An Oasis for Old Propliners
By Graham Robson
I first discovered this wonderful place when driving between George AFB and Mojave one evening in October 1992. Driving west, on El Mirage Road, as I arrived at the east end of the town of El Mirage, on the left (south) side of the road was (and still is !) the upper fuselage section of an Ex Saudia B.720, in someone’s back yard. This made me stop and photograph it and when starting back on the way to Mojave, two miles further on something else made me stop…the most dairy cows I’d ever seen in one place, in my life. There were thousands of them in a huge feeding lot.
Over many years, the sand had blown against the fence so much that the top of the fence was actually below head-height, when standing next to it, making photography very easy. I carefully walked around the entire perimeter until, on the last quadrant, I realised there were dwellings inside the fenced in area. I carefully re-traced my path back, so as not to walk immediately in front of the houses and risk an interrogation. The sight was surreal and appealed hugely to my deep interest in derelict aircraft, with so many wrecked airframes of all types and sizes, light GA up to airliners fuselages and all in between. Many of the airliners were recognisable and familiar, some from the storage lot at Mojave, some I’d seen derelict at other airports and some were easily recognisable from movies. I must come back to this place!
As I started off for the second time, the very next street was called El Mirage Airport Road, on the north side of the road and, as I’d already stopped twice and was in no particular hurry as the sun was setting – so nothing to see at MHV after dark that couldn’t wait until the morning, I decided to drive to El Mirage Airport. The road dead-ended, with the airport, such as it was, behind a tall chain-link fence, but immediately before that was this wonderful place called The Aviation Warehouse. Derelict airframes everywhere, inside a fenced compound, there was no one around, by the look of it, the gates were closed and locked and it was eerily quiet.
Next morning, after a look at Mojave, I headed back to El Mirage, arriving around lunchtime. The gates were open and I, politely, made my introduction and asked if there was a possibility to look inside. I used a copy of my first book Grounded as a very useful 'calling card', establishing my 'credibility' and was given free reign and spent the next few hours wandering around this fascinating place. At the time, I was well into the preparation and research for my second book Desert Airliners and this place brought about the possibility of a completely different perspective on old airplanes, that many readers would, hopefully, be able to relate to, being that some of the airframes were easily recognisable from Hollywood movies. I had already seen some of the airframes parked on the north side at Mojave, on previous vacation trips to California, before realising that they were owned by The Aviation Warehouse and stored there, pending use on film and TV. Easily recognisable in the yard were the B.727 from Dustin Hoffman’s movie Accidental Hero, the destroyed HFB-320 Hansa Jet from Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie and the F-27 used in the movie Alive, the story of the survivors of the Uruguayan rugby team who's aircraft crashed in the Andes.
Part-complete airframes, accident damage, cut and modified or burned from explosive action TV and movie scenes, the place was a gold mine. Amongst the vast amount of dereliction there was one aircraft that was more or less complete, with all its ‘vital parts’ gathered together, which was a real gem, the one and only Howard Super Harpoon, N1448. Aviation Warehouse owner, Mark Thomson, was happy to confirm his knowledge of this special aircraft and told me it was very safe among all the other ‘less-lucky’ airframes, its future was assured, although was not for sale to anyone !
Apart from these, there were a number of old propliners, some of which were identifiable but many others not, and all very interesting. Most notable was the entire fuselage of Convair 240 N51331, resplendent in her full Alaska Airlines 'Golden Nugget' scheme, though minus the forward section. This aircraft had previously been parked at Long Beach, withdrawn from use (I finally 'found' the forward fuselage section on a subsequent visit, having been mocked-up to resemble a Space Shuttle, complete with heat-shield tiles applied, though some had fallen off to reveal the Alaska Airlines 'Golden Nugget' motif, which gave positive identification). Alongside the Convair, was a complete Martin 404 fuselage crudely painted all white, though with its registration N302FA easily visible. Like the Alaska Convair, the Martin had been parked for a number of years out of service, this time at Van Nuys, before being sold for scrap. Another long-time inactive Van Nuys resident was ex USAF Convair T-29, N1184G, which had been parked on the Classic Air ramp, on the west side of Van Nuys, since 1981 at least, when I first saw it there. By April 1999, this, too, had migrated to The Aviation Warehouse.
As I was to discover, many old aircraft that had sat around at airports in the greater Los Angeles area, which were eventually broken up, found their way to The Aviation Warehouse. Over the years, I had read about many of these airframes, reported withdrawn and derelict, in the publications Aviation Letter (AL) or North American Aviation News (NAAN) and, as a result of these reports, had made many fruitless journeys trying to find some of them, at airfields I’d have never thought to visit, only to discover they were no longer there. One such was the Convair 440 N865TA, being a favourite type, I spent an entire afternoon battling the east-LA traffic to get to Fullerton airport, where the Convair had been reported withdrawn from use following an emergency landing that damaged the forward fuselage, only to face disappointment as it was no longer there, however, I did discover the wrecked remains of John Wells’ ‘California Water Bomber’ PBY-5A N322FA, so it wasn’t a wasted journey !
The most numerous propliner type in The Aviation Warehouse yard was the DC-3, most defying positive identification. My endeavours over the years have been moderately successful in confirming some identities, sometimes from unlikely places, while others have remained anonymous even now. The book Douglas DC-3 – 60 Years and Counting proved useful in identifying at least two DC-3s, with pictures of ex FAA example N78125 and former U.S. Forest Service N168Z, both derelict at Salt Lake City in 1994.
A few examples of larger Douglas propliners also ended up in the yard, with the forward fuselage of DC-6B N66DG, scrapped at Chino after many years storage. The upper forward fuselage of DC-7 N6305C that had been involved in a wheels-up landing at Los Angeles International airport in October 1957 and returned to service before being retired in 1963. It was painted in a spurious MATS scheme, obviously from a previous movie appearance. A large forward fuselage section of DC-7 N4874C was also noted, which had been withdrawn from use at Barstow-Daggett airport in the mid-70s and later broken up, though someone must have realised the future value of this section as it remained in stored for many years before arriving at El Mirage.
The cockpit section from former Millardair C-54E C-GQIC also turned up at the yard sometime after October 1999. I had seen and photographed it at Mojave in April 1996, but it was not present in the following years, until it turned up again in October 1999, in a different location on Mojave airport. This nose section had been removed from the original C-GQIC (the former 44-9076) as early as summer 1994, when it was parked in Western International Aviation’s storage yard in Tucson, from whence it came some years earlier. Western International had been responsible for the acquisition and refurbishment of a number of C-117s and C-54s for Millardair and, sometime in the early 1990s, ‘QIC had been withdrawn from use, following the discovery of serious airframe corrosion. Flown back to Davis Monthan AFB, it was towed back into WIA’s yard where it was ‘swapped out’ for another airframe that WIA held in storage for Millardair. Thereafter, in January 1995, fully refurbished C-54E 44-9117 became C-GQIC  and was towed to Davis Monthan and flown out to Toronto on delivery to Millardair.
In April 1999 I was fortunate enough to be allowed inside a second time, for more digging around and detective work then, once again in April 2005, accompanied by Del Mitchell, on a visit that had been arranged beforehand. Del was searching for any parts from Super Constellations, that may have been useful in the upkeep of the Camarillo based Constellation Historical Society’s C-121C N73544, of which he was Crew Chief. Thanks to Del, my frequent visits to California during each spring and fall, between 1995 and 2006 I, spent many happy weekends flying to airshows as part of the CHS Super Constellation crew, so accompanying Del that day seemed very appropriate
In 2012, I visited the yard again, though only viewing from the outside to see that another C-54 had arrived, namely N49451, which was obtained from ARDCO at Ryan-Field, Tucson, after that company went out of the aerial fire-fighting business. This airframe had long been a source of spares for others in ARDCO’s fleet, having made its last flight, from Tucson to Ryan in early 1992. More recently, ex USAF C-47D 45-0894 and VC-117D BuNo 17194, both acquired from the DMI/ARM yard in Tucson and first noted in The Aviation Warehouse in September 2017. (The VC-117D is 2nd in line from front, the C-47D is next. The 4th fuselage is former Aero California DC-3 XA-JIE while the first in line is still unidentified.)
In successive years, each time I am in the area, I always spend time to drive up El Mirage Airport Road for a look, though a polite request to look inside has always been made each time, sadly, casual visits are no longer allowed.
Photo Credits: Graham Robson
----Created 3 October 2020----