Pima Air & Space Museum (Part 2)

by John Delach

Our guide, Trish Hughes, warned us to refrain from taking photos while on Davis-Monthan AFB (DMAFB) until we left the base proper and entered AMARG, the largest military aircraft boneyard in the world. Ms. Hughes objected to the term “aircraft boneyard” explaining, “AMARG is much more than a place airplanes come to be dismantled; that’s AMARG’s purpose of last resort.”


Point made. The Department of Defense created the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) to take possession, inventory, clean, mothball and maintain aircraft retired from all branches of the service. DMAFB was selected to host the resting place for over 4,000 aircraft because of the surrounding desert’s low humidity, lack of rainfall and its hard alkaline soil. Ms. Hughes explained, “We locals call this surface, caliche or ‘Indian concrete.” (Don’t try referencing this politically incorrect term; it must be a local expression.)


“On arrival, all guns, ejection seat charges and classified hardware are removed. Each aircraft is washed twice, the fuel system drained and protected and the airplane is sealed from dust, light and high temperature before being towed to its storage position.”


Our tour took us throughout the facility past aircraft of every type and kind. Type 1000 are aircraft in waiting, sealed, untouched and ready for re-activation. Type 2000 are being cannibalized to provide needed parts for sister aircraft still in use. Type 3000 wait to be re-purposed and Type 4000 await the cutter’s torch.


Many fighter jets are waiting to be re-purposed into drones. The F4H Phantom II was the drone of choice for the last 20 years, but AMARG re-purposed the last of these work horses from the Viet Nam war in 2013. Ms. Hughes explained that the air force has just given the go-ahead to begin converting F-16s Flying Falcons into drones. Even though the F-16 remains in use by the air force, the sea of these fighters already retired that we pass on our tour demonstrates that they will serve as drones far into the future. AMARG also converts other aircraft, particularly helicopters, for use by the forest and the border services.


The tour took over an hour and the bus exited the facility just as I was reaching sensory overload. Thankfully, we headed back to the museum for a burger and a beer.


Our first stop after lunch was to a separate building housing the 390th Memorial Museum dedicated to all of the members of the 390th Bombardment Group. Their beautifully re-conditioned B-17G Flying Fortress is the centerpiece of this museum. A guide insisted that this is a separate museum within the Pima Museum with its funding. Their exhibits do add to the experience and their handsome building is worth a stop.


Bill and I agreed it was time to make the trek out to the B-36 that sat gleaming in the sun between a B-52 Stratofortress, the bomber that replaced it, and a B-47 Stratojet, our first medium range all-jet bomber. What a sight, the three bombers that constituted the foundation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) for over twenty years during the height of the cold war now sitting side by side by side.


(As I noted, in Part 1 of this story, Bill and I couldn’t believe that more than one B-36 Peacemaker still existed but here was a second Peacemaker. Subsequently, I discovered four of these giants have been preserved. Of the remaining two, one is housed indoors at the SAC Museum in Ashland, Nebraska and the other outdoors at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California.)


Pima has more than 300 aircraft with most displayed outdoors. Despite the heat, we took our time viewing several of the more interesting airplanes including an early model of a Lockheed Constellation in TWA markings that actually belonged to Swiss Air and a pre-WW II Sikorsky S-43 flying boat nicknamed the “Baby Clipper.” Built between 1937 and 1941, these amphibians island hopped passengers and cargo for Pan American and other airlines around the Caribbean. I was quite pleased to actually see one of these relics from that by-gone era. One of the oddest airplanes we came across was a Northrop YC-125A Raider. Twenty-three of these three-engine beasts were built in 1948 only to be deemed less desirable then helicopters. The museum believes theirs is one of two survivors.


By the time we reached Hanger No. 4, I was on the cusp of the heat defeating me. The a/c and a bottle of water saved the day and between No.4 and No. 5 we finished our day with a PB4Y-2 Privateer, the navy’s version of the B-24, a two-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber similar to the one Doolittle’s squadron used to bomb Tokyo in 1942, a PBY Catalina flying boat, the workhorse recon and rescue plane in the Pacific and a B-29 Superfortress, the bomber that ended the war in the Pacific.


Bill and I departed the next day pleased with our time together and the experiences at the Titan II Missile Museum, the Pima Air & Space Museum and AMARG. The trip fulfilled our expectations and now I have to begin thinking about a trip to Nebraska to visit the SAC museum.