Where your airplane goes to die

Air crashes loom so large in our imaginations, we forget that most planes don’t end up in a fireball. Their disintegrations are far less dramatic; they’re likely to take place very quietly, without any loss of life, in a suburb of the little town of Mojave, in the Californian desert, the site of the world’s largest ‘airplane graveyard’, where redundant aircraft from around the world are scrapped and stripped for parts.

When you go there, from a distance, it looks like the entire fleet of a sizeable international airport has touched down and parked in close formation, wing tip to wing tip. There are planes from the Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, Zimbabwe and Switzerland; there are short-haul Airbuses and giant 747s. Only when you get nearer do you start to notice that each of the planes has suffered a particular injury. Several are missing their noses; others have their intakes and sensor probes wrapped in silver foil; a few have lost their undercarriages and are being held up off the ground by packing crates. An Air India 737 has been sliced in half and dug into the sand, so that its cockpit points up towards the sky, with no sign of its rear fuselage.

The ground is strewn with undercarriages and engines, seats and cargo boxes, ailerons and elevators. Machines which spent the better part of their working lives being cosseted by engineers and highly trained mechanics are in death hacked at with chain saws and diggers. Most of the planes started out in the fleets of well-funded flag carriers and then over time slipped down the rungs of the aviation ladder until, in their final employment, they were perhaps doing midnight cargo runs from Miami to San Juan or shuttling between Addis Ababa and Harare, their once-immaculate first-class seats patched up with silver duct tape.

How quickly planes age: though the oldest of them don’t even date back fifty years, they can seem more antique than a Greek temple. Inside the cabins, you find remnants of completely obsolete technologies: outsize Bakelite phones, coils of fat electric cables, bulky boxes on the ceilings where film projectors once slotted. The cockpits have seats for flight engineers, whose jobs are presently being done by computers the size of hardcover books. Some aircraft still sport their Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines, the proud workhorses of the 1970s, which generated a then-remarkable 17,500 pounds of thrust, not guessing that a few decades later their successors can, with a fraction of the fuel or noise output, produce five times that.

The planes are dying not in the gruesome accident one associates them with, when the engines are on fire and the emergency slide lies tumescent around the main door, the ladies having grown too troubled to remember to remove their high-heeled shoes, but simply through the slow erosion of metal in the desert wind. Perhaps we are always more likely to die like this, without particular drama, without firemen in smoke hoods and foam on the runway, without the comfort of a collective accident and the sympathy of newscasters, but through an insipidly slow process of disintegration. It’s a poetic place, the airplane graveyard.

Richard Baker is a photographer from London working on personal street and cultural themes. You can see more of his work here: Richard Baker Photography.