I know a lot of people get freaked out in a graveyard – but to me, an airplane graveyard is even more unsettling. Few of the residents seem ready for the scrapheap. It’s like carting a 50-ish person off to a deserted lot, him in a hole and shoveling dirt on him. Too young, too much still to give the world.
Just look at these. Imagine how much money is just sitting here – and most of it was fully functional before being stripped of useful parts and left to the elements.
Even if they can fly anymore, there are still plenty of perfectly good uses. I’ve stayed in two hotel that were once airplanes – one a 747 in Stockholm, the other a Bristol freighter in rural New Zealand. I’ve dined in a great old CIA cargo hauler in Costa Rica. And think of the company that makes homes out of 727s! I would love to live in one of these! And what worth are they as scrap, I wonder. And how long will they sit in the desert before getting turned into a cola can?
Anyway, I shot these photos at Phoenix Goodyear Airport GYRt, where there’s a pretty good-sized airplane graveyard for airliners. What you’ll see in these photos are airlines from all over the world, and not a bunch of old beaters. There’s only one DC-8-ish sort of plane, and a bunch of 757s, A340s and A320 family aircraft. Sure, the DC-10/MD-11 types are past their prime for passengers. But they’re likely the oldest by a long shot.
For some of these shots, I tried going in for close shots of the aircraft to convey the sense of decay.
If you think visiting an airplane graveyard sounds like fun, check out my story about running a 10K race through one of the most-famous of them all!
This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.
I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.
I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport -- and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.
Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.
Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.
Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west -- and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.
The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.
As it was, I found a decent place to park -- a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.
My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.
After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed -- and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.
Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.
There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.
UPDATE: Consider this avgeek mystery solved. See the italicized text at the end for the thrilling conclusion.
I have an aviation geek (avgeek, for short) mystery on my hands. It’s this photo.
Believe it or not, that’s me. I’m pretty sure I’m 5 years old. I’m definitely making my first visit to Phoenix from Chicago. That’s Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. And, in a throwback to the days of Catch Me if You Can when airline pilots were semi-celebrities, I’m posing on the apron with the captain.
Now, here’s the avgeek mystery: What is that plane?
For the longest time, I thought it was a TWA 707. But I no longer think so. The red stripe is perfectly rectangular, where the TWA red stripe tapered. My best guess is that it’s a Western Airlines plane.
I’m also no longer sure that it’s a 707. First off, it doesn’t appear to have a tandem landing gear. Also, there are only two windows between the two doors, where I believe the 707 had three. That made the Boeing 727 my lead suspect.
But there’s also a ridge on the wing that I haven’t seen before on a 727, so I’m uncertain.
Is there an avgeek out there who can solve this mystery for me?
On a related note, how cool would it be if people these days still recognized the skills involved in flying a commercial aircraft full of paying passengers? I see way too many people saying stuff about how "these planes practically fly themselves."
Yeah, right. I’d love to put someone in a 737 flight simulator and see if they could even manage to figure out how to start the thing up.
Aviation photographers love any chance to get close to the action. And being on the ground level next to one of the runways at a major airport? Excellent. And if the vantage point is at a military installation? Jackpot!
A few years ago, a work event offered me that chance. The only downside is that I hadn’t yet advanced to using a digital SLR. I took these aviation photos at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, right at the home of the 161st Air Refueling Wing of the Arizona National Guard.
This excursion yielded some great perspectives of the 161st Wing’s KC-135 aircraft. I also grabbed some shots of a 727 and a brightly painted corporate jet. I also got some of the usual 737 sorts of aircraft that are the mainstay of Sky Harbor air traffic – not exactly the sort of thing that excites aviation geeks, I know. But the runway-level perspective turns them into a little something different.
My photo friend N. Scott Trimble was also there. I’d love to see what someone with his skills took home from the same place. Of course, with the sheer volume of images a working photographer generates, I expect most of these are long-gone from his hard drives. Then again, he is an aviation geek who might’ve squirreled a few away.
Now that I use a Pentax DSLR, I’d go crazy for another chance at some ground-level aviation photography at Sky Harbor.