My visit to an aircraft boneyard

It was supposed to be a routine training flight.

You know, the standard stuff. Pre-flight the plane, contact Santa Monica ground and tower controllers without sounding like a rank amateur, get clearance and transition through the Burbank airspace, and practice pilotage and VOR navigation to Mojave, an uncontrolled airport on weekends. I was even prepared for some light turbulence over the San Gabriel mountain range.

I wasn’t at all prepared for the emotional turbulence.

Empty dreams. Unfulfilled promises. Broken families. Shattered careers. Fortunes lost.

Mojave is, ostensibly, simply an airport in the California desert that many airlines use for testing or to mothball their excess equipment. It’s ideal. Three long runways that accommodate almost all wind conditions, lots of cheap, open space, and dry most of the year.

Mojave boneyard
It’s fascinating, but also sad.

What I found, was a storehouse of memories. More than 200 planes, from Pan American 747s to captured Russian fighter jets. I was haunted by the specter of a thousand faces. Crewmembers no longer doing their pre-flights or getting weather briefings. No longer counting heads and reading their “Hello, and welcome aboard” scripts. Food service carts empty and waiting. Administrative and maintenance staffs no longer bringing home paychecks. Flight crews who had the right stuff, but found their careers interrupted or ended. Stockholders whose capital was decimated. Or eliminated. There was an eerie, almost visceral sense of generations past hovering over my shoulder or lurking just around a corner.

Below me lay the detritus of deregulation, recession, and an insane product liability climate. Abandoned aircraft. Their proud, aerodynamic, aggressive shapes, resplendent with bold corporate colors and logos, neatly aligned in rows upon rows. From 2,000 feet, the alignment seemed perfect. A perfect order that belied the chaos and turmoil that brought them here, perhaps their final resting place.

I once had to identify a body at the morgue. A patient, Milton, from a methadone clinic where I was the administrator. It really is like the movies: cold, ultimately undignified, harrowing, and uncomfortable. I looked at the cadaver that had just been pulled from a refrigerated vault (and would be returned to it when I identified him) and I wanted to cry out, “Milton, get out of there, don’t you know it’s going to be cold? For eternity…?” Despite the thorax to pubis autopsy incision that had been only loosely sutured shut with twine more suitable for closing a sack of potatoes, and the obvious signs of decomposition, my mind refused to accept reality. If I could only get him out of that damn vault and warm him up, I could reanimate him, and all would be right with the world…

I would do the same for the 747s.

The fantasy was clear and overwhelming. It was only 75 miles to Los Angeles. I would simply land my Piper Archer, commandeer one of the 747s, fly it back to LAX, and put it back on the line. Fill it up with rushing and impatient business travelers, overweight passengers with too many carry-on bags, belligerent frequent travelers angry that they were denied an upgrade to first class, and loud and unruly children who, inevitably, sit next to you when you’re trying to sleep.

Vince, my instructor, had taught me well. Demanded proper radio procedure for approaching an uncontrolled airport. “Mojave traffic, Piper 6915 Tango entering the 45 degree for left downwind, runway 24, Mojave.” But there was no traffic. No one to hear my call. It went into the vast existential void that had swallowed up the lives of the thousands who had been in the planes that now lay before me.

I could no more easily bring those planes and their crews back to life than I could resurrect Milton. His dreams, his hopes, his aspirations? Irretrievably gone. And the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the airlines and their flight crews? Vanished into the dust of a deserted desert outpost.

Suddenly chilled by the cold breath of mortality, I realized that a small but important piece of me had also disappeared into that high desert Mojave dust. And I got refocused. On the distinctly non-cosmic tasks at hand: mixture full rich, flaps first notch, landing light on, radio frequency set, altimeter re-set, RPM for approach, and airspeed on target.

From the FAA: “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.”

I had failed at becoming familiar with ALL available information that a PIC should prepare for. It was anything but a routine training flight…

7 Comments

  • Bob Bilink is an exceptional writer who has captured the pathos radiated from these sleeping aluminum giants. Having spent twenty-five years boring holes in the sky for a major, but now defunct, international airline, I salute Bilink’s commentary. I have had the opportunity to visit many airline and military “Bone Yards” over the last 50 years. The same feelings are always there; right below the surface. Always, the same questions: What happened? What missions did these aircraft complete? How many pilots learned a valuable flying lesson while airborne in one of these hulks?

    If you have an opportunity to visit one, or more, of these aviation repositories, do so. Go visit Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson or Mojave or Palmdale in Southern California. On one of my visits to Palmdale, I found a Lockheed L-1011 that I have flown for many many pleasurable hours. It is fitting every Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star was built at Palmdale and now KPMD is their final resting place.

    Thanks

    C J Stott

  • I had a hangar at Mojave for 17 years from 1990 to 2007. Many of the airplanes parked there during that period were merely sleeping … to arise to be used another day after sale. Several companies kept those airplanes up … some for parts, others for reuse.

    Not widely known, at one point in time when the City of California City to the NW was established, they took control over Mojave and used it for their airport. Later, they built an airport closer in and gave Mojave back. When I first showed up at Edwards AFB in late 1972, most of the airports in Kern County had the name “Kern County” and airport number “X” Can’t remember what number Mojave was back then.

    A guy by the name of Dan Sabovich — who was a farmer from near Bakersfield — liked hanging around with test pilots from Edwards AFB. When the job of airport manager came up, he took it and became fairly famous in airport management circles. He wisely established some sort of airport taxation zone (which the locals didn’t like) and that was the catalyst that put the growth of Mojave on the map. The other thing that happened was that when Burt Rutan came back to California from Bede Aircraft, he rented space for the Rutan AIrcraft Factory (RAF). The rest is history.

  • Just got back from a road trip via Bakersfield and North of Edwards AFB, with lunch at the Mojave Airport restaurant. Walking in to lunch we got ‘boomed’. I asked the server how often that happened and she couldn’t really remember, it happened so rarely, but it brought back memories of me as a kid in Minnesota hearing them like once a week – loved ’em.

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