I find that Arizona has
a long and fascinating military aviation history of training and developing
pilots and aircrews that dates back to World War II. Sunny skies and plenty
of open, unpopulated land made Arizona a perfect place to accommodate
numerous airfields. At the height of aircrew training in World War II there
were 17 major airfields, half of which remained open throughout the Cold
War. Only three remain open today.
With so many aircraft in
the skies, whether under the control of new or experienced pilots, accidents
were a certainty. They happened frequently, and sometimes ended tragically
with the loss of the pilots and aircrew.
Most of these sites were
cleaned up as thoroughly as possible given the resources available at the
time. At a few crash sites, far away from populated areas in remote
locations, clean-up was simply not considered practical and the wreckage was
left after the recovery crews removed the aircrew’s remains, bombsights, and
other classified equipment. Many sites from the 1940’s and 1950’s were left
intact if they were located in a remote mountain area. Unfortunately, most
were scrapped by aluminum salvagers who would melt down the fuselage and
wings into ingots and transport it out on mules, leaving behind only the
landing gear, engines, and other scattered non-aluminum parts. The military
used the highest grade aluminum for which recyclers paid a high price, and
that was incentive enough for these men to camp out months on end to melt it
down and pack it out.
As an outdoor
enthusiast, I enjoy hiking around the state looking for these old crash
sites and photographing the historical aviation remnants of the past. I find
a great deal of adventure in hiking out into the mountains, miles away from
anyone or any roads, armed with nothing but a map and a backpack while
attempting to locate an old crash site. Regardless of how much or how little
of the aircraft is left, I find that no two sites are the same-- each has
its own unique story.
However, finding the
crash sites is only half of the puzzle. The other half, tracking down the
pilots and aircrews and interviewing them, has also been well worth the
challenge. I have established new friendships, gained first-hand knowledge
of what transpired from someone who was actually on board, and have
gratefully accumulated a collection of original crash photographs and other
Clearly, most of the
crashes are from WWII through the1950’s when a high number of airfields were
still operating. Of the approximately 1,100 military aircraft crashes in
Arizona from WWII to present, over 850 occurred before January, 1960. The
number has steadily decreased over the years as pilot training and aircraft
maintenance have greatly improved.
Finding these obscure
crash sites can be challenging to say the least, and the proverbial phrase,
“needle in the haystack” fittingly applies. Despite my repeated attempts,
there are still quite a few sites that have managed to elude me (much to my
frustration), but that comes with the territory!
Should you visit a crash
site, remember to first obtain a permit or the proper permission before
hiking on Indian reservations and other private property. Please be
respectful of the site and courteous to others that may visit. I am
occasionally surprised by those who choose to litter, as well as ruin a
piece of history simply to satisfy their curiosity of finding out what a
shotgun blast does to aircraft aluminum.
Here are a few stories
that I have chosen from the 400 crash sites I have visited over the years.
With so many fascinating stories, it was really a challenge to pick a select
few to write about. I did not reveal specific crash locations for a number
of reasons. Besides, half of the adventure is in hiking out there yourself
and trying to locate the site! If you are aware of a site and have questions
regarding it, contact me-- I should be able to give you some answers.