Aircraft are a landmark development of human history, and changed the course of the 20th century. They connect us with distant parts of the world in ways that ships and railways never could, and have been adapted for passenger travel, air transport, fire fighting, search and rescue and, of course, as weapons of war. But like cars and trains, aircraft have a shelf-life and are often recycled when their time comes. Sometimes, however, they’re just abandoned, often in remote areas, along with the airfields and bases that once served them.
Some abandoned airfields are former military bases, often witnessing great acts of history and steeped in military tradition. In Britain, hundreds of airfields were built hurriedly during World War Two and reverted back to farmland a few years later when hostilities ceased. Their extensive infrastructures often linger on today, with vast runways, hangars or sometimes just crumbling control towers to tell the story of their wartorn plight – and glory.
Abandoned Airfields and Airbases
Wittstock Airbase, Germany: The extensive ruins of this former Soviet military base once housed the feared MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet, along with a quota of MiG-23 Floggers. Later used by the German Air Force before falling into dereliction, the long runway at Wittstock Airbase (also known as Daber-Alt) is now used for car racing, while the hangars provide space for music events, including the summer Fullmoon Festival. But despite its newfound usage, much of the vast site stands abandoned, with most of its original buildings still extant in various states of disrepair.
RAF Burtonwood, UK: Burtonwood had the distinction of being the largest airbase in Europe during World War Two. Featured in our article about 6 lost American airbases of Britain, the vast empty hangars were all that remained of this once-impressive servicing facility for American fighters and bombers – until recently. Since that article was published, the hangars have been demolished to make way for a business park. Some taxiways and building footings can still be seen, and the main runway now serves as the base of the M62 motorway as it passes near Warrington, Cheshire. Between 1943 and 1945, 11,500 aircraft were processed through RAF Burtonwood, with more than 18,500 personnel on site.
RAF Binbrook, UK: Former home of the English Electric Lightning, Binbrook is a more recent abandonment. Opened in 1940, the base closed in 1988 when the Lightnings were retired from service. Once alive with the roar of jet engines, the runways have now been torn up and an eerie silence has gripped the Lincolnshire Wolds. Driving through Binbrook’s main gate is like entering a military ghost town. The five large hangars now serve as storage facilities and the housing complex has been turned into a village called Brookenby. The station headquarters, guard rooms and barracks linger on in various states of decay, while Romeo66′s haunting photos of the Officers’ Mess reflect heavy vandalism and abandonment.
Before closing, Binbrook hosted “black projects” including the Lockheed F-117A, which slipped “under the radar” by cover of night several years before the U.S. government even acknowledged its existence. The Hollywood film Memphis Belle was also shot there, a reminder of which remains stencilled on the doors of the dilapidated 5 Squadron hangar.
(Image: Tim Marshall, reproduced with permission)
Binbrook and its Lightnings had a special bond with the local community, and today some find the airfield a lonely and melancholy place. But its abandoned state has generated some poignant photography, and the essence of RAF Binbrook is captured beautifully in Tim Marshall’s image of “The Last Lightning”. The former 5 Squadron jet, maintained by a group of enthusiasts, stands in front of the now-overgrown service ramp from which it once operated, as the sun sets on what’s left of the battered runways beyond.
Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California: Some may remember it as Will Smith’s home base in the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, destroyed by UFOs before the survivors trudged off to a very welcoming Area 51. El Toro wasn’t really destroyed by aliens, but what’s left of the hulking complex is not long for this world. The former base has been at the centre of controversy since it was decommissioned in 1999, with interested parties feuding over its future.
Business leaders saw its potential as an international airport, with four huge runways dwarfing the single short strip at nearby John Wayne Airport. The military also expressed an interest in returning to the mothballed base in 2002, but the Department of Defense sold the land soon after and Marine Corps Air Station El Toro is now set to be transformed into Orange County Great Park, the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century.
Nicosia International Airport, Cypress: It’s not just military airports that face closure. Sometimes even large commercial airports fall into dereliction. Nicosia International Airport has been disused since 1974 when fighting erupted between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It now rests within the UN-controlled buffer zone which separates the two parts of Nicosia, and even comes complete with its own bombed-out airliner. The Hawker-Siddley Trident was destroyed by the Turkish Air Force during the invasion, and has remained in situ ever since.
Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong: Anyone who has ever landed there will tell you it’s quite an experience! A descent onto the famous Runway 13 at Kai Tak Airport involved passing low over the crowded harbour and densely populated Western Kowloon area, before making a sharp 47 degree turn above a checkerboard marker on a nearby hillside. If everything went smoothly, the plane would level out at just 140 feet before dropping onto the runway. Kai Tak has since been replaced by a more modern airport, but the legend of Runway 13 will live on in aviation infamy.
Abandoned terminal, San Francisco: Commercial airports are so vast that, occasionally, entire terminals are deserted despite ongoing airport operations. These eerie images of Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport are the exact opposite of the usual chaos and hustle that characterise such places. Terminal 2 was closed for renovation in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2008 that a $383 million upgrade was announced, adopting green materials, that will see it reopen in spring 2011 as a 14 gate base for Virgin America and American Airlines. In its current state, it resembles the silent shopping centres reported in our Dead Malls feature.
Some corners of the world are so isolated and exposed that recovering lost aircraft is almost impossible. This sorry-looking De Havilland Canada Otter is a rare exception. Sitting abandoned on Deception Island near the Antarctic Peninsula for 40 years, it has now been returned to the UK to become the centre-piece of an exhibition commemorating the British Antarctic Survey. The hangar, outside which the aircraft sat, marks the extensive remains of a former British base on the island.
(Images: Igor W.Minaichenkov and Vladimir Nazarov, via English Russia)
The vast, foreboding expanses of Russia are fertile territory for airfields deserted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in some cases littered with the rusting hulks of a once feared war machine. These relics of the Cold War are an eerie sight on the landscape. Some have been dismantled, others scrapped. But in many cases, their intact yet lifeless metal shells simply corrode in a corner of Russia so inhospitable that their longevity is all but guaranteed.
But when it comes to Russia, you don’t necessarily need to venture into the wild to discover a treasure trove of forgotten aerial hardware. Even central Moscow boasts an impressive collection of decaying military fighter planes – an aviation museum that more closely resembles an aircraft graveyard. Between 40 and 50 old jets stand on what used to be an airfield, a curious sight amid modern high-rise and new sports stadia. This scene of rusting Soviet hardware and 21st century Russian regeneration reflects the dramatic changes that have swept the country over the last 20 years.
But isolated plains and derelict bases aren’t the only place aircraft wrecks can survive the scourge of scrap dealers and souvenir hunters. Occasionally their survival is guaranteed because they lurk in the dark depths of seas and lakes, accessible only to trained scuba divers and submersibles. This World War Two-era Corsair off the coast of Hawaii is remarkably intact, and has now taken on a new role as a haven for marine life. (Find out more about this and other submerged aircraft wrecks here.)
(Image: U.S. Navy, public domain)
Of course, submerged planes are occasionally salvaged. The Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless above spent 51 years at the bottom of Lake Michigan before it was raised in 1994. This particular aircraft is a veteran of the Battle of Midway, and has now been fully restored. (Discover the now-abandoned Midway Atoll in our feature about Lost American Airfields of the North Pacific.)
The Middle East is another region where abandoned tanks, armoured vehicles and, of course, aircraft, reign supreme. Tactics of modern warfare aim to destroy entire air forces before they can ever take to the air, and the austere deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan boast more than their fair share of bombed-out planes. Once the pride of their respective air forces, they now symbolise the immense American-led military might that reduced them to rusting wrecks. (Discover more about abandoned aircraft littering the deserts of the Middle East.)
Moving west, the United States is famous for its aircraft boneyards, where yesterday’s cutting edge technology meets its fate – usually years of storage in the desert followed by recycling. Boneyards range in size from small scrapyards to the vast military storage facitity at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where the second largest air force in the world waits silently for the call.
Davis-Monthan is home to over 4,400 aircraft, including many of the world’s finest fighters, bombers and transport planes. Among the silent metal machines are 700 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms, most of which will fly again as unmanned target drones, only to be destroyed in training exercises by newer generations of fighter aircraft.
Of course, not all abandoned aircraft are parked on derelict airfields or lying in boneyards. Many are inaccessible because they crashed in remote areas, in some cases more than half a century ago. But their battered remains provide great exploring for those that do manage to reach them, and serve as important historical reminders of the duties that brought them to these inhospitable regions. (This article was inspired by an awesome 2008 feature on Weburbanist.)
If you enjoyed this article, why not explore Abandoned Railways, Trains, Stations, Tunnels & Bridges and check out this incredible Post-Soviet Aircraft Graveyard on an Abandoned Air Base in Far East Russia.