I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat. For years afterward I'd ask people what they knew about it, and I kept hearing the same thing: the place has been on lockdown since 9/11, and they won't let civilians anywhere near the boneyard.
But one day my luck changed -- I met a very nice fellow who works there, and with a minimum of cajoling on my part he agreed to take me beyond the high-security fence and show me around. Of course, I brought my camera.
The first thing to know is that the Mojave Air and Spaceport, as it's officially known, isn't just a graveyard for inactive planes. It's an active airport, home to one of the nation's only civilian test pilot schools, and most famously the place where Space Ship One was developed and performed the first privately-funded human spaceflight in 2004. But it also functions as a giant parking lot for hundreds of jets owned by dozens of different entities, from major airlines to private individuals. If an airline doesn't anticipate needing some of its planes for an extended period of time, it's much cheaper for them to park those planes in the desert and have maintenance crews check them out once every few weeks than to keep them active.
Some planes have been there only a few months -- some have been there for years and years, owned by companies that rent space at the boneyard by the acre.
The most fascinating part of the facility, to me at least, is the boneyard itself. This is where planes that are no longer valuable enough to be repaired and put back into service -- totaled, as it were -- are cannibalized for spare parts. It's not a delicate operation: the planes are ripped apart by big machines, torn into piles of fuselage that look, standing amidst them, like the aftermath of terrible crashes.