Story and photos by Shawn Byers, first published in CivilAviationWorld.com
As you travel on Interstate 10 in Arizona, approximately 25 miles north of Tucson, an Aviation Oasis catches your eye. Large aircraft tails can be seen in the distance rising from the Sonoran Desert floor. Just as you’re saying to yourself, “what is that?”, a highway sign directs you to the Pinal County Airpark at the next exit.
The sign is effective, judging by the traffic on the road. Recreational Vehicles and large travel trailers pass you on your way in and out. There is an out of the way restaurant on site but I assume everyone just wants to get a closer look at the large commercial airliners parked there. Pinal Airpark is a Logistics Airport supporting maintenance, temporary storage and salvage of commercial aircraft. It is the largest such facility in the world. My visit on March 16th, 2020 was by appointment and I was escorted onto the airfield.
A brief history of Pinal County Airpark begins in 1943 during World War II when it opened as Marana Army Airfield. The field was used for basic flight training, instrument training, as well as training for the Chinese Air Force. Some of the barracks and other infrastructure still stand. Like many bases, it was closed after World War II but was reopened in 1948 for other uses. Pinal County took over the lease of the land while the airport was maintained as a private and secure facility.
An interesting tidbit of its’ history was the use by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War when Marana became the Headquarters of all CIA air operations. Air America, Intermountain Airlines and Continental Air Services operated and were maintained there. There is still an Army National Guard Aviation Training site and a parachute training area onsite but the airport was opened to the public in the early 2010s. Evergreen Aviation became the prime tenant in 1975 before ceasing operations in 2011.
Today, in addition to Heavy Maintenance D Checks, water bomber conversions and scrapping operations, there is an abundance of aircraft storage. Air Canada has their entire fleet of grounded 737-8Max aircraft on the ramp and on the date of my visit, the Covid-19 Pandemic was shutting down international air travel. A number of Delta Airlines widebody aircraft were expected to arrive for storage. I also caught an Aer Lingus Airbus 330 arriving during my visit on the 6,849 foot Runway 12/30.
My tour guide was Roxanne McGlothen, who loves her job and filled me in on a lot of the history of the airframes I was seeing. It is not a busy airport but every day may bring something new and exciting. We circled the runway on a tour that lasted a little over one hour among stored and stripped former airliners. There were photo restrictions and areas we could not travel. Good looking water bombers were present but not photographed including a 747-400 and a DC-9. The Pratt and Whitney Canada 747SP was present, nosed into a hangar.
I only had one specific pre-requested photo and it was an easy stop along our tour. A TWA 747-100 sits engineless and missing some other parts but still holds her full titles after nearly 20 years in storage here. I never photographed one in the digital era. Everything else was a bonus on a perfect weather day.
I thank my tour guide, Roxanne and Airport Manager, Jim Petty for their time in making my tour possible. I hope to visit with them again to see what’s new and how ongoing improvement plans turn out.