Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Aircraft Graveyard

This io9 article about aircraft graveyards provoked something in me that I felt compelled to share.

The analogy to human cemeteries in this article is appropriate, at least to me. Being a lifelong aircraft buff, an aircraft graveyard always fills me with a certain melancholy. These were once the most powerful and state-of-the-art machines; a mobile tribute to man's ingenuity that ferried people beyond even the reach of the birds. And now--paperweights rotting in the merciless elements.

The military aircraft lend a whole other level to that. I can't help but think about how these machines served their country as a part of the blanket of safety that protects our freedom and brought their pilots and crews--sometimes multiple generations of them--home to their families. And now, they are abandoned to the elements.

I remember walking through an old B-52 Stratofortress one year at the now-defunct El Toro Air Show. I gazed in awe at the well-worn interior of patched seats and clunky, primitive electronics. It stank of old metal and stale sweat. I crouched into the space where the electronic warfare officer sat, a space so cramped that it was hard to believe that an adult could sit here (let alone in a flight suit, parachute and helmet). Scrawled into an inconspicuous spot on the aluminum bulkhead behind, I saw, "Bill D."

In the intervening years, I have sometimes wondered about "Bill D." Was he young? Middle aged? Did he do this while sitting at alert on some tarmac in 1965, waiting to see if this alert was the "real thing"--that someone had unleashed the unthinkable--wondering if this morning was the last time he was going to see his young wife and infant son, trying in some small way to relieve his tension and leave a piece of himself? Or perhaps out of boredom in 1985, flying a seemingly interminable circuit over the Arctic? Or to keep himself awake in 1991 while refueling for the umpteenth sortie over Republican Guard positions in the Gulf in 1991?

I don't believe in spirits, or ghosts, or auras, or any of that shit. But to someone familiar with the history of
these aircraft, it's like walking a Civil War battlefield. The sense of history is palpable. The mind's eye paints vivid images of the men who fought and sweat and worried and triumphed in these cramped spaces. Irrational as it is to have such sentimentality toward a collection of metal parts, it is difficult for me to escape the feeling that these once proud and powerful machines, these artifacts of history, somehow deserve something more.