TUCSON, Arizona — The airplanes are lined up in rows by the hundreds, serving as a striking reminder of the nation's military past.

They carried presidents and astronauts, shot down enemies during war and shuttled American military forces around the globe.

Now, they are scattered across a dusty field at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on the outskirts of Tucson, at a location known affectionately as the "boneyard."

It is the world's largest airplane repository and preservation facility, providing long- and short-term aircraft storage, parts reclamation and disposal for all types of planes.

As sunrise illuminates the facility's 2,600 acres, the relics it holds evoke thoughts of missions past:

  • An Army One helicopter that transported President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.
  • An old TWA jet that was once hijacked and bombed.
  • An aircraft that spent 16 years preserved entirely under Antarctic snow before returning to flight and ending up in the sweltering Arizona desert.

Notably, the last aircraft to leave Saigon as it fell to North Vietnamese forces sits alongside disassembled Cold War bombers. The B-52s have their tails removed — one of the terms of a post-Cold War treaty with Russia to provide proof the bombers were indeed decommissioned.

The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group was established in 1946 as the 4105th Army Air Force Unit to house planes after World War II.

It quickly expanded to aircraft from all military branches due to Tucson's low humidity, minimal rainfall and high altitude, all of which help ward off rust and corrosion. The hard soil makes it possible to move and secure aircraft without the need for pavement.

Today, the boneyard is both a testament to U.S. air prowess and, through reclamation and restoration, a means to keep the country and its allies in flight.

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