Established in 1946, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) is an aircraft/missile storage and maintenance facility located in Tucson, AZ. Situated on 2,600 acres that house over 4,400 different aircraft of nearly every type, from passenger jets to the B-52 bombers that were chopped into pieces as part of the START I treaty, AMARG is the foremost facility for maintenance, salvage, and storage of US military aircraft in the world.
The visit to the AMARG (the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Restoration Group) facility was, simply put, one of the best days of my life. After a lot of persistence and good luck in securing permission to photograph it, I was elated at the mind-boggling enormity of AMARG when I took an initial drive through with the woman who was my guide.
She was an excellent host. She knew more fascinating information about the varied aircraft and their individual stories than I could ever hope to recount, and she sat patiently for hours in the sweltering heat in her van while I photographed. She watched me carefully to make sure that as I worked I didn't forget trivial details such as sunscreen or hydration, things that could have easily put me in the hospital as I am not accustomed to working in the blistering heat of the Arizona desert in the middle of the summer. She made me aware of the dangers posed by the coyote - who I saw periodically watching from a distance - but moreso the rattlesnakes who lived on the facility, telling me a story about a serviceman who came in once with a snake dangling by its fangs from his coveralls. Luckily it had not pierced his skin.
It is very much an active site, with aircraft being moved to be salvaged or reused. Frequently I was stopped by servicepeople who asked who I was and if I had clearance to be there. They were always kind and polite, but they were also armed and their stance indicated that they wouldn't hesitate to draw their weapons in an instant and that trespassing would be very unwise. I pointed them to the van and gave them the name of my guide, always within my sight, and they would allow me to go on my way. I saw them often, working on the various aircraft, spraying a white chemical mixture over the cockpits that would help decrease the heat inside. It continually struck me what an honor it was to be there, and how much respect they treated the aircraft with.
My gracious guide stayed into the evening, past when she normally left, so that I could take pictures of the aircraft beneath the brilliant sunset. Off in the distance storm clouds swirled and I barely noticed how exhausted I was because I was in a sort of trance. I kept thinking that I could spend months at AMARG and still not fully do the site justice. With well over 4,000 aircraft, there would never be enough time to see everything. She drove me back to the gate and impulsively I gave her a hug before I left. I could never begin to articulate how I felt then, but my heart was in my throat as I drove back to the hotel. Somehow I had just been allowed to see one of the great and secret wonders of the world, and my gratitude was (and continues to be) boundless.
Photographs and text by Matthew Christopher. For more images click the thumbnails below.
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Last Updated: May, 2012