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Warplanes and a mighty missile laid to restWarplanes and a mighty missile laid to rest

Tucson, ArizonaTucson, Arizona

Some years ago, droning along near Tucson, Arizona, on our way back from Alabama to our then-home in Southern California, we spotted an astounding sight. Below us were literally thousands of military airplanes lined up, row after row, neatly arranged by aircraft type. Dozens of gigantic B-52 bombers sat with their wings cut off. Other rows held intact B-1 bombers, C-130s, huge Galaxies, AWACs, and squadron after squadron of F-4s, F-14s, and other fighters. Enough air power to lay waste to entire continents, all just sitting in broad daylight. “We have to go see that!” I exclaimed, and so we did, landing a few minutes later at Tucson International Airport—once again demonstrating the freedom general aviation pilots have in the United States to fly and land almost anywhere at will. Over subsequent visits we discovered how much Tucson has to offer the visitor, especially in the winter months, starting in early November with America’s largest Dia de los Muertos procession.

  • At the Titan Missile Museum, you can stand right above a monstrous ICBM that is loaded into a silo. The Titan II was the largest operational land-based nuclear missile ever used by the United States, 103 feet tall, and with a range of 5,500 nautical miles. The missile had one W53 warhead with a yield of 9 Megatons (9,000 kilotons). The only Titan II operational silo that has not been demolished, this one is now a National Historic Landmark. Photo courtesy Titan Missile Museum.
  • An aerial view of just a tiny fraction of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. On a bus tour of AMARC we learned that 365 B-52s were destroyed in the 1990s to comply with the START I treaty. Each B-52 was chopped into five pieces by a 13,000-pound guillotine, supported by a crane. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amber Porter.
  • A Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Photo by Beta75 via Wikipedia.
  • The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “I’ll Be Around” at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Photo by Andrew Thomas.
  • The Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Sentimental Journey” at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Photo by Eric Salard.
  • Growing up during the height of the Cold War, baby boomers had to practice “duck and cover” in school. Air raid sirens went off at 10 a.m. once a month (to test them), a sound that struck fear in many neighborhood kids. Tour the Titan Missile Museum and descend belowground in a hardened facility designed to withstand a nuclear attack. You’ll see the red safe, manual with instructions, and the two keys that would have been turned to launch the nuclear warhead-armed missile. Photo by Jeff Goldberg.
  • On the underground tour you’ll learn that a launch required placing two keys in two switches and turning them simultaneously. The switches were far enough apart so that two people would be required to turn the keys. Those keys were placed on the table, but not in the switches, after the assassination of President Kennedy, because it wasn’t immediately known if the Soviet Union had committed an act of war. Launch sequence, from key turn to liftoff, was 58 seconds. After our first visit, we returned with our children, so they could see and touch it all for themselves. Photo by Gary Dickerson.
  • During the Dia de Los Muertos All Souls Procession, a woman places a note to a deceased loved one into a small pot. All the notes will later be placed into the large, decorated Urn seen behind them, and the Urn will be set on fire. Photo by C. Elliot.
  • Upwards of 150,000 people march through downtown Tucson toward the large grand finale stage. Photo by Kathleen Dreier.
  • Performers during the All Souls Procession Grand Finale prepare to set the huge Urn on fire, filled with the hopes, offerings, and wishes of the public for those who have passed. Photo by Rick Meinecke.
  • You can hike in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, a lush riparian canyon just north of Tucson. Photo courtesy BLM.
  • You might see a coatimundi like this one in Aravaipa Canyon, or even a bobcat. Photo by Tony Hisgett via Flickr.
  • Biosphere 2 sits on a 40-acre science campus that is open to the public. It has been owned by the University of Arizona since 2011. Its mission is to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching, and lifelong learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. Originally built to be an artificial, materially closed ecological system, or vivarium, it remains the largest closed system ever created. Photo by Dr. Starbuck via Wikipedia.
  • Saguaro National Park. The giant cactus plants can exceed 40 feet tall and 150 years in age, and often don’t grow their first “arm” until they are 75–100 years old. Photo by Saguaro Pictures via Wikipedia.
  • Tanque Verde occupies Arizona’s most beautiful Sonoran Desert landscape. Adobe walls and Santa Fe architecture perfectly complement the saguaro-studded hillsides around the ranch. Guests may enjoy horseback riding, the ranch spa, and fitness and nature centers. Fishing, mountain biking, hiking, basketball, and tennis are offered on site, while golf and hot-air ballooning are available nearby. Southwest Pueblo cuisine, outdoor BBQ, and the Doghouse Saloon ensure you never go hungry or thirsty. Photo courtesy Tanque Verde.

On that first flight, we discovered the Davis-Monthan Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), also known as “the Boneyard.” Look on Google Earth and you’ll see what I mean. AMARC is the world’s largest aircraft storage and preservation facility, with more than 4,000 aircraft. Some are sold, some used for spare parts, but many are preserved for future use.

AMARC bus tours depart from and are conducted by the Pima Air and Space Museum, just south of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. One of the world’s largest nongovernment-funded aerospace museums, Pima displays nearly 300 aircraft outdoors and in four large hangars. Most prominent are the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, Martin PBM Mariner, and North American F-107. In 2015, Boeing donated the second 787 Dreamliner ever built for display at the museum.

A Titan II ICBM exits its silo during a test launch. An operational warhead would be 9 Megatons, equivalent to 9 million tons of TNT. The launch sequence, from key turn to liftoff, took 58 seconds. From liftoff to target, flight time was 30 minutes at 17,000 miles per hour. Only 5.5 minutes of that was powered flight; the other 24.5 minutes was ballistic flight. Photo courtesy Titan Missile Museum.

But the museum that made the biggest impression was the Titan Missile Museum, about 25 miles south of Tucson. You’ll stand right above the monstrous ICBM, loaded in its silo. You can’t help but imagine that giant rocket being launched to rain destruction on the other side of the world, and breathe a sigh of relief that it never did. Next, descend belowground in a hardened facility designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Open a door that weighs 3 tons by pressing with one finger—it’s hung in such perfect balance. You’ll see the red safe, instruction manual, and the two keys that would have been turned to launch the missile. Those keys were placed on the table, but not in the switches, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, because it wasn’t immediately known if the Soviet Union had committed an act of war. The only Titan II operational silo that has not been demolished, it is now a National Historic Landmark.

Dia de los Muertos is the Mexican festival where people honor and remember loved ones who have died. During the All Souls Procession Weekend in early November, you can join 150,000 participants on the streets of downtown Tucson for a two-mile-long, human-powered procession that ends in the ceremonial burning of a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings, and wishes of the public for those who have passed.

A girl honors and remembers her lost pet during the All Souls Procession. Photo by David Anderson.

Just north of Tucson, one of Arizona’s most important wildlife repositories, Aravaipa Canyon, is a pleasure to hike in cooler months. Among many other animals, we’ve seen bobcats and coatimundi there, attracted to the always flowing creek. Visit the Biosphere 2, originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space and still used for a variety of experiments. See bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and other wildlife at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a highly rated zoo and one of southern Arizona’s most-visited attractions.

Visit Saguaro National Park to walk among the giant cacti that are synonymous with the West. You can camp in the wilderness or stay at the luxurious Lodge at Ventana Canyon. Or, make a great winter escape at Tanque Verde, one of America’s most venerable cattle and guest ranches. This perennial award-winner is a short, free shuttle ride from Tucson International.

As we discovered, Tucson is a great destination for pilots and others interested in military aviation and history. But there’s plenty for nature lovers as well, and with mild temperatures in the 60s and 70s degrees Fahrenheit, November through March is the best time to visit.

In the foothills west of Tucson near Saguaro National Park, the Lodge at Ventana Canyon provides luxurious accommodations, multiple dining options, golf, tennis, swimming, and full spa facilities. Photo courtesy Lodge at Ventana Canyon.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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