Aircraft history is scattered all over a big dirt lot in southeast Tucson.
And once a month, you can explore it.
Boneyard Safari, founded by Ramon C. Purcell, offers tours around and through some of the planes at Aircraft Restoration and Marketing (ARM). You can walk through the belly of a bomber, get a close up look at the cockpit of a C-47, study the bomb-loading guidelines in a P-3 Orion and step into the fuselage of a Vickers Viscount turboprop.
It isn’t a pretty display. These are aircraft that no longer carry troops, fuel airborne planes or drop bombs. They are not airworthy. Wires dangle from chairless cockpits, cone-shaped noses that once shined at the tip of planes are lined up along a chain-link fence. Disembodied tires and wings are scattered about.
But this is an aircraft lovers paradise.
The planes in this boneyard (separate from the one at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base) have come to ARM to be restored, stored, or to find replacement parts.
Some belong to museums or were acquired by companies through government auctions. ARM houses the planes while they are refurbished or sold off, sometimes piece by piece.
Hollywood often comes calling, looking for a plane that can be hauled away and blown up. Recently, a Kuwait company was refurbishing a C-130 and was in need of a cockpit. One was pulled out of a plane at ARM and shipped off.
About 80 percent of the aircraft are ex-military, said Purcell, who fell in love with planes when he was a boy and the family home was right near the San Diego airport. “I could see the planes take off and land every day,” he said.
One of the missions of Boneyard Safari is to reconnect military veterans with the type of aircraft they flew in battle.
A few weeks ago, Purcell had a vet call about a plane he had flown in Vietnam. He wanted to know if it was still at the Davis-Monthan boneyard. He longed to touch it once more. It was, but Purcell explained that the tours through the base’s boneyard are only by bus; no touching allowed. But there was the same type of aircraft at ARM. Purcell invited him out to see — and touch — it. “He had such a heartfelt connection with this aircraft,” said Purcell. “As soon as he saw it, he cried.”
A few years back, a group of vets took a reunion trek to the ARM boneyard. “They saw their aircraft (type) and there were tears and stories,” said Purcell. “It was so gratifying to be a passageway to their past.”
Here are some of the planes that Purcell led us through and around in a February trek through the boneyard.
R4D — Screaming Eagle
This one is hard to miss — it has a painting of an eagle on one side in full feathers, and the skeleton of the bird on the other. This type of aircraft started as a Douglas DC-3 and was redesignated as R4D by the Navy. It was a transport plane, carrying VIPs around. This type of aircraft, said Purcell, was one of the first transporters to land on the ice in the South Pole. This plane won’t be at the boneyard much longer — it has been purchased by a Utah family and will be converted into a playhouse for the children. It is expected to be disassembled and shipped next month.
The aircraft was an “anti-submarine hunter, built during the Cold War to hunt down Russian submarines,” said Purcell. This particular plane was a trainer for the pilots who would do the submarine hunting. It’s one of the planes you can explore inside. Bomb-loading instructions are glued to the wall.
This type of aircraft was used by the Air Force as a transport plane. It could carry as much as 18,000 pounds of fuel and cargo. One of it’s greatest advantages, said Purcell, is that it can land and take off on short runways. The aircraft was at the center of a government waste scandal. In 2010, the U.S. sent 16 C-27s to the Afghan Security Forces as part of a $486 million program to provide the security forces with refurbished aircraft to carry personnel and to medically evacuate combat troops. A few years later, a U.S. special inspector general noticed the planes, clearly not in use, lined up at the Kabul International Airport. They could never be flown because of Afghanistan’s hot and dusty environment. Eventually, the planes were destroyed.
Used by both the Army and the Navy, this type of aircraft was primarily for cargo and VIP transport, said Purcell. It was used extensively throughout the Cold War and is the type of plane that flew President Harry S. Truman around after he left the White House, Purcell added.
You can wander through the fuselage of this plane. The tangle of wires is quite impressive. This type of aircraft was an aerial refueler. It employed the “flying boom” technique — the fuel is delivered through a remote-controlled telescoping tube inserted into the plane it is refueling. It was originally built around the design of the B-29, the aircraft that dropped the A-bombs on Japan, said Purcell.
This type of aircraft was originally designed as an assault glider during World War II. “At the end of the war, they put engines on it and used it as a transporter,” said Purcell. The C-123s also were the type of plane used to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam. All planes that dropped Agent Orange were scrapped because of contamination. The C-123 made appearances in such ’90s movies as “Con Air,” “Operation Dumbo Drop” and “Air America.”