Flights Of Fancy
Tucsonans Find New Uses For Old Aircraft.
By Mari Wadsworth
NOVEMBER 15, 1999: HOW DEEP DO you bury a B-52? "Not as deep as you'd think," chuckles architect Dave Burns. "If you flew one into the ground, you'd have a deeper hole." In this case we're only talking about a piece of the tail of the giant Vietnam-era bomber, which Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock proposed as part of his design for a Tucson elementary school, a project the internationally acclaimed designer collaborated on in 1994 with local firm Burns and Wald-Hopkins Architects.
Predock imagined an architectural element of Tucson history for each grade level, and shopped around for a monument to the Old Pueblo's aviation history. Out in the vast tract of flat desert east of Davis-Monthan AFB, he fell in love with a black, 40-foot B-52 tail stabilizer. "As I recall, the part was almost free," Burns says. "But we needed to fill it with concrete to stabilize it." In labor and concrete, the tab skyrocketed to $18,000. That, combined with concerns about the aircraft's war connotations, led the school district reps to politely decline the offer.
But what the famous architect could not pull off, a local sculptor did, in 1989, as part of his MFA thesis. Konried Muench's "Vertical Wing with Doorway" -- a shiny tail piece, actually -- continues on "temporary" display in front of the Philabaum Gallery, 711 S. Sixth Ave. There's no denying we have a collective fascination and fear of aircraft. And if you say you're not afraid, you haven't seen "the boneyard."
Like a billion dollars or a living prehistoric mammal, the scale of aircraft demolition is something easily understood, but difficult to visualize. Fact one: there's something ethereal about these grounded behemoths. Airplanes have a lifespan; and when they die, they await rebirth.
If they're worthy -- terrifically smart, the type to die for their country or donate their bodies to science, are uncommonly good-looking or just in the right place at the right time -- they may be destined for airplane nirvana, conveniently located in southeast Tucson. Look out your window on the final descent into Tucson International Airport, and you'll see this unmistakable feature of the local landscape. Row upon row of fighter jets, heavy-duty cargo and fuel carriers, bombers, helicopters and other vessels in various states of disrepair glint in the sun for miles on end. Meager rainfall, low humidity, alkaline soil and rock-hard caliche ensure that with scant preparation, these old warbirds, whatever shape they're in, can bake indefinitely in the desert with minimal deterioration and corrosion.
That 2,600 acres east of Davis-Monthan AFB has stored military aircraft since the end of the second War to End All Wars. Today it's the domain of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), a federally operated facility charged, among other things, with the demolition of hundreds of B-52 bombers under the 1994 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. To date, 268 B-52s have been, as the indelicate phrase goes, "eliminated." There in the open desert, a 13,000-pound steel guillotine, free falling from a height of 80 feet, severed their wings, tails, and certain other body parts, leaving their frames exposed for 90 days so our former Soviet treaty partners could verify their remains via satellite or inspection. Then the pieces were sold off to the highest bidder.
"The treaty is designed to make deep reductions limiting strategic offensive arms," reads an optimistic AMARC press release. Take heed that AMARC has an inventory of 4,600 tactical aircraft, and more than 267,000 line items of production tooling for new and refurbished aircraft. And that's just off-site storage for the combined armed forces. And though its ranks have been trimmed, the B-52 "heavy bomber" hasn't been retired. A whole fleet of them -- the H class -- will remain airborne and fully equipped through the year 2040.
With that in mind, AMARC has set aside the guillotine in favor of "surgically cutting" the 97 remaining B-52s slated for demolition at their facility. By using a hand-held saw and selective cuts, they can comply with the letter of the SALT while increasing the salvagability of B-52 parts for the remaining fleet. A perusal of their inventory doesn't reveal any B-1 or B-2 stealth bombers, both manufactured to replace those old B-52s, but the bat-like form of the B-2 is no stranger to Tucson skies. Arms reductions or no, we're hardly freeing up air space. But articles on defense spending are tedious and rarely surprising.
What is remarkable is that AMARC is running perhaps the highest-stakes recycling program in the world, with an annual budget of $53 million: "In fiscal year 1999," one report reads, "AMARC received 93 aircraft valued at over $788 million. (We) returned (to the air) 133 aircraft and 21,303 parts valued at $1.2 billion."
So where does all that expensive aluminum go? Back to the U.S. military, to foreign governments, private collectors, and a handful of private salvage and restoration companies right in AMARCs backyard. For some, the winding stretch of Craycroft Road between Ajo and Irvington is a pilgrimage to Mecca, a search for an old friend and a source of inspiration and renewal. For others, it's a dusty swath of mostly forgotten scrap yards full of eerie and once-expensive junk.
For Terry Shelton, director of Aircraft Restoration & Marketing (ARM), it's never a dull moment. "We call it the romance of aviation," he says of the two yards where they've been acquiring, rebuilding and scrapping a wide variety of military and civilian aircraft for the past 23 years. "You never do the same thing twice."
Shelton purchased the first 10 B-52s up for bid from AMARC seven years ago, and he expects to bid on 10 more in the next month or so. "We try to sell them [intact] for memorabilia," he says. "But the scrappers get 'em and just chomp 'em up so there's nothing left...make beer cans out of them." That's his facetious way of saying the metal, mostly aluminum and tons of steel, is recycled for the manufacture of cars, buildings, stainless steel, and sure, millions of aluminum cans.
A couple of wingless, camouflaged B-52 bodies remain on the east side of his yard. En route, we pass the narrow tube of an F-105 fighter plane propped up like a giant model on triangular steel cradles. Wingless, tailless and missing part of its nose, it's seemingly beyond repair. That's the first thing you learn out here -- there's no such thing as "beyond repair."
"That (plane) was in Vietnam," Shelton says with a sweep of his hand. "She did most of the work before the F-4s came along. We had it all together, and now we're taking it apart to ship to a museum in England."
Shelton, whose father was a Marine Corp. aviator, has a cautious love for aircraft. "I went to college so I would never have to work on planes," he says. Nonetheless, he found the relatively isolated work of retrieving pieces of demolished planes at Evergreen preferable to his years as a self-employed businessman (this is what retail jewelry and women's apparel will do to you).
These days, he's responsible for all the activities at the privately owned ARM. He estimates half of their business is rebuilding for aesthetic displays, with the rest going to "testing, movies and scrap and parts sales." He's sold large-scale props that appeared -- usually in flames -- in Armageddon, Clliffhanger, Tank Girl, Iron Eagle III and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. He's had calls for 707 bodies to make restaurants in Korea. He transported a fighter plane cockpit to a doctor in Santa Cruz, California, who fashioned an addition to his home out of it. "It's all computerized," Shelton says. "The instrument panels light up, and there's a stereo system. I got him a tape of a pilot flying from Guam to Midway, with the engine sounds and the chatter. So it's like you're in a real cockpit."
He seems genuinely interested in every crazy thing people come up with to do with airplanes, and he has files of scraps, magazine articles and photos of every ingenious endeavor that's crossed his desk. One of several stories he tells with a gentle smirk is the fate of the HU-16, a Navy sea plane called "the Albatross":
"All these doctors and lawyers thought these would be the greatest things to buy and fix up, like a flying Winnebago. They put kitchens in them and everything else, and then found out the reason there are two seats in front of that plane is because it takes two pilots. So they're out there, with the family and neighbors inside, with the dog and the kids, trying to land in the ocean and in lakes. They'd never done that before, so they'd crash. So now they're all sitting in airports looking all nice and pretty, but nobody can fly them. You might've seen them on TV in the last couple years in Budweiser commercials."
Not a single plane out here has crashed, though you wouldn't know it to look at them. "If they had, we wouldn't have them," Shelton explains. "They'd be in a hangar somewhere, getting rebuilt piece by piece to find out what happened. Like the Lockerbie jet. That one's all back together now, though they still haven't figured out what happened."
Which leads us to those 737s we see, with the six-foot holes blown clear through their outer shell. "Oh, we blew those up on purpose," he says, mumbling something about Arab terrorists, C4 plastic explosive, and a commissioned experiment.
"Just a little bit like this (he makes a circle about the size of a nickel with his fingers) makes one of those big holes. If you were in the air and blew a hole like that, you'd all be dead. If the plane doesn't come out of the sky then the smoke'll kill ya, and if the smoke doesn't kill ya, the fire will burn the plane up before it can get to the ground." Talk like that puts you in touch with your inner eject button real fast.
Beyond the mobile home that serves as an office, and the DC3 with a wingspan that provides covered parking for several cars, a series of quonset huts made from semi-circular jumbo jet sections give the yard the feel of an aeronautical M.A.S.H. unit. Above the metallic din of hammers and power tools, classic rock spills out from an unseen shop radio.
This panoramic view of aircraft isn't for the faint of heart. Disassembled planes are juxtaposed in ways most of us try not to think about. Afternoon sunlight filters through broken windows into the ghost ship of a stripped commercial jetliner. An upside-down section of a 747 has several rows of furniture stuffed claustrophobically back inside, seat backs and tray tables dutifully stowed in their upright positions. Ribbons of aluminum and steel spill out of the fuselage of a Navy plane whose cockpit -- if that's even the right cockpit -- is several yards away. Hugely round jet engine casings lay on their sides, empty. An emergency door leans precariously into the maw of a ragged cargo hold. Panels of aluminum "skin" in recognizable corporate colors, ubiquitous beige cargo bins and galley storage units seem to be everywhere, clustered among the tenacious scrub of sage brush, desert broom and the occasional palo verde tree.
A rusted dumpster contains miles of plastic-coated copper wire from dozens of electrical systems; and scores of unrecognizable parts, from steel bones as long as your leg to fragments that'd fit in the palm of your hand, are in piles and fill oil drums everywhere.
You can buy the shell of an airplane here for $100 a lineal foot. What you do with it is up to you.
His proposals of recent years have included: embedding a jet nose and tail on either side of the "wingspan" of a freeway overpass; creating a 20-by-8-foot airport installation using reflective 707 siding and motion picture projection; burying sections of wings and tails to create "fossils" visible from the air; and standing a trio of intact 707s vertically, wing-to-wing, to rise some 108 feet into the sky. The models for some of these projects are large-scale sculptures unto themselves, but so far none has seen the green light of a public commission. (Though the 108-foot sculpture, "Three Graces," is a project he's still mulling over with Shelton out at ARM.)
"That would've been a fun piece," he muses about the polished 707 for the pedestrian walkway. "But putting pieces of aircraft inside the airport is a dodgy subject." Like making fun of the metal detector? "It's making fun of the systems that build the aircraft, and I don't think a lot of aircraft [industries] want people to look at the structure of planes."
Two temporary exhibits in 1986 -- a 25-foot pyramid of P2V tailpieces on the Campbell Avenue face of UMC, and the 55-foot "Wing-Truss" installation on an exterior wall of the Tucson Museum of Art -- introduced the passionate sculptor to a wider local audience, but those pieces were scrapped and recycled when they failed to find permanent homes.
"I just got tired of proposing," he says. "I have slides in Boston, slides at the International Sculpture Center in Chicago. I've been proposing stuff to companies around the country, had organizations propose stuff for me. I had slides on file with the Phoenix Art Commission for seven or eight years, with T/PAC, and just never heard anything." But he sees similar ideas surfacing out there -- from public art proposals to a Phoenix car wash -- and wonders aloud where his proposals fit into the larger picture. "It's showing up in the architecture of this country. I keep seeing it in magazines," he says with good-natured frustration.
It's true that plane parts are turning up in unlikely venues, as in the case of a Seattle resident who made national news when he parked a Boeing 737 in his yard as a kind of manufactured home. You can't help but feel for Muench (pronounced "mench"), who 13 years ago went out on a limb with his frieze-like, 55-foot TMA installation, telling a Star reporter about his materials, "Now is the time."
So far, Muench's only enduring local monument inspired by aircraft is the aforementioned "Vertical Wing with Doorway," a shiny, 20-foot tower of aluminum just a few blocks south of downtown. Other works include an untitled steel sculpture on University Boulevard west of Euclid Avenue; and a more recent installation outside Rochelle Rubin on Swan and Fort Lowell roads. "Rock as Cloud," a boulder suspended within arcs of steel, graces the front yard of his Sam Hughes home. He also donated two wall hangings for Dinnerware Gallery's recent art auction and gallery show. He continues to exhibit his work in national competitions.
"An interesting idea isn't always accepted right away. And sculpture is a funny material, a hard medium to do right. For me art is about the transference of energy...the life and death of ideas, and the whole putting your brain on the grindstone to figure out if you're creating a valid statement. Sculpture should be monumental. It should be relevant. It has no function other than (hopefully) to elevate a person's consciousness about the world they live in."
Casual and soft-spoken, Baker is about as unassuming an artist you'll find. Linda breaks into a smile on hearing his name. "Oh yeah, we know Scott!" He's been a familiar face around the ARM yard for the past three years, pulling up in his '68 Land Cruiser about once a month to scavenge small mechanical parts to incorporate into elegant glass-top tables of maple, cherry and mesquite. "He usually comes up (to the office) with both his arms full (of parts), stands in front of Terry and says, 'How much?' "
Baker is an 18th-century guy making his peace with the 21st century. He works out of a rented warehouse space in the Splinter Bros. studios, where he's still building a line of turn-of-the-century, Shaker-inspired furniture. He cites L.A. architect Tom Mayne, whose work he stumbled across in a bookstore, as a major bridge between his love of antiques and industry. "Morphosis' work was the first that got me into this industrial, machinery stuff."
Baker's designs spring from old materials and ideas, but he's taken the production-line junk of the modern age, stripped it of paint, grease and rust, and pressed it newly into service. His interest in aircraft is primarily with pre-jet planes, but he says you don't find those in scrap yards anymore. And he's quick to distinguish that his fascination with machine parts isn't tied to any romantic or philosophical bent. "I just like the forms; more for the aesthetics than figuring out how they go together."
He and his business manager/mom are packing up crates for a design expo in Chicago. An adopted stray cat languishes, unconcerned, on the workbench.
"For the art pieces, I like the feeling of movement even though the pieces themselves don't actually move," he explains. "People have to look at them and figure out what's holding them together, why they're not falling off the wall, etc. Like on that table (disassembled for its trip to Chicago), the legs don't appear to be attached. That's not an aircraft part, but it's the same aesthetic."
Most of the time, he doesn't even know what the parts are. He opens a drawer to reveal a mass of polished metal, clean and smooth, more or less neatly arranged by shape. "This was a yellow part," is about as technical as the conversation gets. Ribs on a round piece of steel look very aviation-like, while a set of v-shaped steel supports look more like tools than materials. "These are great for table supports," he says. "I only buy parts I can envision doing something." Once he's created a new function for them, only close inspection (a tiny Boeing stamp or serial number) would reveal their former status.
"These (studio pieces) are basically art projects for fun," he says. "I don't get into the major parts." He says there was some interest in making a bar for a downtown restaurant, using the front part of the engine compartment of a jumbo jet, but it didn't go forward. "The parts could be $1,000, so you need the commission before you can buy that," he says.
There's no doubt that he's devoted to the ideals of craft, but he concedes that the custom business isn't where his true passions lie. "I'm trying to get slowly out of that and into more small-run productions. I don't want to be a one-man shop." Here his 18th-century ideals take yet another turn. "I have this vision," he says through a lopsided grin, "of a business card that says [Scott Baker], Captain of Industry."
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