Eric Firestone was haunted by Tucson's boneyard, the place where old government planes went to die.

The gallery owner, who splits his time between here and East Hampton, N.Y., just knew that the heaps of scrap metal - wings, nose cones, cockpits and even entire planes that had been gutted - could serve as canvases.

"I've never been so sure of an idea or a project before," Firestone said as he recently strolled through the far end of the Tucson Pima Air & Space Museum field where the works of art he so passionately launched are on display.

"The Boneyard Project: Return Trip," which will run through May, is a massive exhibit with an international roster of artists.

Firestone worked with Brooklyn-based curator and art critic Carlo McCormick, who pulled on his deep knowledge of and relationships with some of the world's biggest names in contemporary art.

The result is a wild, eclectic art exhibit involving 30 artists who made canvases of five former military planes, about 35 nose cones, a wing, a cockpit and a bomb - the latter painted by Tucson's Daniel Martin Diaz.

"I think everyone will have a reaction to it. I don't care if they hate it - I want them to have an opinion of it," Firestone said.

Firestone opened a smaller version of the show, "Nose Job," at his East Hampton gallery last summer.

Involving more than two dozen artists, the exhibit expanded on the nose cone art that has its roots in pre-World War II fighter planes - an art form most artists know, according to McCormick.

Its success only served to whet Firestone's appetite: He wanted more, he wanted bigger, and he wanted to bring it all to the expansive Sonoran Desert.

The Tucson exhibit opened Saturday night with music, dancing and some of the artists in attendance. It drew more than 1,400 people - one of the biggest events the museum has had, said Scott Marchand, Pima Air & Space's director of collections.

Displayed in the first hanger visitors come to are the nose cones from the New York exhibit, and about a dozen more. There are nose cones with glitter, lipstick kisses, exploding flowers at the tip, fluttering butterflies and space aliens.

Jameson Ellis, best known for his landscape abstracts, pulled on memories of his father's career as a U.S. Army weapons designer for his piece, "Stolen Hearts," which he painted a deep, shiny red and then shot up with a gun he made himself.

Shepard Fairey, whose portrait of Barack Obama became the face of the president's 2008 campaign, turned his nose cone into a megaphone with a handle that looks much like the butt of a rifle. He calls it "Obey."

Pop artist Ron English's work of a sultry cow standing provocatively on her hind legs, with full udders for breasts, is displayed behind a curtain.

There is one cluster bomb. Diaz - the only Tucson artist represented - was asked to do a nose cone. But when he went to take a look at them, he immediately eyed the Vietnam-era bomb.

"I found it a lot more interesting," says Diaz, who packed the mammoth piece into his car and took it home, getting more than a few stares along the way.

He thought about its graceful yet terrifying shape for a few weeks.

"I wanted to paint something really beautiful," he says. "Then I didn't know if I should go that route because I didn't want to glorify it."

What he did was stay in his style - one that echoes, among others, Spanish Colonial and surrealistic art.

His bomb contains Diaz's intricate designs of skulls, a biblical quote in calligraphy, crosses and boltlike lines that convey a terrific sense of energy. It references good and evil, and carries a sense of doom along with a sense of hope.

It's almost sensory overload - such unusual canvases and so much to see on each. The show demands a couple of visits.

If you go

• What: "The Boneyard Project: Return Trip."

• When: Through May 31. Museum hours are 9-5 p.m. daily; last admission is 4 p.m.

• Where: Tucson Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 E. Valencia Road.

• Cost: $15.50, with discounts for Pima County residents and children. Children under 6 free.

• Boneyard tours: The museum offers bus tours of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), the military boneyard adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Tours are $7 and board at the main entrance of the museum. Admission to the museum is not necessary to take the AMARG tour.

• Information: 574-0462.

• More online: www.pimaair.org

The five planes

• Two days before last Saturday's opening, San Francisco-based artist Andrew Schoultz worked furiously to finish his "Spy Plane." Still, he seemed relaxed as he painted black spirals in acrylic paint on the white-painted wing of a C-45, a one-time CIA spy plane.

"It's been very fun, but now it's crunch time," he said with a laugh, never once stopping his freestyle painting while talking to a reporter.

Schoultz is practiced in the art of fast work - he started out as a graffiti and mural artist. He has made the cross-over to fine art, yet his irreverent style and sly artistic statements haven't left him. He covered his "Spy Plane" with spirals in red, blue and black, an unblinking eye in the center of each. ("The eye motif made sense," he said.) On the nose is a sharklike grin that sends an ominous "don't mess with me" message. It's clearly an homage to the Flying Tigers, World War II fighter squadrons with menacing grins painted on the noses of the planes.

• "Warning Shot" is a DC-3 covered from nose to tail and wing to wing with hieroglyphics by the artist Retna.

The one-time street artist, whose work is now in great demand by collectors and museums, created his own language for this project. Pulling from African, Asian and Arabic word symbols, his black markings, with an occasional streak of blue and red, demand a close look. You may not know the story he's telling in ink (applied with swabs) and spray paint, but you sense it's a rich and detailed one.

"I love this," said Eric Firestone as he pointed out details on the piece. "It feels like something landed from another planet."

• The black and white acrylic work on a C-45 aircraft, "Naughty Angels," is by Faile, a Brooklyn-based collaborative that draws on pop culture for inspiration. They combine a variety of mediums to create the art, often styled on on the posters found glued on walls, fences and alleyways in cities. "Naughty Angels" is a mixture of words and comic-book-like images, each panel revealing an idea, each word expressing a sense of duty, horror, frivolity or sadness. That's a good few hours of thoughtful study.

• "Time Flies" is a DC-3 painted by How and Nosm, German-born twins (they are New Yorkers now) with murals from around the world to their credit. The twins work in tandem, in this case each taking opposite sides of the plane. Their richly graphic, heavily pink detailed images combine figures, exaggerated body parts and dizzying loops and swirls. The work demands you look - really look.

• Brazilian graffiti artist Nunca's DC-3 has a detailed spray painting of eagle feathers flattened back as though in flight covering the plane from front to back. There are yellow piercing eyes where the cockpit windows would be, and gap-mouthed skulls on each engine. Figures on one side of the plane look primitive, but one is clutching a long-out-of-date cellphone. The Brazilian artist clearly has drawn from his country's ancient artistic traditions.

Did you know

"Boneyard" is a generic term for salvage yards, though most Tucsonans think that it refers to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance Regeneration Group adjacent to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It is there that the government sends its aircraft destined for salvage or restoration. Tucson's dry climate helps prevent corrosion. Two to three decades ago, the government routinely auctioned off the aircraft. Most were bought by privately owned salvage yards, which resold them for parts and scrap. The Pima Air & Space Museum offers guided bus tours of the Air Force facility. Security concerns means walking on the grounds is prohibited by civilians.

Today, purchasing a salvage plane or plane parts from the government involves a lot of red tape. A couple of privately held salvage yards specializing in aircraft and aircraft parts operate in the Old Pueblo, near Davis-Monthan, according to Scott Marchand, director of collections and aircraft restoration at Pima Air & Space Museum.