July 27, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Arizona, heaven for airplane fans

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reporter's notebook TUCSON, Ariz.--I don't really know that much about airplanes, but I know I love them.

That's why, as I sit on the bus for a tour of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group facility (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force base here, I'm in plane-geek heaven.

AMARG sits on more than 2,600 acres and houses more than 4,300 planes, most of them military-issue. On the other side of the road from AMARG is the Pima Air and Space Museum (PASM), which sits on its own 155 acres and has a collection of 284 military and civilian planes.

In short, this is just about as good as it gets if you like planes, and that's why I've come here on Road Trip 2007, my tour around the Southwest in search of the best technology and science stories.

Airplanes in Arizona

One might wonder why Tucson is ground zero for airplane storage, but it's really not that surprising. It's partly the soil, tour guides at both facilities explain, known as caliche soil, which when dry, is extremely hard but easy to put anchors into. Plus, there's tons of open space here, meaning that giving up thousands of acres to these kinds of facilities is economically viable.

I visited PASM first and was given a private tour by Scott Marchand, the museum's director of collections and airplane restoration.

He explained that the museum was chartered in 1966 for the preservation and presentation of vintage aircraft, and opened its doors in 1976. At first, it had 50 planes, but the collection has slowly grown as planes have come in from the government and other donors. PASM only owns 110 of its planes, and the rest are on loan from organizations like the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA and the Coast Guard.

The museum is like a walking tour of modern airplane history, going back to World War II days.

In one hangar you'll find a B-29 Superfortress, the kind of plane used to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. And outside, you'll find the Boeing VC-137 known as "Freedom One," which was used to bring the American hostages home from Iran in 1981. There's also one of Howard Hughes' TWA Constellations; a B-24J Liberator heavy bomber flown by the British and then the Indian Air Force; an Aerospace 377 Superguppy, which was used to transport Saturn missiles; and so many more.

I asked Marchand which plane is his favorite. He shrugged, indicating he couldn't possibly choose.

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"It's like asking what's your favorite kid," he said, seriously.

Many of the planes look pretty beat up, and it's no wonder, since they've been sitting on the desert floor for years under an unforgiving sun, "the biggest enemy we have out here," Marchand explained.

"The sun is murder on paint jobs. We're lucky if we can get 15 years" out of a paint job, he said.

But that's why the museum also maintains a repair and restoration facility. Marchand took me there and showed me how one crew was meticulously repainting a Douglass B-23 by wrapping it and painting it section by section, while another crew was working on rebuilding a Curtiss O-52 Owl, a pre-World War II Army observation plane.

Nearby, a different crew, including French college students here for three months, was reconditioning a P-51 Mustang. Marchand said the project would take nearly four years to complete.

Finished with the tour of the museum, I got on a bus with several dozen other visitors and off we went for the drive around AMARG.

This was serious airplane spotting. It's literally an hour of nonstop airplanes, which can almost be tiring. Almost.


Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the model of a Boeing airplane on display at AMARG. The correct model is 727.

CONTINUED: The ABCs of airplanes…
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About 36 years ago, I lived about three streets over from the gate
used to enter AMARG (at least that's the gate I went thru when
visiting a couple of years ago). I remember that a C-47 painted in
colors of the Golden Knights Army parachute team was parked on
the other side of the fence not far from my house. At the time,
AMARG was in the middle of the process of receiving all the older
B-52s that had served in Vietnam. That collection took up a huge
amount of real estate. Thanks for the memories!
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reviewing the photos there are a number of errors in describing the aircraft.
First, the WB-57 is not a NASA "spy-plane". The W indicates it is a weather research aircraft. Reconnaisance or "spy-planes" would be indicated by R, S or U and NASA is not a "spy-agency". It was assumed that the aircraft was used in the 1960's as a test for nuclear material in the atmosphere to indicate Soviet nuclear testing. Now NASA uses (amazingly) this 50+ year old aircraft for research and during shuttle launces.
Next, the aircraft identified as a 737 is actually a 727. The tail mounted engine gives it away whereas the 737 only had 2 wing engines (the remaining two engines on the 727 are missing noted by the engine mounts in the back).
Finally, the aircraft identified as a C-5 Galaxy is actually a C-141 Starlifeter (B version I believe). C-5s have a hump for the second floor area where the cockpit resides similar to a 747. This was done to provide a larger loading door in the front of the aircraft.
Posted by idbabe (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
... beat me to it ...
I recognized all the things you mentioned except for the 737 vs 727... not much of a civie plane buff.

As for the C5... there is no hump as you mentioned. Some real photos of a C5 can be seen here: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet_media.asp?fsID=84" target="_newWindow">http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet_media.asp?fsID=84</a>

The second floor behind the cockpit is for crew quarters. Since they refuel in flight there may be two or more flight crews ready to take over on very long flights/crew days. The second floor behind the wing is a small compartment for passengers (like an airliner but the pax face towards the tail! As big as this plane is it does not hold very many passengers; something like 80 if memory serves me. And the huge cargo area below can't be converted to passenger area because there is no oxygen points available there. Thus the reason the C5 is in its final years in favor of the C17.
Posted by arluthier (112 comments )
Link Flag
Me too!
But I guess I was just too enthralled by the pix to complain about
the gaffes. Speaking of spy planes, I lived near Davis-Monthan
because I was in the AF at the time, in the 100th Strategic Recon
Wing. They flew U2s and recon drones, and the unit was a
descendant of the one whose flights discovered the missiles in
Cuba if I remember correctly.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Link Flag
The F-100 was not the first plane to go supersonic in level flight. That honor would go to the Bell X-1 in 1947. Similarly, the Bell X-2 exceeded Mach 2.3 (actually exceeded Mach 3) in 1956. The F-100 and F-106 were the first aircraft IN SERVICE to reach those speeds.
Posted by baldgod (9 comments )
Link Flag
Also, there is no "Saturn Missile", to the best of my knowledge (from the text). The Super Guppy was used to transport parts of the Saturn *rocket*, of moon-landing fame.
Posted by dswtan (1 comment )
Link Flag
The WB-57 was originally the RB-57. When NASA got it after the
USAF retired it, it was redesignated WB-57.

True, the X-1 was the frist piloted aircraft to exceed Mach 1. The
F-100 was the first in service, production fighter to do so.

Seems they've corrected a couple of the captions.
Posted by Gromit801 (393 comments )
Link Flag
"P" Designator
I'm surprised nobody else noticed this. The "P" designator (like in P-38) is not for Patrol, but for Pursuit. That designator went out the window as the jet age came into being, since "F" aircraft did double-duty as both Fighters and Interceptors (which is what Pursuit aircraft were intended for originally: interception).

Just a side note: there are a LOT of darn fine air museums just about everywhere in the US. We are fortunate to have one at March Air Reserve Base, not far from our home in Wildomar, CA. They have an extensive collection of aircraft and memorbilia dating back almost to the Wright Brothers.... There's also an excellent museum in Palm Springs, which mainly caters to the World War II era of aviation. And for those of you on the other side of the Mississippi, if your travels ever take you to Ohio you might want to visit Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, home to the Air Force Museum -- they have one of just about every aircraft that the USAF ever flew! (Someplace I've wanted to visit for a LONG time but have yet to have the chance. Someday, though.)

(USAF 1975-1980)
Posted by KB6OJS (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"P" no longer Pursuit - "F" not always for fighters?
While "P" used to stand for "Pursuit" until right at the end of WWII, the article's author is correct in that "P" now does stand for "Patrol" as in the P-3 Orion Anti-Submarine Patrol plane. This being the government it should be no surprise that the beauracracy has led to much confusing nomenclature. :)

As the author notes, the designations aren't always even truthful within the military's guidelines. The F-111 was originally designed to be a fighter but when it grew (through design changes &#38; add-ons) too bloated to function well in that role, it was modified to be used as a bomber, without changing its "F" designation. There are also various theories as to why the F-117 Stealth Fighter is so named, even though it is solely employed as a bomber.
Posted by DougHillman (2 comments )
Link Flag
Was that in "can't buy me love?"
Bad 80's movie, with cool planes in the "airplane graveyard' as it's called in the movie.
Posted by MDPR (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not Quite
That was at Mojave Airport, where airliners go to storage.
Posted by Gromit801 (393 comments )
Link Flag
but it has been in quite a few movies
last one I recall being "Space Cowboys"
Posted by TucsonAlexAZ (53 comments )
Link Flag
back to earth
Like the author, I'm not too knowledgeable about airplanes but
perhaps share the same romanticism that train buffs have about
trains. I have only been to PIMA, but thought it was a wonderful
stroll around a variety of retired planes, including a couple of old
Air Force Ones ? <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.w-stop.com/zenphoto/boneyard/" target="_newWindow">http://www.w-stop.com/zenphoto/boneyard/</a>.
Posted by wploger (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
PIMA Air and Space Museum
I've been to this place several times. I recently took my family and my son loved it.

They've even got an SR-71, several former Air Force 1 aircraft, and as the article stated, a number of other must-see aircraft.

Of note is a very tiny one they house indoors called "The Bumble Bee", which is believe is the smallest aircraft to actually make flight.

This museum is absolutely a must-see if you're even remotely interested in aircraft and in the Tucson area.

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @ pleasedontspam.com
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice enough
That's nice. But my quirky favourite is the museum at Valle.

Several times a year I do a long weekend at the Grand Canyon &#38; after I stop for gas at Valle, I'm almost always drawn to the Valle airport &#38; museum - <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.valleairport.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.valleairport.com/</a>
Posted by DryHeatDave (79 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice information
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.studentloansdebtconsolidation.net" target="_newWindow">http://www.studentloansdebtconsolidation.net</a>
Posted by danielscharles (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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