Victorville in California is perhaps most famous for its airliner storage and recycling businesses. Photographically, the airfield is a fairly tough nut to crack from the outside, so the best way to see it is from the air, as Paul Dunn found out.
The airport at Victorville is now known as Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA), having once been George AFB, latterly a base for F-4G Phantoms of the 35th FW. The military left in 1992, and since then the airfield has been in civilian hands. A good deal of money has been invested in facilities to encourage air transport carriers to take advantage of its good road and rail links to the San Bernardino and Los Angeles area, but the airport is most famous as a site of airliner storage and reclamation.
The main company involved in that line of work is Southern California Aviation, who look after the majority of the stored aircraft. Some of the aircraft are in temporary storage, often at the end of a lease period, and will eventually pass to other operators for further use. Some have reached the end of their careers and will eventually be ‘parted out’; picked clean of reusable spare parts and the remains sold for scrap.
Most of the stored machines retain the colours of their last operator, and some airlines can be sensitive about “their” aircraft being photographed in a state of some disrepair, so photography is not encouraged on the airfield, and in any case, most of the storage area is somewhat distant from the road. This means the best way of viewing the stored aircraft begins at nearby Apple Valley Airport…
Apple Valley is the home of Midfield Aviation, a typically friendly FBO (Fixed Base Operator) who offer a variety of aviation services including flying instruction. With Victorville lying approximately 10 minutes’ flight time away, it is easy to take a trial lesson and head over for a few circuits, and take some photos in the process!
I made my way to Apple Valley on a Sunday afternoon back in January, and Midfield Aviation were able to supply an aircraft and instructor at short notice; happily the Cessna 172 had windows which could be opened fully to allow unrestricted photography!
Despite not having flown a light aircraft for around about 10 years, I was able to perform the take off and departure, which went OK, especially when I remembered to use the rudder to coordinate turns – I think I’d forgotten that the 172 doesn’t have a yaw damper…
After a short transit, Victorville came into view on the nose. The storage area is not quite as busy as it was a few years ago, when the airline industry was in the depths of its recession, but it still makes for an impressive sight from the air.
We started out by performing two touch and go landings on runway 21, the shorter of the two runways. The views from this runway are somewhat limited, with the main storage area being to the north, adjacent to the longer runway 17/35, but good views of the ramp and some of the storage areas were still possible.
Of note were a couple of interesting DC-10 conversions. Tanker 911 is one of a pair of DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier as a firefighting aircraft, one of the largest such aircraft in service.
The other was the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital aircraft, a very early DC-10, which is apparently due to be replaced in the near future with an updated MD-10.
A smaller number of aircraft are stored on the west side of the airfield. These include a number of ex-QANTAS 747-400s, a type which is dwindling in service with the airline, having been largely replaced by the Airbus A380.
It was also sad to see a couple of ex-KLM MD-11s, a type which I’ve alway had a soft spot for. KLM is the last operator of the type in scheduled passenger service, with retirement now well underway. In the same area were several Lockheed Tristars and a former South African Air Force Boeing 707.
After our two touch and goes we requested an approach to runway 35, which was approved by ATC. This runway passes alongside the storage area, and gives great views of the aircraft contained within. The late afternoon sunlight meant great conditions for photography.
The aircraft in storage are primarily former airline machines, but come from a huge variety of backgrounds. The majority are actually freighters, with most being ex-FedEx A310s, 727s and DC-10s. Each of these fleets is being run down to a varying degree, as more modern types are delivered.
Other freighters included 747s from Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Dragonair, a mix of 747-400s and older -200 series jets.
Passenger 747-400s in storage included a single United Airlines example and three from British Airways; during the height of the financial crisis in 2008-9, there were more BA jets present, but these have now returned to service. With the airline anticipated to begin retirement of its large 747 fleet shortly, the aircraft at Victorville would seem unlikely to fly for BA again.
The remainder of the stored aircraft are made up of a mix of single aisle and widebody types, primary of American origin, such as 737s, 757s, MD-80s and MD-11s. There are a significant number of former Delta Airlines Tristars still in storage; the airline was the last major US carrier to operate Lockheed’s sole widebody airliner, retiring its last example in 2001. Scrapping of the remaining examples has started, although one is believed to be earmarked for preservation at the Joe Davis Heritage Airpark in Palmdale.
After a touch and go on runway 35, we made a left turn out and then departed back to the east, taking in one final pass over the storage area. The slightly higher altitude gave a different perspective on the stored aircraft, which stretched out beneath us. An impressive sight, but one which is rather sad, as most of the aircraft present will never fly again.
After landing back at Apple Valley, I took the opportunity to photograph the preserved F-86H Sabre on display at the airport, before driving back to Victorville to try my luck shooting over the fence.
From the airport area, opportunities were very limited, with only one of the BA 747-400s being parked close enough to the fence to allow a decent view.
However, the western edge of the airfield presented better views, particularly of the QANTAS 744s and a rather nice lineup of trijets, including a Tristar, DC-10 and two former KLM MD-11s.
A large mound of earth helped to get me above the level of the fence, and that elevation, combined with some rather nice late afternoon sunlight gave some very pleasing shots.
All in all a very satisfying day, although tinged with sadness, to see so many forlorn looking aircraft living out their final days under the desert sun. In particular, with the 747 disappearing from service at an alarming rate, it would appear that Boeing’s Queen of the Skies is in terminal decline! As modern, purpose built and fuel efficient cargo aircraft such as the 777F find favour with operators, it would appear that there is little appetite for converting retired airliners into freighters; better for the planet perhaps, but certainly not as photogenic! TTFN
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