bitter wind. Virtually untouched airframes stand in line on flat tires, waiting for death, monuments to obsolete technology. The boneyard is an unforgettably evocative and romantic place.  –Troy Paiva


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